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Does Technology Isolate or Connect?

I sometimes hear folks complaining that today’s technology isolates people, and — depending on the ferocity of their opinion — is leading to society’s moral decay and eventual collapse.

I couldn’t disagree more.

I see technology as part of the solution, rather than the problem.

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Success stories: bringing families together

Some of my most rewarding interactions follow this pattern:

  • Someone has a computer problem preventing them from doing something important.
  • They come to me for help.
  • I help — either directly, or with something that leads to a solution.
  • Sometime later, I hear back that the problem has been resolved.
  • The “something important” turns out to be remaining in contact with out-of-the-area family.

These are especially meaningful to me when the person reporting back turns out to be in their eighties or nineties, and my assistance has allowed them to remain connected, not only across miles (perhaps thousands of miles), but across generations.1

Helping grandma remain connected with the grandkids makes my day.

Bringing communities together

But there’s more to technology than helping individuals connect. Sometimes it’s about enabling forming new communities.

For nearly 20 years, my wife and I have hosted the annual “Pacific Northwest Corgi Picnic”. Corgi owners from around the area bring their dogs to our home for an afternoon of fun in our (fenced) back yard. We’ve had as many as 150 dogs with as many people.

Does Technology Isolate or Connect?You may have heard of a similar event, the So Cal2 Corgi Beach Day, where over 600 dogs attended.

We also regularly go camping with like-minded Corgi owners.

These are events — in-person, real-world events — that would not take place were it not for the technology that surrounds us today. The technology enabling you to read this enables entirely new communities to form.

From Corgi Picnics (there are several around the country)3, to Meetup groups that organize online, to Kickstarter projects and more, groups are coming together in new and exciting ways — ways that would not have been as easy before the advent of technologies ranging from simple email (the genesis of our picnic) to Facebook (responsible for the overwhelming success of the SoCal effort) and more.

Information bringing about social and political change

It’s more than bringing people (and their dogs) together to socialize; the technology around us fosters change, the majority of which I see as good.

Information relating to just about any cause or issue you might think of is now readily available — both passively, as resources for research, and actively, in the form of communities that rally around a cause and take action.

Technology brings us together in ways we never could have imagined, and enables community and change we never would have considered, without it.

Does technology isolate or connect?Technology doesn’t isolate people

People isolate people.

I honestly don’t “get” the concern that technology is somehow isolating. As I sit here behind my computer, I feel more connected than I ever would have had computers and the internet never been born. I interact with more people on a daily basis — online and in person — than I ever could have in previous decades.

Blaming technology for isolation may simply be making it a scapegoat for something that would have happened anyway. People isolate themselves, regardless of what’s available to them.

Just because they’re not willing or able to connect with you in the way you want doesn’t mean they’re isolating themselves. It’s very possible — even likely — they’re more connected than you know, using technologies you’ve elected to pass by. Even the kids spending time on their mobile devices are using those devices to connect, though it may be in ways you and I are unfamiliar with.

Get connected

Don’t fear technology. Get connected. Get comfortable getting connected.

  • Learn to Skype, Facetime, SnapChat, or whatever it is the kids you know are doing these days. 🙂
  • Write an email rather than lamenting that no one writes letters anymore. Letters are appreciated just as much as ever; we just send them electronically these days.
  • Join a discussion or Meetup group related to your interests. It could be local, leading to in-person events, or it could be global, creating interactions you never would have dreamed possible in years gone by.
  • Embrace new ways of connecting with the world and the people around you.
  • Make a difference. Be it to someone (perhaps an overseas grandchild who’s never heard your voice) or to some cause, use technology to make the world a little better.
  • Share what you learn with others. That will connect you to more people in ways you can’t imagine.

Even in the face of headlines that scream “Fake News!” or “Beware Your Privacy!”,  I’m more excited than ever before by the possibilities for connection and community across our entire planet.

I hope you’ll share in that excitement, and take action, however small, to embrace it.

Footnotes & references

1: I don’t tear up easily, but when I do, it’s almost always a scenario like this.
2: Southern California – the event was held at Huntington Beach, near Los Angeles.
3: I don’t know what it is about Corgi people, but it’s a thing. Apparently we’re somewhat crazy.

28 comments on “Does Technology Isolate or Connect?”

  1. When I started using Facebook, I located a few of my old high school and neighborhood friends and organized a small reunion when I returned home one summer. Connecting through friends of friends, I am now in contact with well over half of my old friends. I probably send more emails and chat messages in a week than all of the personal letters I’ve ever written in my life. Needless to say, technology has in no way isolated me.

    I used to use Skype to stay in contact with my children and grandchildren (I live in Germany, and they are in the US). Now I’ve switched to phoning, but those free international phone calls are also a result of internet technology as all of those calls go through VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) as my phone service is provided by my ISP. Many times we’re using the internet without even realizing it.

    Reply
    • Two years ago, we had a high school reunion. Thanks to social media, we had a huge turnout. About 100 out of 200 ex-students were able to come. Before social media, that would have been impossible.

      Reply
  2. I have to counter this to some degree. People now think that EVERYONE has a social media account and they look at you like you’re a Communist or weirdo if you don’t. Same thing with a cellphone.

    My 30th high school reunion came last year and if a friend hadn’t mentioned it I’d never have known…and I’ve continued to live here all of those 30 years. People have assumed that everyone uses Facebook. Websites seem to think I own a cellphone and pester me about it for ‘security’ benefits. I have a copy of every video I’ve ever posted and if somebody ruins it I don’t really care anymore. None of it was done for money.

    Now, it’s not just about some privacy issue. I really don’t need a website to keep track of my loved ones though…I have email and a telephone package with fixed long distance. My mother doesn’t even go online.

    If I need to buy something or find a location or contact information, it’s something I can do at home and I don’t need a phone to find it. I don’t even own a car so it’s highly unlikely I’m going very far to get it.

    And I’m on a fixed income (no, neutered) so the issue of food vs. cellphone is solved. But when people become so lost in social networking that they forget to even send a letter to tell me my own class reunion is near, that’s not cool. I skipped it and had a great bike ride listening to the oldies station on my AM radio.

    Like I was doing 30 years ago. I don’t remember half of those people anyway but for a minute between classes.

    If people don’t like to answer their cellphones, they aren’t always worth an email.

    Reply
  3. I definitely agree with Steven. When our children and grand children come to visit us they seem to be on these dam phones or ipads or whatever they are called, texing or playing games. No time to visit. We do have a cell phone, but it is turned off. It is turned on only when I have to use it. I believe in new technology, but I think there is very little social life and communication between people.

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  4. I couldn’t agree more. As someone who’s a bit shy I’ve always known it’s up to me to get out there and brave the social world; when I don’t, it’s on me. The Internet offers a world of opportunities to do that, whereas my physical environment is fairly limited. It’s made me more intelligent, more aware, more involved civically, more connected to the world in general, and, socially speaking, broadened my conversational range because it’s so easy to keep up with not only current events but an almost limitless variety of interesting subjects. I’m still shy, it’s my natural inclination, but the Internet has had a very positive impact on me.

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  5. I have watched people isolate themselves with TV and a recliner. It does not take the internet. The internet only speeds things up for better or worse.

    In my town with 100 year old homes, the front porch and after dinner walks were the social media of the time. Even in the 1960s I remember sitting on the porch of our post war suburban home and greeting the neighbors that would walk by after dinner.

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  6. You probably forgot newsgroups (countless of them) which do help people a lot especially newbies to any specific area of life.

    The newsgroup may not be related to computers but to any sport / activity or tourism or any sphere of life.

    Newsgroups have helped many (myself included) though not specifically to isolate but to bring people together in a noble and more humane way.

    Ravi.

    Reply
  7. Guess I should have clarified I was agreeing with YOU, Leo. By the time I submitted, other replies had already posted. As someone also on a ‘neutered’ income, I prioritize when it comes to money, like anyone else. I don’t have cable TV, satellite radio or a Internet pkg. on my cell, just a basic low-minutes & text deal. If the TV dies, there won’t be another one. When it comes to my high-speed Internet connection, though, I’ve chosen it over just about everything else including food a few times when things were particularly dire. I joined FB early on for about 5 months and found it sucked up an inordinate amount of my time reading posts of incredible banality, so I dropped it. Do I see its value for others? Definitely. If we choose to stay out of social media we are certainly left out to an extent. If we don’t adapt to the everchanging world we will be left behind, as it always has been. That’s the way it is, like it or not, but it is a choice. To choose to opt out of the mainstream and then blame others for not chasing after us is counterintuitive. I have grandkids also; it’s up to the parents to teach basic manners. Beyond that, it’s also up to us to be at least interesting enough to warrant their attention, and to be understanding of their teenage inclinations to connect obsessively with their friends. They’re no different than we were back in the day, when our parents would have to hound us to “stop tying up the phone”.

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  8. I agree to a certain extent that technology allows people to connect. On the other hand, it can also allow crazies into your life. I sell my unwanted items on Craigslist occasionally and some of the responses I have gotten to my ads have frightened me badly. Believe me, there are a lot of people out there with whom you DO NOT want to connect and I believe that the internet allows these predators easier access to victims, especially older retired seniors such as myself.

    Reply
  9. I find today’s technology a joy. Now that my large family have long left home – some to the far corners of the globe – I would feel very alone without my iPad and even my phone. I enjoy Facebook, reading what my grandchildren are getting up to, and if some of the comments from ‘friends’ are rubbish I can easily de-friend them. I can watch TV programmes whenever I want on ‘catch-up’, not at the times they are scheduled. I don’t have to trudge down the high street to book an airfare or a hotel. I certainly wouldn’t be without it!

    Reply
  10. Leo, you may want to invite HM The Queen to one of your Corgi Picnics! She owns and breeds many, although I suspect camping may be one step too far at the age of 89!

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  11. Yes, no, maybe… Ok, I absolutely agree with our ability to reach out and “meet” people that were before unreachable. We can Skype, e-mail, chat, all kinds of wonderful options for us to communicate exist today. I am however still concerned that the constant electronic “presence” and our “need” to be connected is having a detrimental effect. Here is a story: My wife and I were celebrating our 20 something anniversary (this year we are 28 so I really don’t remember which one it was) and we were sitting in a restaurant. I remember looking over at a young man and young woman sitting across from each other in a booth. The young lady looked as though she really wanted to be connecting with the young man, but he spent the bulk of his time looking down into his lap where he was busy with his phone. That made me rather sad, I also get rather sad when I see an adult walking a child and they have a phone glued to their head and do not have an interaction with the child. I am aware that both of these examples are by choice, people choose to spend their time with others, or with devices. Devices have a place, I just fear a bit that they are replacing some actual “face time”. 🙂

    Reply
  12. As someone who remembers the end of WWII, saw his first TV at age 10, and remembers when the Operator had to place all long distance calls, the march of technology has been fascinating…and it definitely has *connected* people more than ever. Decades ago it would have been surreal to even dream of a free video call with my daughter when she’s halfway around the world in a hotel room or a taxi. Now it’s an ordinary event. I can send friends pictures taken at 40,000 feet…while still in flight. Yes, some do immerse themselves in web surfing, or send texts across the room instead of talking, to the detriment of their social skills. But we are more connected than ever, able to instantly reach out to many when there’s a reason to do so (or not). And 50 years from now…

    Reply
  13. Tonight I was typing some thoughts that came into my head into Evernote. Then I began to think of all the “young people” who are in large numbers spending a lot of time looking and typing on their phones. I was thinking about what they actually do when they are on the smartphone. I imagine texting and messaging rank high on the list. Mmmmm, you mean they’re communicating with another person?

    Coming from a generation where all the kids I know wrote at most half a dozen letters a year, and most of those were thank you letters for birthday presents. Now kids are writing like crazy, and getting criticized for it? Progress just seems to scare some people. They feel like now it’s reach a tipping point and it’s gone too far.

    One seemingly valid criticism is that spelling and grammar are going out the window. Yeah, but is it really the texting that’s killing grammar. When I was in school we never spoke with good grammar to each other, and a lot of swearing. But we still learned to write and speak properly when we needed to. Maybe they’re not failing us. Maybe we’re failing them.

    Reply
    • I’m always on my phone. I communicate with more people than I was ever able to before, most of it by text. And it’s top notch communication, keeping in touch on a regular basis. I keep in touch with grandkids and even organize large events. I also read more books than I ever have before with my Kindle for phone, and often even do work while I’m waiting in line. I’m definitely more connected and love it.

      Reply
  14. Leo,

    Sometimes, in our case, at least, constant changes and/or limitations
    re accessing important sites definitely constitute barriers to communications.
    Same outcome with “noise,” pop-up ads, concerns about unknown sites and
    other barriers to viable two-way, effective communication. JAS

    Reply
  15. There is one aspect of this technology that does cause isolation. Organisations can use computers, robots… to form an almost impenetrable barrier between it and it’s captive customer. Try cancelling an order or changing account details with a Utility.

    Reply
  16. What really isolates people is not having an internet account or using technology. Try being in school without internet or computer/phone and your teacher assigns homework electronically. Does it get in the way of personal contacts, sometimes, but it also allows a person to contact people all across the world that they never would have known were there without technology. Governments post all kinds of information online now, information that they had to print before, allowing people to learn facts about their country.

    Reply
    • I’m all for technology but I believe many institutions over use technology in cases where non-tech solutions would be better. I teach in a technical university and all homework and class exams are taken online. I’m all for putting the homework online but it’s dangerous giving exams online. Last week the WiFi was down when the students were about to take an exam. Luckily, it came back on after a few minutes. So, I believe the problem isn’t technology. Technology is a tool like any other. The problem is using the incorrect tool or using the tool incorrectly.

      Reply
  17. I have seen technology isolate families. For example, instead of actually visiting, or sending a real-world letter or card at birthday / xmas times, all they get from each other is a face-book prompted “happy whatever” with no thought or empathy involved.
    It also isolates those who WANT to be isolated – with anonymity so easy to achieve, trolls and bullies have a field day harrassing others.

    It also can bring people together. I have seen success stories where people have found each other online, and turned it into a real-world relationship, and lived happy contented lives.

    Information (particularly personal information) has been made into another commodity that can be bought and sold, twisted and manipulated. The truth becomes whatever gets repeated the most, and the internet can repeat something a LOT.

    Technology is definately a triple-edged sword.

    Reply
  18. I agree with the Senior who said that he occasionally sells things on Craigslist, in that their are a number of crazies who can contact him. Not to many people seem to know this, but there is an alternate definition for the word Paranoia. And here it is: Just because your Paranoid, does not mean that someone is not out to get you! I also think that those who do not have the motivation or the ability to connect face to face with the general public, technology is a good thing. As a Christian, I do not let anything get in the way of my undivided worship and relationship to the Lord Jesus Christ. Technology can have the tendency to become an idol in a persons life, just like many other things.

    Reply
  19. It does both Isolate and connect, face time with the grandchildren is great but without occasional real world contact becomes less than. Technology allows me to have contacts from all over the world some people i have never met in real life and others i have met on holidays and can now keep in contact with.

    For disabled and elderly (my father is 95 and uses a computer daily) it can be a huge benefit, connecting when otherwise they would be isolation, so as Mark has said technology is a tool. Having grown up in a world where there were no mobile phones, no internet , where connecting meant getting on your bike and riding to your friends to hang out this modern world seems a little disconnected. We have as a species still not matured with our use of technology but in 20 or 50 years time it may all be moot as evolution of human condition adapts to the new norm.

    For me, the Look up video encapsulates my feelings exquisitely
    http://garyturk.com/portfolio-item/lookup/

    Reply
  20. It does both Isolate and connect, face time with the grandchildren is great but without occasional real world contact becomes less than. Technology allows me to have contacts from all over the world some people i have never met in real life and others i have met on holidays and can now keep in contact with.

    For disabled and elderly (my father is 95 and uses a computer daily) it can be a huge benefit, connecting when otherwise they would be isolation, so as Mark has said technology is a tool. Having grown up in a world where there were no mobile phones, no internet , where connecting meant getting on your bike and riding to your friends to hang out this modern world seems a little disconnected. We have as a species still not matured with our use of technology but in 20 or 50 years time it may all be moot as evolution of human condition adapts to the new norm.

    For me, the Look up video encapsulates my feelings exquisitely
    http://garyturk.com/portfolio-item/lookup/

    Reply
  21. Like almost all other things, there are both benefits AND drawbacks to being “connected” (mostly, via the Internet).

    An actual example:

    I have always been sentimental, even as a very young kid*. I owned a much-beloved 33-1/3 rpm children’s record album — VERY decrepit. I badly wanted a new, fresh copy! But it was obscure, by an almost totally unknown record company. Where, in my small town, would I ever find such a thing…?!?

    Nowhere.

    At the age of twelve, I sighed and gave up on the idea that such a thing would ever be possible…

    AND THEN, ALONG CAME THE 1990’s AND THE INTERNET!

    The Internet has changed EVERYTHING. Today, things are not only possible, but ROUTINE, that would have been not only impossible, but UNTHINKABLE, even as recently as the 1980’s.

    Today, I actually HAVE a copy of that record — plus at least one other! — that I had once despaired of ever acquiring. I have also been able to download the theme songs to many of my old favorite cartoon shows, from Prince Planet to Gigantor, to Astro Boy, to Gumby, and even Little Audrey! Sometimes the actual SHOWS are even available for download!

    Anyone who thinks our interconnected world is a curse, needs to reconsider the issue much more carefully than they are currently doing.

    Yes, like almost all other things, there are both benefits AND drawbacks to being “connected.”

    Enjoy our brave new world, folks; it only gets better from here! 🙂

    —–
    *And on THAT subject, I MUST make note of a primer on writing children’s books that I read once. “Kids are never sentimental,” it said, earning my instantaneous disgust, not only for that totally unjustified statement, but also for its use of the word “never,” a word which people tend to use FAR too carelessly!

    Reply
  22. It connects but also isolates. Would day 49% connection, and 51% isolation. Or perhaps the other way around. Maybe half and half. So the bottom line answer is: it does both. So now having determined that, what can we DO about it. The figures, if not shocking, are at least disturbing. The issue has to be dealt with somehow, so let’s now get together and try to devise a solution.

    Reply

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