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Wednesday, July 8, 2020
Connecting Our Communities

The rise of the machine is disrupting our social cohesion

Like a bunch of technology zombies, we’re in danger of becoming slaves to our devices, if we haven’t already crossed that line. Even if you put down your smartphone and venture out into the world, you’ll immediately notice that others remain enthralled by the tiny screen in their hands, enraptured by the latest Tweet or Facebook update, no matter how meaningless.

Of course, bearing witness to that spectacle does require both leaving the house and taking note of your fellow human beings. Both are rarer than ever before.

Technology has enabled us to become less dependent on others, or even to interact with other people even in the most casual way – bank machines instead of tellers and self-checkouts instead of cashiers, for instance. In the most extreme cases, one could work from home via technology, order food and other goods online and never leave the house again.

Of course, we’re still social creatures, so there remain some interactions, though we don’t know where the normalization of computer-driven communications will take us.

We do know, however, that society has already become less social. That’s probably a bad thing in and of itself, but we run the risk of loosening social cohesion still further. Take for example our silo-ed approach to politics: the fragmented media and its echo chamber make it possible to avoid alternate views, much as we can avoid interacting with those of differing opinions/backgrounds/economic status/skin colour … or any other way we care to differentiate.

Quite aside from the loss of privacy and the enhancement of the police state – those are big asides – via our use of technology, we run the risk of abdicating the very essence of society to private interests and the political evildoers who’ll take advantage of the situation while we’re all distracted by other people’s reaction to our posted selfies.

An increasingly fragmented society means we’re removed from one another and drifting away from a sense of shared purpose, the very idea that we’re in this together. We initially formed human groups to enhance our chances of survival. Technology and urbanization have rendered that dependence somewhat obsolete, though we’re now tied to the nanny state and detached from nature. Our chances of survival without the cocoon we’ve built is pretty close to zero.

The unlikely prospect of having to forage for nuts in the wild aside, the more imminent threat is the dissolution of social bonds that creates a vacuum for the forces already looking to divide and conquer, from corporations looking for profits to those bent on control (often tied to the profit motive).

There’s no denying that the fabric of society is strained due to our voluntary isolationism. There have been a large number of studies and surveys pointing out the new reality.

“In recent years, the amount of time we spend in the public realm has declined. While we have more leisure time, we spend more of it alone or isolated by technologies as diverse as the private automobile and personal headphones,” writes Joe Cortright, an economist who specializes in urban/regional analysis and director of City Observatory, in City Report: Less in Common.

He notes that the civic commons, the spaces literal and figurative what we share with others, is now strained, more notably in our growing cities.

“[T]here is compelling evidence that the connective tissue that binds us together is coming apart. In particular, it appears that the level of social capital – the connections and norms of reciprocity that smooth interpersonal actions and support community – has declined … over several decades.

“Many of the community resources that were nearly universally shared across the population have eroded or become fractured. We spend less time in public pools and more time in private gyms. We ride the bus or streetcar less and spend more time alone in our cars. High income people increasingly live in separate, wealthy neighborhoods, while people of modest means live in their own, less wealthy neighborhoods.”

That’s the silo effect. Increasingly, we don’t have to interact with anyone, particularly in a world of “the other.” By distancing ourselves, we lose the ability to connect and to empathize with others, the basis of a shared humanity.

That’s a risk of technology identified by Sherry Turkle, a sociologist and clinical psychologist at MIT, who’s written about the issue for a couple of decades, penning the likes of Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet and Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age.

“Empathy requires that I get into your mental space, into your head, into your experience, and give you the comfort of knowing that I made that effort to listen and care, and that I’m taking responsibility for what I hear. It’s a commitment that we make to other people that involves us getting out of our own heads, and the constant self-curation online, the constant self-gratification of smartphones and social media, makes it harder for us to do this,” she said in an interview last year with Vox.

“The thing about something like Facebook is that it’s not really authentic. People are curating what they share on Facebook; they’re always putting on their happy face. They’re posting about their fancy dinner or their fancy vacation or their fancy outfit. It’s not real, or at least it’s not the whole picture of our complicated lives. But empathy is about diving into other people’s sadness, and there’s just not much space for that on social media.”

Today, we don’t have to stay shut away at home to spend days on end without having to make contact with other people – technology makes that possible, but replacing the need to interact with humans with the need to interact with machines may not be a path we want to follow.

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