Has Social Media Made Us Happy, Silent and Alone?

small boy looking at the monitor“The history of our use of technology is a history of isolation desired and achieved.” ~Stephen Marche

On Monday, many Chicago attorneys, not at all eager to venture into the Polar Vortex, worked from home. They kept in contact with clients and colleagues through a combination of online servers, emails, cell phones, instant messaging and social media. Ten years ago, this might not have been possible. But now, in our Cloud-based reality, working as a lawyer from home isn’t as far-fetched as it might once have been.

While the legal profession hasn’t quite reached the work-from-home plateau of other professions, we’re certainly doing our best to get there. Yes, there are times when face time is required – depositions, court appearances, motion hearings and jury trials haven’t gone online just yet. However, in a world where we can draft wills over e-mail, investigate witnesses on Facebook, perform due diligence in a virtual data room and close deals via Telepresence, it’s clear that the technological revolution of our legal profession is here, and here to stay.

But at what cost?

In the extraordinary new movie, “Her,” a man in the not-so-distant future falls in love with a Siri-like operating system on his smartphone. And he’s not alone. Throughout the movie, Los Angelenos of the future form deep and meaningful relationships with their OSs. Which is better, and why? The movie leaves the answer up to you.

After the movie, my husband asked me when I thought the movie was set. I responded, half-jokingly, “2014?”

Remember this iPad baby seat? Parents were furious. Having a baby stare at a tablet all day? Outrageous. But I’m guessing the billion-dollar Fisher Price toy empire knows exactly where the future lies. By the time those babies become parents, they won’t understand objecting to a device that makes their children happy by keeping them silent and having them play alone. They won’t, because many of them are the same way right now.

Have you gone to a restaurant with children in the last five years? If the children are between the ages of, say, 3 and 10, you might see a bit of “Her” right there. Children, huddled over a mobile device, engrossed in the screen in front of them to the exclusion of everything else. Zoned out and zoned in, mobile technology has created a Screen Generation that is perfectly happy keeping silent and playing alone. Same goes for the commuters on trains, parents on couches, and of course, for attorneys drafting, writing, emailing, and reviewing, in high-rise offices around the world. For much of our day, we work silently and we work alone. (Whether we’re happy is a whole other discussion).

Of course, those of us staring at our screens don’t see it that way. We may be silent and alone to the person next to us, but not to ourselves. We have dozens of colleagues and clients we’re working with online and hundreds of friends we chat with on social media. In the time it took you to read this paragraph, we’ve already sent out seventeen emails, twenty-three texts, and one soon-to-be-regretted Snapchat video.

However, the reality is that while we do still meet and socialize in person, we also spend a great deal of our day and night not talking to the person right next to us, whether that person be a co-worker or a spouse or a child. We play on phones, listen to music, stare at computer screens, reply to emails, and eat while we check in with our friends (both real and anonymous) online. One day, a time traveler from the past might look in on us and say, “Wow, they are silent. And alone. I wonder if they’re happy?”

But what are we missing? To quote Marissa Mayer, who famously banned certain work-from-home arrangements, “[While] people are more productive when they’re alone…they’re more collaborative and innovative when they’re together.”

It’s that loss of group interaction, the absence of social cues that arise out of in-person relationships, that those who critique the virtualization of communication point to. M.I.T. professor Sherry Turkle wrote that all we do now is enjoy little “sips” of online connections, connections which have wholly substituted real conversation. The consequence: “As we ramp up the volume and velocity of online connections, we start to expect faster answers. To get these, we ask one another simpler questions; we dumb down our communications, even on the most important matters. It is as though we have all put ourselves on cable news.”

A recent study out of the University of Southern California corroborates this conclusion. The study found that it takes 4-6 seconds to process stories of virtue or social pain in others. Replacing that time with a constant, non-stop information barrage could negatively affect both our empathy and our morality. Similarly, a 2012 study out of the University of Essex concluded that while mobile telephones can facilitate certain connections, they disrupt human bonding and intimacy particularly when it comes to discussing personally meaningful topics.

Unsurprisingly, not everyone agrees that our virtual reality is taking us one step closer to social apocalypse. As one Microsoft researcher points out, every time a new technology comes around, it is accompanied by the fear that we will lose or lessen our human connections. Humans adapt instead. Another researcher concludes: “While the loss of nonverbal behaviors can negatively impact the quality of communication through electronic channels, it rarely caused permanent damage to close relationships.” And as The Atlantic argues, social media isn’t destroying our relationships; it’s enhancing them.

“All data I’ve seen say that people who use social media are either also more social offline; or that they have benefited from social media to keep in touch with people they otherwise could not; or that many people find fellows, peers and like-minded individuals they otherwise could not find. In other words, texting, Facebook-status updates, and Twitter conversations are not displacing face-to-face socializing — on average, they are making them stronger.”

Happy, silent and alone. Like everything, there are benefits and drawbacks. As a profession, let’s keep embracing the future, but at the same time, let’s reflect on what we’re losing from the past. If for nothing else, do it for that baby on her bouncy seat staring at her tablet computer. Give her a chance for a future with someone other than Siri.

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