Are We Alone Together?

I recently read a book with the provocative title “Alone Together: Why We Expect More from our Technology and Less from Each Other.” The author, a woman named Sherry Turkle, is concerned with the way our technology has the potential to undermine deep person-to-person relationships. Here’s the argument in a nutshell: if you build a romantic relationship entirely around texts that say “I luv U!” or a friendship on back-and-forth Instagram pictures – this is me eating a cheeseburger” …. “this is me wiping ketchup off my shirt” – how deep of a relationship can you have?

Of course, that over-generalization doesn’t describe the vast majority of us. We use digital communication technologies, whether Skype or Facebook or group texting or Google chatting, to keep up with friends who are physically distant or to supplement our face-to-face interactions. But I think it’s still worth asking the question: has digital communication changed our human relationships, and if so, how?

For example: I have two lengthy emails in my inbox right now. One is from a family member overseas, the other from a friend who just moved 2,000 miles away. Because the emails are long and thoughtful I want to give an equally thoughtful response – but because I’m self-trained to chug through my inbox as fast as possible, I feel pressure to write a quick, shallow response so the emails don’t sit unattended for a week or more. Is that impulse pushing me towards snappier but shallower relationships with these two friends?

Or take my cell phone. I often instinctively carry it from room to room as I move around my house because it feels weird to be without it. Once (this was a really bad decision), because I had the phone with me, I took a call five minutes before my wife served an Asian dish she’d made especially for date night. Yeah, I was that guy. (Like I said, it wasn’t one of my brightest or most godly moves.) But if I leave my phone in another room, I sometimes “hear” phantom text messaging beeps and wonder whose text I’m missing. Are my cell phone “attachment issues” making me present in body only with the people I love?

I ask these questions to start a discussion: have you noticed a change in the way you conduct your relationships because of digital communication? As Christians we of all people have a deep interest in the subject of relationships. As members of the family of God, our friendships and family ties have redemptive significance. God shapes human lives through other human lives. Of course, as Christians we also see technology as a gift from God. In our day the gospel is reaching to the farthest corners of the globe through the Internet in ways that would have amazed and astounded previous Christian generations. And, to use just one example, Skype makes it possible for my wife and I to remain connected to family members overseas in a way unimaginable fifty years ago. We should thank God for such developments. But at the same time we should embrace them thoughtfully so that technology enhances, not detracts from our human relationships.

So tell me your thoughts. Are we “alone together” these days? Do we expect more from Siri on our iPhones than from each other? Or are these alarmist, old fuddy-duddy overstatements? Chime in and give me your two cents worth in the comments.

+ Photo by PhotoAtelier

Comments

  1. Tracie says

    Technology has definitely changed the way we relate to others. I was a student at a university in the mid-90s, before cell phones were prominent. When walking across campus, I would talk to other people and have great conversation. Fast forward 10 years later when I worked at the same university and no one is talking. As they walk around campus they are glued to their phones or have their earbuds in. It's really sad. Also the fact is that we don't do a lot of focused talking to other people, even when face to face. I can't tell you how many times I've been out for coffee with a friend and they are constantly checking their phone. We all need to put the phones down and learn to relate to other people.

    Here's my last rant: my 3rd grader is on a school-wide social network. WHY in the world does a 3rd grader need to be talking to her peers online? They can talk at lunch and recess.

    And don't get me wrong, I have an iphone and love it, but I don't have it chained to my hip 24/7, nor do I use it in the car.

    • Josh Blount says

      I've noticed a similar change in a club I lead at our local high school. Often students enter with phone in hand, sit down, and engross themselves in the phone without any attempt at conversation with me or other students. It's not universal, though. I also have noticed other high schoolers who are reacting against the pressures of constant connection and use technology less than their elders do…

  2. Rebecca says

    I know that technology is time waster especially Facebook. At the same time I want to stay in touch with my sister who lives across the country from me. Just recently God helped me realize how much time I was spending wasting my life on the computer. Also God clearly brought some other areas into my life I needed to be more mindful of. Now I limit myself to one hour a day. That is it. I set a timer and when the hour is over I'm done. I realized I'm really not missing out on anything. People don't post as much as I think they do. Also when I do post on Facebook or a blog it's more meaningful. I don't have internet available on my cell phone so I don't have to worry about that. Also nobody ever e-mails me anymore they only get in touch with me on Facebook these day's. I think it's a good example to my son. I want him to know that I am available to him and that "real" life is so much better then staring at a screen all day.
    I was just feeling like a failure in my life in so many way's. God brought to my attention what I needed to work on and when I started changing things it really helped me have a more full meaningful life.

  3. yourlovingmountainman says

    This is definitely an upcoming problem: it's not as obvious at the moment, but our technology is improving. As this happens, the more we can do with these gadgets, the more we will be dependent on them. Even now we see some of this dependency at some levels. I mean, who wants to repent face to face when you can just send them a text?

    At sixteen, I love tech, especially Apple products. But the more God has shown me that I don't need to be on the computer all the time, the more free and real I truly feel.

    I remember eating at Mickey D's, and the family next to us was pretty much like the family in the picture above. It was a sad sight indeed; it was almost like a drug. Could we re-write the A Team for peeps like this? But in the end, most of us would be pharisees: self-righteous hypocrites.

    ONE more thing. I don't comment often, so while I'm here I just want to say that I love all your Beatles references.

    • Josh Blount says

      It's true: it's easy to point fingers at the cell-phone addicts with our free hand wrapped firmly around our iPhone… :)

      It's interesting to hear you describe loving Apple products and yet not wanting to be dependent on them. I think that's a healthy perspective: technology is a gift from God, but makes a very poor substitute god.

      Good thoughts!

  4. Vickie says

    I have a few thoughts to share. I have subscribed to the Blazing Center for a few years up to this point and sometimes I look to see how long the the article is and decide when I will have time to read it; if it's to long I save it for later. Will all the conviences and techology we have you would tend to think we have extra time. But that doesn't seem to be true.
    The next thought that popped into my head while reading the article was those long emails that you have waiting for you were once callled "letters". And I can remember when growing up that a letter from someone far away that we loved was a special thing and it was shared with other family memembers and you did not throw them away because they were cherished and kept somewhere special.
    My next thought is we do not have to buy into the technology. My husband and I dropped texting. It is very freeing. Those texts are ot more important than driving, losing family time together at dinner, etc. If somebody wants to speak with you they can call; this forces others to actually speak to you and usually the phones calls to not have to be long.
    I have more thougths but this is geting too long.
    God bless you and your family.

    • Josh Blount says

      Vickie,

      I find myself doing the same thing. Information, especially online information, is more and more something I approach not for thoughtful engagement but for quick "scanning" for a relevant point or two. That's a habit I don't want to cultivate, particularly when it might begin to encroach on the way I approach my Bible reading.

      And I agree about the value of letters. The friend who recently moved and I have discussed writing letters rather than emails – but the ease of an email is a temptation that's hard to overcome…

  5. Bettyann Henderson says

    I like letters. Writing them and receiving them and answering them and keeping the significant ones. It's almost a lost art to thoughtfully write letters. Postcards. Thank you notes.

    This week I was visiting a friend who does not have internet access. I've been looking to buy her some stationery and it's not to be found. For me, this was almost a futuristic sic-fi horror.

    And yet, I spend quite a bit of time online. It's kinda hard to remember it's a tool, not a trap.

    • Josh Blount says

      Bettyann,

      I also was recently at a family member's house who didn't have internet. After the initial surprise, it was actually rather freeing!

      Josh

  6. joseph says

    I feel the same way as the author. We are all together, yet something dismantles everyone from being together in an emotional way. The more I studied; it occurred to me that the social media and the technology nowadays have kept us in solitude of our own.personal injury lawyer

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