My friend Haley called me the other day. She hadn’t texted me in advance to “find a time” to chat. Nor did we have a Zoom date “on the calendar.” She just up and called me unannounced.
It was thrilling, this unscheduled, spontaneous conversation without a purpose or the weight of a formal catch-up. This felt like wheeling over to someone in the office to hear a joke.
I was reminded of that larger orbit of friendships outside the inner core of those we still see in person, usually because we live with them.
Think about all those relationships once sustained by serendipity and proximity, now starved by a year of social distancing.
In what may be the world’s largest sociological experiment, many of us have had to rely almost completely on technology to tend these friendships. We now have a whole new cadre of Appointment Friendships.
And even with committed scheduling, it’s not really enough. A recent study from researchers at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, confirms what we now know in our exhausted hearts: video calls, texts, social media, even phone calls are a great supplement to face-to-face interactions, but they aren’t a substitute.
Contrary to what you might expect, the more sophisticated the technology, the less it satisfies our need for connection.
Researchers reported that the humble phone call was associated with decreases in stress, loneliness, and relationship difficulties. Meanwhile, video chats were associated with increased stress, loneliness, and difficulties in maintaining relationships. I get it, we’re less self-conscious on the phone, and you can multitask and talk–maybe fold laundry or eat or both. With video, that uncanny valley of almost being there tends to make you long for the real thing.
The UNLV researchers also reported that social media posting, commenting, and sharing was the “modality most strongly associated with stress.”
No one is less surprised about all this than Sherry Turkle, a clinical psychologist at M.I.T. She’s been studying how technology affects our capacity for empathy and connection since the first Apple computer showed up with a smiley face, reporting her findings in two seminal books: “Reclaiming Conversation” and “Alone Together.”
When I spoke to her a few weeks ago, she’d just published her memoir, “The Empathy Diaries,” which is about becoming one of very few women at M.I.T. and one who was willing to challenge the enduring gospel of the engineering universe: that technology would solve the problems it caused.
In the crucible of enforced isolation, we explored the limits of where our screens can take us. As technology became our lifeline, we realized how much we missed the full embrace of the human.Turkle finished working on this book during pandemic shutdowns, which were akin to a real-world test of her life’s work. She writes:
The question now is whether we’ve gotten so used to the disconnect of screen communications, so seduced by the convenience and cost savings, that even when we can interact in person, there will be a net increase in the time we spend communicating via screens. Turkle urges us not to settle for a 2D life.
“The amazing thing about living through dramatic change is you are right there when something that once seemed odd begins to seem natural,” says Turkle. “The trick is to remember why it once seemed odd because that might be a reason worth remembering.”
The price for forgetting may be an increase in loneliness which was already epidemic before the pandemic. I “The first step is distancing ourselves from this new normal to reclaim our complex selves.”
It seems impossible now that we won’t remember how precious it is to communicate without texting or posting, or even talking. There’s so much beyond the clumsiness of words, like a hand on your arm at the right moment, or the gentle camaraderie of silence. ?
In “The Empathy Diaries,” Sherry Turkle’s story starts before her work as a clinical psychologist at M.I.T., where she holds an endowed chair. It’s a coming-of-age story about a girl who grew up in post-war Brooklyn and transformed feelings of being an outsider into a quest to understand others and to advocate for empathy and humanity in the face of massive technological transformations.
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Contributor: Susanna Schrobsdorff