Connected but disembodied

I’m 75, and don’t have much contact with young people, but friends of mine who teach in college and public schools constantly complain about how their students are wedded to their i-Phones and other electronic devices, and are more engrossed in their text messages than in what the teacher has to say.

Sherry Turkle, in her TED talk shown above, said this is an example of how technology is changing how we relate to the world.  Her idea is that people nowadays don’t want to be alone, so they keep in touch with friends constantly by text messaging and e-mail; on the other hand, they don’t want to be too up close and personal, so text messaging and e-mail also keep people at a distance.  So, she said, our technology keeps us connected but alone.  There’s something to this, but how new is it?  I can remember the pre-electronic era when the great complaint about teenagers was that they were always on the telephone.

Electronic communications media are great for introverts.  I’m an introvert myself.  I grew up before the age of electronic communication, but I’m addicted to print.  I’ve gotten a lot out of a lifetime of reading, but I recognize that to some extent, it has been a substitute for mixing with people.  One reason I became a newspaper reporter instead of an academic was to counteract this tendency in myself.   We should not attribute to technologies that which is a reflection of our personalities.

As I see it, electronic technologies do not disconnect us from other people so much as they disconnect us from physical reality.  We speak of “virtual reality” as if it were an alternative to real reality; we speak of cyberspace as if it were an alternative to so-called “meat space”.  But we are physical beings, not disembodied minds.  In the virtual reality of the Internet and the electronic media, we can pretend that the world is what the postmodern philosophers say it is, a purely mental construct of our own creation.  But there is a real reality that will catch up with us, whether we believe in it or not.

I find electronic communications technology highly useful and highly addictive.  I don’t own a cell phone, I don’t have a Facebook page and I don’t Tweet or Twitter, but I check my e-mail several times a day and I post on this blog almost every day, and I feel deprived if my e-mail or Internet service is unavailable for any reason.  Interacting with the Internet is a form of operant conditioning.  I press a key and (usually) get a stimulus.  Our human brains are hard-wired to like stimulus.

Then, too, the Internet, like books, offers a form of escape.  I know people who spend hours a day interacting with the World of Warcraft, which in many ways is more appealing than the actual world.  In the World of Warcraft, ingenuity and hard work pay off, and no mistake or bad luck is ever irrevocable.

Click on The Acceleration of Addictiveness for Paul Graham’s classic essay on Internet addiction.

Click on Dead Souls for Dimitry Orlov’s classic essay on virtual reality as a substitute for real reality.

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One Response to “Connected but disembodied”

  1. David White Says:

    Ink on paper remains by far the dominant medium of communication if one wants to send a permanent message to all. The trouble with ink on paper is that as time goes on, the book survives its context. We can read just about all that Plato wrote, in the original or in translation, but we cannot return to the ancient forms of life that were the seedbed for what Plato said. Long personal conversations are for walks, or more often now, road trips, but cell phones remain necessary for social navigation. I give my cell number to students and encourage them to call with any question because I believe in excuse deprivation as the best incentive to learning.


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