Alone Together on the Web


By Samuel Greengard

I'm sitting in a Starbucks in my hometown of West Linn Oregon typing out this blog. There's nothing remarkable about that. These days, we're all wired in from everywhere. I've posted to Facebook from Galway, Ireland and received text messages in Doha, Qatar.

Most of the people sitting here are peering into some type of electronic device. What's disturbing is the family of six positioned at a table across the way. Husband and wife are scrolling through messages and clicking apps on their iPhones, the four kids have their faces buried in iPads. Nobody is talking. There's zero interaction.

There's something inherently wrong with the concept of visiting a coffee house with your family, attaching a collective e-drip and zoning out...together. I've watched this family for over 30 minutes and I've yet to see anyone speak. A. Single. Word.

Unfortunately, this is an increasingly common mirror for our society. We engage in activities together but apart. We're more connected to acquaintances halfway across the world than our children, significant other or best friends.

Neurobiologists and psychiatrists are already having a field day speculating how technology is rewiring our brains. Researchers say that our always-on, plugged-in and multitasking lifestyles are contributing to an inability to focus on people and things right in front of us. What's more, it's changing the way we think about others and the depth of relationships.

Today, there's also more rudeness, crudeness and egocentric behavior than ever. Online culture--filled with flame wars and nastiness--seems to increasingly boil over into the physical world. Behavior that was deemed unacceptable only a few decades ago is now the norm. Worse, more and more people get edgy, if not cranky, when they're e-fix isn't available.

The term "global village" has clearly become a misnomer. In villages, people speak and interact with each other in a personal way. They tell stories and laugh, they share thoughts, and they help each other solve problems. A global e-village is the illusion of closeness and meaning when, in fact, it is usually neither.

I'm not sure how sitting in Starbucks helps a family achieve any sort of real meaning. It's wonderful to be wired but it shouldn't lead to being disconnected. Alas, that's the disconnect we're all facing.


4 Comments for "Alone Together on the Web"

  • Ernani Gaspar January 19, 2012 5:16 am

    There is a balance for all that, I can assure you. We just must not build our lives around a screen, nor let anybody do that for us. Thanks Samuel, nice piece.

  • Brian January 17, 2012 3:19 pm

    I remember about 7 or 8 years ago sitting in Union Station in Washington, DC, observing a group of teenagers near me. Each one (and remember, this was before the smartphone era) was deeply engrossed in his or her cell phone, and none spoke a word to each other. I often wonder if in some ways we really *prefer* the digital world to the physical one. I recall reading that the brain treats emails, IM's and Facebook posts as little "hits" that can be just as addictive as a drug. The digital realm is less messy (most of the time), and when we get tired of the drama, we can simply unfriend someone or even switch off the whole thing. Whereas you can't switch off your spouse or your family.

  • Susan Fisher January 13, 2012 4:46 pm

    I've been both witness to this as well as guilty of it. My guess is that burying yourself in your mobile device is so commonplace anymore that most don't even realize they're doing it. I believe we could all benefit by staying conscious of this fact and paying a little more attention to the real world around us and our friends and family right in front of us. But I agree it will take a very dilligent conscious effort, lest we all be sucked into the vortex of the virtual world, destined to walk the earth forever never seeing more than an LED screen again.

  • Nicole January 11, 2012 3:55 pm

    Hey Samuel, I just got a Google alert about your column because it mentions West Linn. I am the editor of the West Linn Tidings newspaper and found your column interesting. Is it for a publication or your own personal blog? Would you want to submit it to run in the Opinion section of the West Linn Tidings?

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