We are all unwitting participants in a massive social experiment that began slowly after World War II and gathered speed in the last decade with the introduction of the smart phone. We have created virtual personas, online worlds, digital connections, social media lives, email relationships, audio-conference teams, video linkups – the whole panoply of ways that we now communicate with one another virtually.
That ability to communicate virtually seemed at first to be an unmitigated advance – we could communicate faster, more easily, with less friction, at our own convenience, to multiples of our previous audiences, with the click of a mouse or a ‘send’ button.
It’s only recently that we’re starting to realize that this huge social experiment has a downside too. We’ve started to worry about shorter attention spans, and we wonder if the Internet makes us stupid. But the real downside has remained largely invisible to us because it touches on the workings of our unconscious minds.
What’s happened is that, as we’ve made room for virtual communication in our lives, our workplaces, and in all the ways we connect with one another, we haven’t fully realized how emotionally empty virtual communications are. Every form of virtual communication strips out the emotional subtext of our communications to a greater or lesser extent. Every one.
Take email, for example. We’ve all experienced the frustration of sending an email that was (to us) obviously meant to be a joke. But the recipient, instead of being amused, was offended, and we had to spends huge amounts of time repairing the relationship. That’s the simplest, most obvious form of emotional undercutting that virtual communications foist on us.
Most of us have also spent hours on audio conferences at work, with the mute button in force, taking care of other business while people on the other end of the box drone on endlessly. We’ve had to lunge for that mute button when the boss suddenly says, “Nick, are you still on? What do you think of the new cross-eyed widget?”
And then there’s social media, which would seem to be all about emotional connection, but in fact is like Pringle’s potato chips that you need to keep eating because one doesn’t satisfy. The bland taste creates a need for more but doesn’t allow you to stop. We get one ‘like’ on Facebook, enjoy a brief ‘hit’ of pleasure, and crave more. We get social love on Twitter and Instagram, and it’s just enough to keep us checking our mobile phones hundreds of times per day.
In short, we’ve transferred a surprisingly large amount of our human interactions to the virtual world, and as a result, we no longer get the emotional information, support, and reinforcement we used to get without thinking about it while communicating face-to-face.
Next post: the frightening truth about the result of this giant social experiment.
I’m delighted to announce to you insiders who follow my blog that pre-orders for my new book, Can You Hear Me? are now available on Amazon. The book will be released by Harvard in October 2018, and the long run up to publication day begins now. This blog post and the next one are excerpted from the introduction to the book. If the subject matter intrigues you, please sign up for your own pre-ordered copy. Pre orders allow the publisher to gauge interest in the book and prepare accordingly. More pre orders means more support from the publisher, a better print run and wider distribution. If a lot of you sign up for pre orders, paradoxically, it will greatly increase the chance that Harvard will persuade Barnes and Noble to carry physical copies of the book in their stores, at least the bigger ones in hot locations. That increases the chance that people will be able to stumble on the book, on a shelf in an actual bookstore, and that would be very cool indeed. So please, if you love communications, this blog, or apple pie, go to Amazon and pre order the book today. Thank you.