There’s no denying that technology has made us more connected than ever. (Understatement of the century.) But for all that hyperconnectivity has done for us, is there a danger that it’s actually making us less communicative? And if communication is at the heart of what it means to be human, does that mean technology is making us less human?
On any given day, I can tell you what my friends and family on the other side of the world have had for breakfast. Despite never having met some of them in person, I’ve watched the children of friends I was at university with twenty years ago grow up, thanks to social media. I chat online daily to a colleague in South Africa and though we’ve never met face-to-face she knows more about me than some of my closest friends do. My kids have grown up Face Timing their grandparents in another country every week, without any sense of being disconnected from them.
However you define it, we are a hyperconnected society. Contrast all this with my parents, who all but lost touch with friends and relatives when they moved to other countries and continents thirty or forty years ago.
I’m deeply thankful that distance doesn’t have to diminish the power of modern friendships – I love feeling connected to friends in all four corners of the earth, and I value the fact that staying in touch is as easy as scrolling through my Facebook page before I’ve even staggered out of bed in the morning.
But I can’t shift an uneasy sense that our hyperconnected way of life is leading us down a dangerous path. I realise I sound like a Luddite but I’m far from a technophobe. If you’ve got teenage children, you might share my sense that 24/7 connectivity isn’t necessarily a good thing.
My son’s generation is obsessed with sending one another ‘Streaks’ via Snapchat. The premise strikes me as bonkers, but what would I know? Facebook is the social media addiction of choice for us forty-something parents, and my son is equally appalled by the notion of us posting mundane details of our days for so-called friends to gawp at. We’re not supposed to ‘get’ each other’s digital poison.
Anyhow, the idea of streaks is oddly simple. You send snaps back and forth to friends for as many consecutive days as possible, without breaking the chain of communication. The longer your streak (or the longer the period of time in which this bizarre behaviour continues without interruption), the better the emojis you get as a reward.
My son and his mates would go to extreme lengths to keep their streaks going; they are a teenage badge of honour. He hasn’t yet forgiven me for the fact that I irreparably damaged his streaks cred recently when I confiscated his phone.
What’s most bizarre about streaks is that the pics kids send each other couldn’t be less interesting, in my view. The most common theme seems to be a snap of the sender’s bedroom ceiling, presumably taken as they lay in bed at night, desperately squeezing in one more streak before sleeping, fitfully, under the glare of blue light.
Yet to my son’s friends, this is modern friendship. Youngsters measure the quality of their friendship in Snapchat streaks – the more streaks, the closer the friend.
To my mind, it’s as far from meaningful communication as I can possibly imagine. As a consequence, I worry that our kids are growing up without the social skills they’ll need to engage with other adults in the real world. How do you learn to hold a conversation in the workplace if human communication during your formative years is reduced to swapping Snapchat streaks?
Could it be that for all our hyperconnectivity, we’re actually losing some of the essence of what defines human relationships? Are we becoming somehow less human, as technology plays an ever greater role in our lives and our relationships?
Peter Phillips, research director of the CODEC Research Centre for Digital Theology at St John’s College, Durham University doesn’t necessarily think so.
“Technology can renew and extend what it means to be human – think of cochlea ear transplants, pacemakers and exoskeletons – it can also help the voiceless have a voice, and allow us to speak out against injustice,” he says.
“But at the same time, new technologies have costs in terms of jobs, anxiety, and unemployment. We need to decide how to implement technology to ensure humanity flourishes; the choices are in our hands.”
That seems to be the crux of this issue; that how we use technology and whether we allow it to erode or enhance our humanity is a choice we all have to make.
As a parent, that’s a frightening concept. Ruining my son’s streaks by confiscating his phone seemed like the right choice to me, because I fear the relentless quest to keep that type of communication going is really just a race to the bottom. But in his world, it’s meaningful communication. If streaks are about social status and feeling part of a community, who am I to undermine that?
On the other hand, we’re bombarded with studies linking depression and anxiety with the rise of the use of smartphones and digital technologies. So perhaps the answer lies in learning how to embrace new technologies at the same time as holding on to old, important patterns of behaviour. A report commissioned by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills a few years back predicted that hyperconnectivity would alter our very sense of self, and it seems we’re already seeing that take effect.
After all, my son’s generation are digital natives, immersed in hyperconnectivity since birth. So there’s something full-circle about the baby I blogged about from before he was born growing into a young man, whose sense of what it means to be human is inextricably linked to his use of technology.
Instead of trying to slow the onslaught of technology and its impact on the lives of my kids, by demanding that we have ‘off-grid’ holidays, screen-free mealtimes and technology blackouts after bedtime, perhaps I should be more open to the possibility that it’s my own sense of humanity that needs to change.
I can’t see me ever sending snaps of my bedroom wall to my friends nor revelling in the number of streaks I’ve achieved – I can barely work out how to open Snapchat – but perhaps one redeeming feature of hyperconnectivity is the opportunity it presents for me to learn a thing or two from my kids.
Instead of dismissing their reliance on technology as detrimental, perhaps I should consider that the very thing that causes the most conflict between my teenager and I, is also the very thing that means I’ll know what he’s had for breakfast ten years from now, wherever in the world he decides to seek adventure.
Ultimately, technology is still just a tool. On its own, I don’t believe it has the power to make us less human. Or more human, for that matter. That’s up to us.