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Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Social (dis)connections

Steven Johnson, a fantastic writer that I came across last week who writes about the intersection of science, technology, and personal life, has a post up on his NYTimes.com blog (unfortunately available only with a TimesSelect subscription) about the ever-increasing distance between, well, people:

This is the lament of iPod Nation: we’ve built elaborate tools to connect us to our friends – and introduce us to strangers – who are spread across the planet, and at the same time, we’ve embraced technologies that help us block out the people we share physical space with, technologies that give us the warm cocoon of the personalized soundtrack. We wear white earbuds that announce to the world: whatever you’ve got to say, I can’t hear it.

Social landscapes have been studied extensively in sociology and anthropology. How people interact and organize themselves can be indicative of how people organize themselves in certain social contexts. Johnson is speaking primarily about big urban cities like New York, but the iPod silencing effect (my awkward phrase) seems to me to be plausible for a variety of non-urban situations. For example, when we plug in we can not only cut ourselves off from other people but from nature as well. Imagine taking a hike in a forest only to miss the sounds and subtle vibrations that contribute so much to that environment’s beauty. There are social landscapes and natural landscapes each with their own unique characteristics (sometimes overlapping) and the encroachment of technology into our everyday lives invariable has an effect on our perceptions of our surroundings. In my opinion, it is often to the deficit of the perceiver.

So while Johnson eloquently describes the social distance that is often caricatured as the iPod-wearing urbanite, he is optimistic about the relationships that can be introduced and the dialogue that can be facilitated by technologies that permeate our everyday lives, mainly the internet:

So the idea that the new technology is pushing us away from the people sharing our local spaces is only half true. To be sure, iPods and mobile phones give us fewer opportunities to start conversations with people of different perspectives. But the Web gives us more of those opportunities, and for the most part, I think it gives us better opportunities. What it doesn’t directly provide is face-to-face connection. So the question becomes: how important is face-to-face? I don’t have a full answer to that – clearly it’s important, and clearly we lose something in the transition to increasingly virtual interactions.

The reason Johnson’s post satisfies me is because it strikes a happy medium between a hypersensitivity to the effects of technology in our lives on the one hand and the unbridled technophilia that so many of my generation have succumbed to. I wish that I could say more than this or offer some sort of insightful analysis, but like Johnson I believe the true sociological/psychological benefits of face-to-face connection are elusive at best and unattainable at worst. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that intimate communication is infinitely important to healthy social development, but to what extent can science (social or otherwise) lend itself to understanding the recently-renegotiated relationships and social dynamics brought about by the rather swift emergence of the iPod Generation?

You heard it here, you'll be hearing big things from this guy in the coming months. Stephen Johnson’s new book The Ghost Map (subtitled “The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic—and How it Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World”) is currently on the top of my to-read list. His website is stephenberlinjohnson.com.

More iPod Generation:
Anxious life of the 'Ipod' generation - TimesOnline
Murdoch tunes in to iPod generation - The Register

The above are only two of many news stories and websites out there, and from doing a simple Google search most of them, interestingly, seem to be from UK-based publications.

Posted by Will at November 28, 2006 11:20 PM in Culture | Internet and Blogging