Watch “I forgot my phone” and tell me that this isn’t disturbingly familiar. I want to explore our increasing desire to meet in virtual spaces, avoid solitude and retreat into our personal devices. What is socially acceptable and possible, in public and in private, has been changed and shaped by new mediums of communication. We can, and even do: text at the dinner table, access pornography at our desks and avoid our own company. We have the ability to edit, design and even delete our identities and relationships – but what’s the harm?
Although some remain sceptical, “Internet addiction” is thought by others to have an adverse effect on relationships and leave us isolated. Phycology Today reports the concerns of virtual substituting, such as LOLs on social media rather than really laughing and hearing real laughter. Are we relating to our friends as they really are or to their facebook pages, twitter feeds and in skype dates? A senior at Boston University stated “I might be crying as I am typing ‘I am great.’ So texting allows me to mask.” When the vast majority of our communication is body language, virtual communication seems inadequate; removing the social queues that would usually inform and inhibit us. For convenience and control of our responses; the candidness, genuineness and sophistication of the communication that binds us is being eroded. Technology can be used to exchange information or re-affirm familiar sentiments but does not help us to learn new things about a person. Sherry Turkle speaks in “Connected but Alone” of the immaturity of our relationship with technology despite its widespread usage and our naivety of the consequences. Turkle also speaks of a perfect storm of “expecting more from technology and less from each other”. As modern day relationships become more complicated, technology promises to simplify. It has become a fantasy, to control our social lives and micro-manage our relationships without the chaos or risks involved in personal interactions.
The smart phone provides a wealth of pornography in the palm of your hand and there is indeed a reported increase in viewing habits. This is unsurprising with increased access and a commentary of how this impacts our relationships with each other has begun. John Mayer, in an interview for Playboy, said that “Internet pornography has absolutely changed my generation’s expectations”. Meanwhile, 90% of therapists reported to a leading women’s magazine, that they could identify problems in relationships in recent years, which they would attribute to pornography. Mayer also stated “I’m more comfortable in my imagination than I am in actual human discovery”. This way of thinking about sexuality is increasingly on trend, in particular, in Japan. Japan has unbelievably sophisticated virtual worlds and trends for technological substitutes for relationships; not only porn but also virtual girlfriends and anime cartoons. As The Guardian reports ”45% of Japanese women aged 16-24 are “not interested in or despise sexual contact”. More than a quarter of men feel the same way.
In “Porn on the brain”, Martin Daubney, previous editor of Loaded magazine, investigates our relationships with online pornography. He concludes that “Porn has lost its sense of humour and become something macabre”, transitioning from a golden age of soft-core magazines to a tsunami of internet imagery. He finds out for himself, the ease in which more hard-core and even illegal porn can be accessed. He explores the impact on adolescent boys and their sexual relationships, and researches into the credibility of pornography addiction. He investigates using fMRI to show how these adolescents respond to pornographic images in the same ways drug users would to their own paraphernalia. David Cameron’s campaign to improve parental controls is criticised by showing the pitfalls and the loopholes of this technology. I would suggest education as a way of tackling this social problem, to encourage responsible and well-informed viewing, now that this technology is so diffuse.
Technology has also allowed socialising to become invasive by increasing media of contact and the expectation to respond immediately. We are rarely left alone to reflect and identify with ourselves. I’ll always remember Steven Fry commenting on QI in 2004 that “a telephone is a fantastically rude thing. I mean, it’s like going, “Speak to me now, speak to me now, speak to me now!” You know. If you went into someone’s office and banged on their desk and said,” I will make a noise until you speak to me,” it would be considered unbelievably rude.” However, this intrusion and others like it have become commonplace and even sought after. There seems to be a compulsion for us to reach for our smartphone whether together or alone, to check for texts or idly refresh our facebook and e-mail pages. The oxford dictionary defines fomo as, “anxiety that an exciting or interesting event may currently be happening elsewhere, often aroused by posts seen on a social media website”. In this piece in the Telegraph “FoMo: Do you have a fear of missing out?” Claire Cohen describes the obsessive nature of staying up late surrounded by modern communication technology. She identifies that, although the expression “keeping up with the Joneses’” is a classic, fomo is a toxic syndrome that reflects an obsession. Our increasing presence in our virtual lives is surely incrementally removing us from our real lives.
This has led to resources that practice self-control for us such as Google Crome’s Stay Focused. This site allows you to limit the time you spend on sites that you self-identify as “time-wasting” such as facebook. A more extreme approach was adopted in a home in Orleans. The Powers’ household, inclusive of a teenage son, observe an internet Sabbath over the weekend. They describe a withdrawal period followed by a revelation of regaining patience with each other, eye-contact and real alone-time. These practices would indicate that our connections are symptoms of social anxieties rather than a cure. Should we be concerned that these measures can be necessary to curb our connecting? Or should we feel encouraged that we can implement these strategies and reflect enough to identify their usefulness?
In conclusion, I believe it is clear that we are infatuated with technology and are often attracted to its invitation to socialise from a safe distance. Technology promises the hope of simplification – a magic bullet to boredom, loneliness and understanding others. The fantasy selves and relationships we can create online are shadows of real things. While some may feel more comfortable in this virtual world, I wonder if these shortcuts to connections are short-changing us of intimacy. I believe we need to learn to listen to each other without distraction and value self-reflection, if we are to have any choice of how technology is shaping us.