Alone Together on the Web

By Edward Cone  |  Posted Wednesday, January 11, 2012 21:01 PM

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.