I -- like most urbanites today -- get companionship, aid, support, and social control from a few strong social ties and many weak ones. These ties, which might manifest themselves, for example, as the entries in my cellphone and email directories, establish social networks. In the past, such networks would mostly have been maintained by face-to-case contact within a contiguous locality -- a compact, place-based community. Today, they are maintained through a complex mix of local face-to-face interactions, travel, mail systems, synchronous electronic contact through telephones and video links, and asynchronous electronic contact through email and similar media. [Me++, 16-17]
Like most technophiles, and I believe Mitchell would be of this class, the rapid development of digital technology has had a twofold effect on the way we communicate: first, it has further led to the breakdown of the traditional communication structures of face-to-face contact that defined social interactions prior to the advent of written language. Secondly, it has created an entirely new form of social interaction based on long-distance communication, oftentimes between people who have never, nor will ever meet. Although it may be common to see this faceless communication as just an extension of prior communication techniques, it is fundamentally deprived of the content of face-to-face communication. Small inflections of voice are lost in email and all written communication, time is displaced and communication may become outdated and useless when it sits unread, small innate facial cues are missed when not seeing a speaker, the possibility of anonymity and ambiguity are heightened and can be used as techniques in communicating, the comfort of another�s physical presence disappears, and there is the potential to be isolated even while communicating (see DeGrandpre and other psychological researchers who have studies feelings of isolation when communicating solely using a computer on the internet).
This raises the huge question of the meaning of physical connectedness and what role it plays in communication and the psychology of the individual. It seems to me that most of us would not want to hold a serious relationship with someone without ever having direct physical communication with them (although I am sure it has happened) because of the importance that we place on seeing, touching, and being close to another person. Although this is an extreme, it seems apparent that other types of relationships may have similar elements to them, and consequently be changed when the mode of communication changes.
This is, of course, an empirical statement and requires a deeper psychological investigation than has already been done in order to enter into the standard psychological canon. Unfortunately a discussion of the negative psychological consequences of this change in communication is beyond my abilities and would require someone much better versed than I.
- The Loose-ends of Networked Culture
- Where is the self in a networked society?
- Cyborg Freedom?
- The self, or something that looks like it.
DeGrandpre, Richard Digitopia. New York: AtRandom.com Books, 2001.
Mitchell, William J. Me++: The Cyborg Self and the Networked City. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003.
Last modified 3 February 2005