Thursday, April 26, 2012

Stop saying the Internet is making us more isolated

An article in the New York Times last weekend argued that the Internet is replacing conversation with mere connection. It's the latest in a long line of articles decrying technology's impact on society (cf. the Atlantic's most recent cover story: "Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?"), and they pretty much always look dumb in retrospect. Not always, but shockingly often, given how self-satisfied their authors tend to be.

So I was looking for a reason not to like Sherry Turkle's article, and I think it's this: she presents absolutely no data, zero, none, whatsoever. Fine, she's not obligated to, this is more of a polemic about a certain type of human interaction, and it's not clear exactly what data one would want to use to support this argument.

And yet, she's a researcher who mentions, repeatedly, that she's been studying this for 15 years. And here she has a couple hundred words in the NYT to make the case for what she does (not to mention flog her new book on the subject) and she doesn't reference a single study?

Ultimately, what evidence she does provide is beyond weak. People in meetings would rather pay attention to only the subjects they care about?  A 16-year-old boy is socially awkward? People in offices see their younger coworkers listening to headphones while they work? Seems to me that people got bored in meetings, and were socially-awkward teenagers, long before the iPhone existed. She's clearly longing for an era that only ever existed in her mind.

She doesn't even really address any possible counterargument about why this shift in our social behavior might be a good thing. And yet, at least one stands out to me: we're social creatures, not really physical ones. We survive best when we work together, when we communicate. Ultimately, humans are basically brains tethered to fleshy appendages. The Internet has begun to break the link between our bodies and our brains, allowing our brains to communicate with each other easier and easier, faster and faster, more and more often.

People like Turkle lament an era when our lives were bound by our frail physical selves, but it doesn't seem to me that that's a good thing at all. Shy people, physically-challenged people, people physically separated from each other by great distances, are increasingly able to connect, deeply, with each other. We're not hostages to our biology anymore, which is probably both good and bad. But it's lazy nostalgia to automatically assume that our modes of interaction were somehow superior when we were held hostage to the weakest part of ourselves.