The new digital divide

 

- by Maria Papas

Maria Papas argues that social technologies are not to blame for human disconnection, but relishes the satisfaction that a long, robust face-to-face conversation can bring.

A few weeks ago I was on a peak hour tram travelling out of Melbourne. This tram was full – 18 people within arm's reach, most of whom were on their smartphones.

One guy (let’s call him Jack) was reading his side of a chat conversation out loud. It sounded as though he was having an argument.

And then he went quiet.

After a time he said, "Stephanie just went from ‘engaged’ to ‘single’." Stephanie, he informed us, was his fiancée.

This got me thinking about social media, and also about websites like confessions.com.au and postsecret.com and the Facebook page Secret Women’s Business, all of which function as anonymous depositories for the things people can’t share with their more intimate others.

I imagined Stephanie on one of these sites: "I’m about to dump my fiancé ... by changing my profile." Then Jack, later, updating his status: "Broke up." And his friends: "Aw honey ... Shame ... Love you anyway."

And I wondered how loosely connected these ‘friends’ were. Would my grandfather even use the word acquaintance, let alone friend? And what does this say about us as a society when someone like Stephanie reveals her plans to countless others and Jack ends up nourished by text?

If new technology is a consumer product, then like everything else it exists only because it responds to a need. But what exactly is this need?

There is quite a history of research to suggest that cultures like ours were already disconnected and that people had learned to live side-by-side rather than face-to-face.

In 1968, Hannah Arendt, a political philosopher, argued that individuals were increasingly retreating from the world, and that with each retreat a demonstrable loss was taking place: that of community. In 1976, human geographer Edward Relph observed that people had moved around so much they had become existential outsiders with no sense of identity. And in 1995 Marc Augé wrote that the individual was now not only alone but one of many, he or she was required to interact predominately with text.

The warning signs were there. Arguably we were (and are) lonely and longing for connection. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics it’s only going to worsen; by 2026, for example, 30 per cent of Australians will be living alone.

So what’s really going on when someone like Jack posts "Broke up."? Is he saying, "I’m lonely. Talk to me, someone please talk."?

I don’t think it’s fair to blame disconnection on new social technologies. These technologies have packaged a means for connection, conversation and even emotional intimacy into neat, marketable products. They are providing something that is necessary and nurturing. People need to interact. They need to talk. They have things to say. They just happen to be saying them across computer screens.

But as with all shiny new things, there is a danger involved, a cautionary tale; to my mind these technologies are simulating an illusion of union, which means they are also definitively deskilling us in the art of mindful, physical interaction. And that’s frightening.

The night of my thought-provoking tram ride, I ate dinner with my cousin and his partner. The television stayed off. The phones were somewhere, away. We had a conversation – a long meandering conversation about everything from our childhoods to the world food supply and it was nice.

I suspect that’s what we need more of: greater attention on bodily friendship and care. Even Jack on that tram there.

Maria Papas is a Perth-based writer. Her work has most recently appeared in Griffith Review and The Emerging Writer. She has been shortlisted for the TAG Hungerford Award, and in 2011 she won the Maj Monologues Competition. She tutors at Curtin University of Technology, and is completing a PhD in cultural studies and creative writing at the University of Western Australia. Her project focus is human connection.

References

Australian institute of family studies

Arendt, Hannah. Men in Dark Times. 1968. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1993.

Augé, Marc Non Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity. Trans. John Howe. London: Vergo, 1995.

Relph, Edward. Place and Placelessness. London: Pion, 1976.

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