The Disconnected Human
In this mini-series we look at the phenomenon of paradox and some of the prominent ones in our social world. Today we look at human disconnection in the face of mass-urbanization, globalization, social media and information technology and why so many feel so isolated in a world pushing ever-more interconnection.
It is possible to have a wristwatch that is connected to a phone which also connects to your online social network platforms, a heart rate monitor, earphones and maybe even the appliances in your home. We do not lack for connections, but we do often lack connectedness.
As it turns out, connectedness matters. Laboratory and clinical research on addiction (summary), has suggested that it is as much a problem of social connection as biochemistry. Those who are socially isolated experience a higher degree of, and experience with, addiction. Loneliness, in psychological terms, refers to the absence of connection and communication with others and both negative affect and cognition resulting from this. Loneliness is not just a social issue, it gets under the skin (pdf) with research pointing to pathways for harmful biochemical changes among those who are lonely.
Still, how is it that we are in an age of increasing global urbanization (pdf) whereby more people are living closer to each other, exposed to more people than ever before, and yet there is a parallel increase in loneliness? How can it be that we have more tools — ones that are mobile, instantaneous, and easy to use — that can share rich media with nearly everyone we know at nearly any time of day and still find ourselves isolated?
This paradox is all by design — whether intended or not.
Disconnecting the social graph: Facebook
Facebook is a classic example of how to design isolation into a tool aimed at promoting connection. Once a college tool for meeting and connecting friends, it now serves as a news media source, community organizing tool, general communication platform, organizational home page, text message system and photography album. It’s ever-changing, sophisticated algorithm ensures that every login to Facebook is different, aside from the current format of seeing top post followed immediately by an ad, the next top posts, more advertising, and so on. When you need to find something explicit, it’s very hard and that’s by design. The more connections you have, the harder it is to find material and maintain those connections without having to sift through material that, ironically, disconnects you from the purpose of your visit.
This all helps keep you on the site and coming back.
But this very aspect of having to come back frequently, to see different things each time, and to have to root through social and marketing ephemera to get to something that feels social is what isolates us. Yet, the intermittent reinforcement that comes when you log in and find just what you want the moment you open the screen is based on a crude, but powerful set of psycho-biological principles that anchor behaviour to the pleasurable feel of dopamine that rushes through the brain when you get that social media high. Add in everyday stress and the cortisol it releases and oxytocin hormone rush that come when we connect and you’ve got the perfect ghost-in-the-machine scenario to keep you locked on to this tool that offers you the hope of connection.
Now Facebook is aiming to integrate it into its other properties like Instagram and WhatsApp presumably to integrate this experience and your data along with it. This has the added benefit of Facebook of doing what other marketers already do and that is follow me everywhere I go on the Internet and reminding of me of more things to buy, consume and connect to, which will only add (paradoxically) to my sense of disconnection. Other social media platforms do this differently, but nearly all of them offer a variant of the same sort of stimuli aimed at keeping you posting pictures, exchanging messages, and sharing content.
A powerful post by my friend, colleague and fellow designer, Medina Eve, wrote a deeply personal, provocative piece on living with ADD as an adult and the lost generation of souls who share her circumstances. Her brave, detailed story chronicles how she, like many young women in particular, have struggled with focus due to ADD and reaping the benefits that come with it, despite being an incredibly productive, intelligent, engaged person. Her story provides a first-person account of a social epidemic and paradox on how the ability to connect to so much means there is little ability to connect deeply to many of the things that matter and the incredible isolation that this engenders.
When the world offers too much to pay attention to (or filter through), we get too little in return.
ADD is at its core is an addiction to stimuli. It is the bodymind getting overwhelmed with the amount of stimulation we have around us which reduces our ability to filter, ignore and reject stimulation of various sorts coming at us. If you have any doubts about how much stimuli we are exposed to practice a mindful meditation where you aim to simply pay attention to what’s around you and what’s in your head. It can be remarkable that everyone doesn’t have it.
This is also a problem I’ve certainly battled and continue to battle with limited success and I am certainly not alone. This addition to the stimulation around us, particularly through socially-connected media and our explicit and ambient technologies that facilitate it all, is not only making us less connected, it’s also making us less human. And this is also by design.
Stimulation by Design
A look at the image below provides an illustration of how we design for stimulation. Imagine the holiday season and the Covent Garden Market in central London. All around there is music, food, bustling crowds doing holiday shopping and business, shopkeepers and buskers selling everything from entertainment to handbags to Lebanese street food, and the air filled with the scents of perfume, various cuisines from around the world, and an air of cedar from the holiday wreaths. All of this is lit up and decorated as the crowds jam through the stalls, eateries and cafes to take it all in. This is what Covent Garden wants and it is why people come from all over the world to take it all in. If there were no people, less ‘stuff’ and less activity it wouldn’t be attractive, which is why not all of London’s markets look like this.
But thankfully for us all, we can’t take Covent Garden with us. We have the option to disengage from it in a way we don’t with social technology.
What you will also see among this bustle are families walking together, friends gathering over a drink, and individuals roaming through the market, maybe even stopping to take a picture or two. For those who are enjoying this space, I suspect they are doing so because it’s special. While London is a very crowded, colourful city, it’s not this crowded or colourful all the time (although that is changing, too).
But what happens when the energy of the crowd and the space turn against us? Most of teh time, human beings adapt. I am sure if you were to bring someone from even 100 years ago they might break down at the experience of all this stimulation, because they aren’t used to it. Many of us are, or are we?
Social disconnection and its sequalae may be pointing to the paradox present in our question to create more stimulation and feedback opportunities by loosening our ability to connect to the very things that are at the heart of much of this stimulation: pleasure and the connection to our own humanity.
Giving up the Internet: A case study
Comedian Louis C.K. has a funny, poignant reflection on what we lose in this stimulated world during a guest spot on the Conan O’Brien show.
Kids don’t build empathy through interactions and building the ability to be yourself, with yourself; the kind of experiences you can only have without technology. What a powerful thought.
Louis C.K. was so concerned about what technology was doing not only to his kids, but himself that he ‘quit the Internet’ altogether as you can see in the segment below.
What Louis C.K did was design the conditions in which he used (or didn’t use) technology. His aim was to create, improve, and remedy the experiences he had with his children and found a way to do it. Aside from some tech support from his daughters he did this all alone. The reward was increased connection to his family, however what we don’t know was what cost there was in disconnecting. Maybe that cost was worth the doing.
Invisible problems, invisible solutions?
The point here is that design is often best when it’s invisible. It’s what makes the stimulation economy so insidious because it’s reach is everywhere, yet is often not noticed, thus making it a very successful design. The challenge, if we wish to channel the stimulation and influence what we have in our lives and to increase the connectedness in which this paradox of connecting tools present, is to design equally invisible solutions.
That is the focus of what is to come in this series along with a deeper exploration of connectedness and its shadow, loneliness.
Covent Garden at Christmas by the author