This is the second of two posts on some of the problems that arise with virtual communications.
Communicating in the virtual world creates some built-in hazards for us humans because we originally evolved to communicate face to face. The virtual world has enveloped us in a few rapid years — far too fast for us to evolve in any sense to keep up with its different demands. Let’s look at a few more of the problems in order to understand better why virtual communication is so difficult and unsatisfying.
One of the biggest issues is that virtual communication robs us of access to most of the emotions we give and get easily without having to think very much about it in face-to-face communications.
The human mind is constantly assessing its surroundings and the intent of all the people within its ken. Take away the emotional subtext and an odd thing happens: we have a hard time making decisions. Most of us believe in the Mr. Spock theory of (our) minds. That is, we think consciously and logically and make decisions accordingly. But a good deal of neuroscience has clearly established that we make decisions in our unconscious minds, based on that pattern making, and on emotions. As such, our ability to decide things in the virtual world is severely constricted. We have a hard time deciding, we make faulty decisions on scanty or misinterpreted data, and we end up by tuning out altogether.
For example, we’ve all experienced the mess you can make with one misinterpreted email, where somebody imagines a tone that you didn’t intend. The same thing can happen in an audio conference. Does the silence in response to what you’ve just said mean everyone’s in rapt agreement, or everyone’s tuned out – or people are on mute so that they can have a party? You don’t know, you can’t decide, and it’s all too much hard work.
And that leads to a lack of connection – and commitment.
Humans crave connection, and the virtual world seems endlessly social. But real connection, like decision-making, is based on emotions. Take the emotions out, and we feel alone more often than makes sense. The bonding that naturally happens when people meet face-to-face, and size each other up, fall in love, find mutual interests, and so on – is lacking. And thus it is that with thousands of Twitter followers, Instagram and Facebook friends, and a huge LinkedIn community, we’re still left endlessly chasing the junk food of connection on line – likes, clicks, and links that give us a passing thrill but no real sense of connection like a hug.
As a result, a formidable issue for us humans online is that commitment there – trust – is fragile and easily broken. Trolling is rampant. The whole emotional life of the online world is, in short, a train wreck for the way the human mind actually works.
These problems overlap, of course. They concern human psychology, and so they’re messy, not cleanly divided. The lack of feedback leading to less empathy, the lack of control over virtual information, the lack of emotion making it hard to distinguish among things and to decide, and the lack of connection leading to fragile commitments and trust, are all, well, interconnected.
This post is adapted from my new book, Can You Hear Me?, due out from Harvard in October. You can pre-order it here.