A burgeoning collection of communication technologies is often blamed for decreased empathy and attention spans. What if the problem lies not with the technology, but with the attitude of the user?
Tech writer Jon Mitchell examines how technology helps or hinders us from becoming our best selves in In Real Life (Parallax Press, 2015). Rather than only using our technological devices as media for connecting with the world, Mitchell recommends that we look at communication technologies as resources that allow us to have a more intimate and fulfilling relationship with ourselves and the world around us. The following excerpt is from chapter 3, “Technology and Spirituality.”
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It’s tempting to think of the Internet as a place. We’ve learned to relate to it as a world on the other side of a window. We open the window, see this virtual world on the other side, and we can just barely reach through using these strange controls we’ve learned to manipulate. We can’t enter with our whole bodies and walk around the place—not yet, anyway—but in order to access the Internet, we do have to go there. When we turn our attention back to the physical world, we leave the Internet. It makes sense that the Internet feels like a place. That’s how we’ve designed it.
Even though we can just barely reach into this apparent world with the surface of our fingertips or the sounds of our voices, software companies have built features on the Internet that give it one of the most important qualities of our frequently inhabited places: other people. Even if we were skeptical of the Internet’s placeness at first glance, it’s impossible not to be drawn in when we see other people moving around in there, talking, and taking pictures. This sensation makes it easy for us to imagine the Internet as some kind of game full of other players, with rules much simpler than those of everyday life. (And for millions of players of massive multiplayer games, it is exactly like that.)
But clearly the Internet placeness is a metaphor. It may feel like everyone in a comment thread—or even in a virtual dungeon full of goblins—is in the same place together, but it’s not true. The others probably left their message an hour ago and are back to work by now. Even if anyone else is present at the same time, it’s not as though they’re in a room with you. They’re looking at a different instance of the same data rendered somewhere else. You’re communicating through a long, byzantine contraption from two different places.
But that doesn’t make your shared experience any less real. You’re both having experiences as real as any other. But the experience isn’t taking place in the Internet. It’s taking place in your body as you interact with the information on the screen. A real place provides an embodied experience. Even if you were in a three-dimensional virtual reality environment projected into a helmet, you’d still be in the same place as you would be if the power went out and the helmet blinked off.
But if the power went out, you would lose contact with the people you were speaking to online. Something about your environment would have changed. A human connection would be severed. That’s as real as anything. But where did it go?
This kind of weirdness is what makes the newly networked world feel unfamiliar. That alienness increases the temptation to treat online conversations or experiences as taking place in their own discrete, virtual space. The rules aren’t the same there as here. Surely that must be somewhere else.
But we’re tricking ourselves by believing that. The Internet doesn’t actually have the qualities to make it a place. That illusion of “going there” and “coming back” is caused by inadequate technology. We don’t actually leave the conversations we have online when we shut off our screen. We pause our connection to them, but they’re still there.
The mobile revolution demonstrates this clearly. Now that we have battery-powered, wireless computers, more and more messages get pushed to us when they are sent instead of just waiting for us to check them. And when our phones receive them, they buzz in our pockets, and we feel them. With our real, embodied legs! Some friend of ours reached through the window to the Internet and tapped us on the leg. There’s no virtual reality in the middle. It’s all reality, the same one we’re in all the time.
Much of the popular writing about what tech is doing to us posits two different realities: a physical one and a digital or virtual one. But Nathan Jurgenson, a brilliant theorist, coined a much-needed term for this distinction as a fallacy. He calls it “digital dualism,” and to me it’s the same kind of metaphysical misconception that the Buddha warns about. The separate self, separation in general—that’s all an illusion. It does us no good to draw borders here. It doesn’t bring us deeper into “the real.” It isolates us further.
“For many,” Jurgenson writes, “maintaining the fiction of the collective loss of the offline for everyone else is merely an attempt to construct their own personal time-outs as more special, as allowing them to rise above those social forces of distraction that have ensnared the masses. ‘I am real. I am the thoughtful human. You are the automaton.’”
The excerpt is from Jurgenson’s 2012 essay, “The IRL Fetish,” one of my favorite writings about technology. “IRL” is Internet jargon for “in real life.” It’s used in context like this: “I’m a Level 40 Paladin! But I’m a stock-broker IRL.” I chose in real life for the title of this book to make the point that real life is all there is. There’s no escape. If you spend hours of your day being a Level 40 Paladin slaying wild beasts with your broadsword, that’s part of who you are, and so are the consequences. Here’s more from Jurgenson on that.
“Facebook doesn’t curtail the offline but depends on it. What is most crucial to our time spent logged on is what happened when logged off; it is the fuel that runs the engine of social media. The photos posted, the opinions expressed, the check-ins that fill our streams are often anchored by what happens when disconnected and logged-off. The Web has everything to do with reality; it comprises real people with real bodies, histories, and politics. It is the fetish objects of the offline and the disconnected that are not real.”
This totally comprises my stance on digital dualism. Treating the web as though it isn’t real, or as if it’s an alternate reality, ignores the consequences it has for us right here in this reality, the only reality. If we aren’t mindful of the fact that our real selves are online, interacting with other real selves, we’re vulnerable to the same pitfalls of distraction and alienation that get us when we forget to be mindful in the offline parts of our lives.
But the unity of digital and analog reality doesn’t mean that the subjective experiences of one or the other aren’t radically different. We’ve only had digital experiences for a minutely small fraction of the human experience. Our way of being in the world evolved in response to an analog environment. We still live in that reality, but the rules of it have changed suddenly. We’ve extended it and layered new kinds of experiences on top of it. When our friend taps us on the leg through our phone, she makes physical contact with the real you. But she doesn’t feel your leg; she feels cold glass. You don’t feel the tap of her fingers; you feel a sharp, mechanical buzz.
The early notion of virtual reality from science fiction is that humans could be like gods, creating worlds where our own made-up rules applied. But the future we got is even stranger than that. We’re still the same fragile, embodied beings we used to be, but now we have a layer on top of our environment where people and computers can interact at a distance.
Our precise real-world position is usually knowable to others. We can share what we’re seeing and hearing to anyone in real time. We can have a conversation with anyone anywhere in the world, and we can do it in complete silence. It’s not that we’re learning how to invent new places. It’s that we’re learning how to be everywhere at once. “Wherever you go, there you are,” Jon Kabat-Zinn said in his great book on mindfulness. But it’s hard enough to be present in one place. We haven’t even begun to learn how to be present everywhere at once.
There’s a crucial lesson here that is both obvious and easy to forget: Those are real people you’re talking to online! When avatars are arguing on the Internet, there are real human bodies controlling them, breathing hard, clenching their jaws, typing too fast, groaning in frustration! If you could see their body language, you’d probably worry about them. But in the most common kinds of online interactions, you can’t. They’re just a smiling face and a name—or a cartoon of an octopus and a made-up nickname—and you just have to imagine their tone of voice.
This is what makes it hard to design social software. Computers were such blunt instruments when people first started using them to interact at a distance, and they’ve only gotten slightly better. Even touch-controlled computers are cold and hard and inflexible. We’ve reached the point where clear and realistic video conversations can be held wirelessly on most computers, but they don’t feel nearly as natural as walking side by side with someone. Video calls are a beautiful, miraculous technology, but there’s a reason we don’t have most of our face-to-face conversations staring at each other head-on without moving.
Real-time calls with video or voice are possible all the time now, but we have them infrequently relative to less involved kinds of online interactions. We’ve realized for a variety of social and technical reasons that we can pack much more human contact into a day if we break most of it down into small written or photographed chunks that can be sent and received at any time. Most of our online conversation is a new kind of conversation, one that only requires the presence of the participants for moments long enough to enter a response. They don’t even have to read the previous comments. There’s no listening required. It’s a model of conversation designed for convenience, but the trade-off is that it’s not designed for empathy.
Thich Nhat Hanh says that understanding is the foundation of love. Unless you can understand, and thus empathize, with another person, you can’t actually love them, you can only love the idea of them. The practice of deep listening, which involves mindful listening without judgment or interruption, is almost impossible in online interactions.
Now that the whole world can share one public sphere, groups who can’t tolerate each other are forced into unpleasant interaction, and everyone else has to watch. This has much worse consequences the less empowered one is by society. The popular feminist website Jezebel, for example, gets mobbed by dozens or hundreds of abusive, violent, male-or-anonymous trolls sharing images of women being raped and decapitated every day. As Amanda Hess wrote in Pacific Standard earlier this year, “Of the 3,787 people who reported harassing incidents [online] from 2000 to 2012 to the volunteer organization Working to Halt Online Abuse, 72.5 percent were female.”
A 2012 study from the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication and some other institutions found that angry blog comments cause people to entrench in their existing beliefs instead of listening to one another and learning something. And the companies who create the venues for this have little incentive to do anything about it. According to their bottom lines, both the mob behavior and the outrage that rightly accompanies it are a win-win. More grist for the content mill.
The motivations of the companies developing the software most people use for online conversation are conflicted. They have the high-minded motivation to create something that feels like a good way to have a conversation, because if they don’t, people won’t use it. But most of them are supported by advertising, so they also have to build something that will be used in repetitive ways for lots of time, where it won’t feel weird if the software injects a little precisely targeted marketing from time to time. These two motivations can’t always be reconciled, and which one a company favors will vary by how healthy its bottom line is.
Luckily for us, it’s not up to those companies how we use this software, just like it’s not up to the designers and engineers of our sidewalks and lobbies and restaurants how we interact in those spaces. There are constraints in every environment on how we can behave, but it’s up to us to thrive within those constraints. Yes, environments contribute to our mood, and the bounds of acceptable behavior are ultimately set in law, but the vast majority of our human contact takes place in the gray area where how we present ourselves and treat each other is up to us. This is true online and offline, and our responsibility to each other is the same.
Unfortunately, it’s harder to behave well in online interactions. Communication technologies are maturing fast, but they’re still barely scratching the surface of what made human interaction interesting to us for our entire evolutionary history.
The delayed, text-based conversations that make up most of our online interactions have no facial expressions, body language, or tone of voice. Those are crucial sources of meaning. They can sometimes be enough to clearly understand someone who’s speaking in a different language! Emoticons and bold or italicized text are pretty poor substitutes. Even in the smaller number of online conversations we have face-to-face or voice-to-voice using video chat, there’s no physical contact, and the rules about eye contact are all thrown off. Where do you look: At the other person’s eyes? At the camera, so they see your eyes? At your own eyes in the little window on the side? This is not a medium that feels comfortable for human conversation yet.
The social context of conversations is also different. Human conversation evolved as a largely ephemeral art. The words in front of you and in short-term memory were the rails on which the conversation rode. We couldn’t search through the history and dig up every little contradiction or misstep. Only the most profound statements, whether beautiful or painful, were durable enough to remain in memory. If people were going through the effort to transcribe a conversation, it had to be of serious importance. Maybe we took greater risks in our speech because we knew our words couldn’t be used against us as easily. Then again, maybe we were less concerned with facts and accuracy.
Regardless, much of our conversation now takes place in an indelible, searchable record. If you say something publicly that contradicts something you said a long time ago, chances are good that someone will find it and use it against you. People will split hairs over your exact wording, preserved for all to see, instead of trusting your intent and letting your words wash over them. And though some online conversation tools give you the ability to retract what you say, that can make things worse, especially if someone took a screenshot. These constraints make conversations feel more mechanical and serious. It’s intense to discuss things in text. It requires mindfulness to avoid mistakes and maintain right speech.
Right speech is an old problem with spiritual consequences. The Buddha spoke about it in the Sutta Nipata: “The person abiding by a certain dogmatic view, considering it is the highest in the world, claims ‘This is the most excellent,’ and disparages other views different from that as inferior. As a result, he is not free from disputation.” This is a great risk when the mode of conversation privileges the digital record over the face-to-face encounter with another being. It’s an essential part of the Buddha’s path to avoid this. “A disciplined man does not engender dogmatic views in the world either by knowledge or by rule or rite. Therefore, he does not consider himself ‘superior,’ ‘inferior,’ or ‘equal’….
By overcoming all the theories based on seen, heard or thought he is a sage who has released his burden and is liberated.” How did the Buddha, thousands of years ago, know so much about how to fix online conversations? It’s not just because he was the Buddha. It’s because the spiritual pitfalls of all human conversations are essentially the same.
There are some good things about the online mode of communication, though. Time-delayed conversations do reduce the sense of the other person’s presence, but they also allow responses to be thought through and measured out before sending. Online conversations also provide us wonderful powers of reference that we don’t have in person. We can easily drop in links alongside our conversations to vast resources of related information, diagrams, images, and videos.
Ephemerality can be useful for some kinds of conversations—and tech companies have taken advantage of this with services like Snapchat, which offers an illusion of impermanence by making messages disappear from users’ phones. But even though Snapchat deletes messages from its servers, any recipient could easily copy them or take a screenshot to preserve them. But there is also a good reason for archives and record keeping, both on the personal level—to maintain records of love letters, thoughts, and friendships—and also on the historical level—as people look back at successful strategies for online organizing, for holding public figures accountable for their comments (remember Anthony Weiner? Donald Sterling?), and for capturing and sharing inspirational moments around the world, from Tiananmen Square and Zuccotti Park to the Arab Spring.
There is plenty of space for both off- and online conversations. The question is whether a given conversation is best held online or in person. As I write, for example, I’m in the midst of a difficult, slow-moving negotiation with my seven-member house. That’s a lot of busy people to wrangle together for face-to-face meetings, especially when they’re long and drawn out and exhausting. The momentum would fail if we weren’t using email to keep things on the rails, supporting our in-person conversations. New technology is helping us work out our problems in ways that were impossible before.
But all these ways to converse require different social skills, many of which are brand new to the species. When the same conversation inevitably jumps from in-person to text message to email, it’s hard to adjust to the new environment on the fly, especially when the topic is difficult. When you’re stressed out at work and decide to relieve the pressure by checking your social networks, only to see someone has posted an article that offends and enrages you, it’s easy to take your stress out on that person and call them an idiot or a racist when you don’t have to do so to their face. It’s easier to slip out of a mindful posture without the in-person reminders we’ve evolved to expect. Offline social graces are hard enough, but online manners are even harder to control.
One major problem is that it’s hard to remain present in the body during an online conversation. When we don’t feel people’s eyes on us, we might be less mindful of how we’re carrying our body, and we might be curled up and defensive or tense and shaky without realizing it. We’re concentrating harder on the message, on the virtual thing that we’re sending, so we’re paying less attention to the feelings behind it. Those feelings are what give rise to our words and actions, but without mindfulness of the feelings, our reactions to them are out of control. Our own feelings are hard enough to watch when we’re riled up in conversation. It’s all the more difficult to be mindful of the embodied feelings of the person on the receiving end of our words, about whom we have barely any clues.
It’s easy for able-bodied and neurotypical people to take conversation skills for granted. Learning them is just part of growing up. It’s easy not to think about how much harder conversation is for someone who is blind or deaf, or who is developmentally less able to read social cues from facial expressions. People with those obstacles struggle to adjust and keep up with what can seem like impossible social demands.
The constraints of online communication can suddenly put otherwise able-bodied and able-minded people into a comparable situation, only they aren’t used to struggling to hold a conversation, so it frequently goes awry. Internet fights go on and on, continuing long after anyone’s getting anything valuable from them. People just can’t empathize as easily with people who aren’t—or at least don’t appear to be—right in front of them. I’m sure that will change over generations, but we have to help that process along right now. We have to teach and practice mindfulness as a prerequisite for all encounters online and off. Our relationships depend on it.
Perhaps we should use visualization exercises to help with our online empathy. Before we hit send, we could check in with our body and make sure we feel good about what we’re about to say. Then we can imagine the recipient on the other end of the line, sitting at the screen on their desk or scrolling on their phone with their thumb, the excitement in their eye as they’re notified of the new message, the emotion on their lips as they read the response. No matter what kind of conversation we’re in, we can always remember there’s a human being just as fragile and complicated as ourselves on the other side.
Excerpted from In Real Life: Searching for Connection in High-Tech Times by Jon Mitchell © 2015, Parallax Press. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.