Technology: Connected, Yet Lonelier Than Ever


[image by Bidrohi Hirok]


Technological Paradox
One of the glaring paradoxes in my use of technology/social media, is that it has both the ability to make me feel connected and intimate with others, while at the same time feeling isolated, alienated and lonely. I think that is why you have seen me struggle with my use of technology in some of my previous posts (here, here, here, etc.), especially as it relates to human relationships.

Alienation
I’m currently reading The Restless Heart: Finding Our Spiritual Home in Times of Loneliness by Ronald Rolheiser. In chapter three he describes five types of loneliness that we experience (alienation, restlessness, fantasy, rootlessness and psychological depression), and he says this about alienation:

“Everyone is alienated; some more, some less. In extreme cases a person can be so alienated that he or she needs professional help. Usually, though not always, it is simply a question of pain and frustration being present in our lives because of the inadequacy of our interpersonal relationships…There is a powerful loneliness that comes from not being sufficiently connected to the soil, to the bread we eat.” (pp. 45-46)

This idea very much reminds me of a post by John Dyer back in March, How Roasting Coffee Helped Me Understand Technology and Theology. In that post John refers to the “device paradigm” as coined by the philosopher Albert Borgmann. John explains it this way:

As technological development progresses, we take basic life processes like getting food, making heat, and communicating, and we compress those processes down into what Borgmann calls a “device.” A device is a technology that makes the end result of a process available at the press of a button. For example, the process of gathering wood, starting a fire, and tending to it is compressed down into a box which makes heat come out whenever we need it. The process of killing and skinning an animal, planting and harvesting vegetables, preparing and cooking a meal is compressed into a drive through window. The process of going to a concert is compressed into an iPod, and so on.

This is all great except that a sneaky thing begins to happen as devices get smaller and more complex – we can no longer see the processes they perform. Over time, since the processes are hidden from us we stop valuing those processes. Eventually, our values shift to where we only appreciate the end result, and we almost shudder at the thought of going back to the process.

Borgmann argues that to experience the fullness of life we sometimes need to restore what he calls “focal things and practices” – those things that take time and work, but offer a richness not available from a device. For him, the process itself gives meaning and significance to the consummation.

Technology Compresses Our Relationships?
I wonder if technology and social media has compressed our relationships into a process that we can barely recognize?

So on the one hand, there is something cool and convenient with clicking a button online that brings us into contact with a person. But on the other hand, the ease and convenience has disconnected us from the process of relationship making.

Has all the technology relationally disconnected us in a sense, replacing the processes (befriending, getting to know each other, sharing life, etc), where instead we just value the end results (number of followers, blog traffic, etc.)

What we thought would help us feel connected, can actually work against us, making us feel lonely and more disconnected than ever. I have often felt this in my own life, and continue to wrestle with it…and will continue to wrestle with it since I do love technology. And I see this issue becoming more and more prevalent in my work as a therapist and pastor.

Staying Physically Grounded to People
One of the ways that I have tried to work against this paradox is to try and make in person contact with the people that I communicate with online. Connecting in person with those I communicate with online helps me value the relational process and the friendship itself, and can help prevent me from compressing it into an “easy” or “like” button. It keeps me grounded.

Obviously I cannot be friends in person with everyone that I’m friends with online, but I have also come to have different expectations and boundaries with friendships that lack a rootedness in offline life. With these new expectations and boundaries come new insight and understanding, and new depth into the loneliness I sometimes try to misguidedly alleviate through technology.

John Steinbeck, Technology and Alienation(Loneliness)
Rolheiser has a poignant excerpt from the Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck that I think summarizes the idea that when we are disconnected to the process through the use of technology, we can sometimes be left feeling lonely:

The man sitting in the iron seat did not look like a man; gloved, goggled, rubber dust mask over nose and mouth, he was a part of the monster, a robot in the seat. The thunder of the cylinders sounded through the country, became one with the air and the earth, so that earth and air muttered in sympathetic vibration. The drive could not control it—-straight across country it went, cutting through a dozen farms and straight back. A twitch at the controls could swerve the car, but the driver’s hands could not twitch because the monster that built the tractor, the monster that sent the tractor out, had somehow got into the driver’s hands, into his brain and muscle, had goggled and muzzled him—-goggled his mind, muzzled his speech, goggled his perception, muzzled his protest. He could not see the land as it was, he could not smell the land as it smelled; his feet did not stamp the clods or feel the warmth and power of the earth. He sat on an iron seat and stepped on iron pedals. He could not cheer or beat or curse or encourage the extension of his power, and because of this he could not cheer or whip or curse or encourage himself. He did not know or own or trust or beseech the land. If a seed dropped did not germinate, it was nothing. If the young thrusting plant withered in drought or drowned in a flood of rain it was no more to the driver than to the tractor.

He loved the land nor more than the bank loved the land. He could admire the tractor–its machined surfaces, its surge of power, the roar of its detonating cylinders; but it was not his tractor. Behind the tractor rolled the shining disks, cutting the earth with blades—-not plowing but surgery, pushing the cut earth to the right where the second row of disks cut it and pushed it to the left; slicing blades shining, polished by the cut earth. And pulled behind the disks, the harrows combining with iron teeth so that the little clods broke up and the earth lay smooth. Behind the harrows, the long seeders—-twelve curved iron peens erected a foundry, orgasms set by gears, raping methodically, raping without passion. The driver sat in his iron seat and he was proud of the straight lines he did not will, proud of the tractor he did not own or love, proud of the power he could not control. And when that crop grew, and was harvested, no man had crumpled a hot clod in his fingers and let the earth sift past his fingertips. No man had touched the seed, or lusted for the growth.

Man ate when they had not raised, had no connection with the bread. The land bore under iron, and under iron gradually died; for it was not loved or hated, it had no prayers or curses. (Excerpt from Grapes of Wrath in Rolheiser’s The Restless Heart, pp. 46-48)

Don’t let technology disconnect you from the relational process…

29 Comments

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  5. by @duregger (sam) on April 22, 2010  10:22 am Reply

    i'm wondering where your head is going on all of this... would love to pick your brain.

  6. by @duregger (sam) on April 22, 2010  10:22 am Reply

    i'm wondering where your head is going on all of this... would love to pick your brain.

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  9. by Cynthia on April 23, 2010  1:13 pm Reply

    love your thinking out loud & hope @johndyer & @dgoodmanson get to hear some of your observations as we prudently & critically evaluate how much, how often, how we're using it rather than allowing it to use us, etc.
    .-= Cynthia´s last blog ..Technologies for Worship at NAB Expo =-.

  10. by Cynthia on April 23, 2010  1:13 pm Reply

    love your thinking out loud & hope @johndyer & @dgoodmanson get to hear some of your observations as we prudently & critically evaluate how much, how often, how we're using it rather than allowing it to use us, etc.
    .-= Cynthia´s last blog ..Technologies for Worship at NAB Expo =-.

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  13. by Christine on April 27, 2010  5:46 pm Reply

    Just stumbled across your site searching about relationships and technology.

    Glad to know I'm not the only one wondering about how technology is affecting my personal relationships. I'm beginning to miss the days of pre- Facebook, texting, IM, etc., etc.

  14. by Christine on April 27, 2010  5:46 pm Reply

    Just stumbled across your site searching about relationships and technology.

    Glad to know I'm not the only one wondering about how technology is affecting my personal relationships. I'm beginning to miss the days of pre- Facebook, texting, IM, etc., etc.

  15. by Lorna E on May 1, 2010  6:11 pm Reply

    Interesting post. Just added the Restless Heart to my wishlist.
    This particularly resonates with me:
    "So on the one hand, there is something cool and convenient with clicking a button online that brings us into contact with a person. But on the other hand, the ease and convenience has disconnected us from the process of relationship making."
    Thanks.

  16. by Lorna E on May 1, 2010  6:11 pm Reply

    Interesting post. Just added the Restless Heart to my wishlist.
    This particularly resonates with me:
    "So on the one hand, there is something cool and convenient with clicking a button online that brings us into contact with a person. But on the other hand, the ease and convenience has disconnected us from the process of relationship making."
    Thanks.

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