Is Technology Dehumanizing Society?

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In my recent trend piece, From Second Silicon Valley Gold Rush to Angel Investment Bubble, These Are the Tech Trends to Watch, I concluded with the following thought:

The Dehumanization of Society: Technology has created tremendous opportunities for the world to shrink through communication, collaboration, and cloud-based productivity tools. But it has created immense opportunities for wasting time. On Facebook. On Twitter. On stupid games. Human beings are losing their ability to communicate in person. To smile at each other. To converse. To enjoy a meal together without looking at their smartphones. To look into each other’s eyes. To touch. To honor food that someone else has cooked with love and care. To be present in the moment without interruption. This is a tremendous loss that cannot be quantified.

Richard Rauser disagreed with me, and commented:

Thanks, Sramana, for such a thoughtful post and I agree with you on most points, but I couldn’t disagree more on the last relating to the “dehumanization of society.” This meme seems to rear its head everywhere these days, yet such claims are almost unequivocally unsubstantiated. I would love to see a solid set of empirical evidence that backs up this assertion, because it contrasts so significantly with my own experience.

If anything, technology has allowed me many more opportunities to make and enhance real-world interpersonal connections, whether that be a serendipitous encounter facilitated by social media that might otherwise be missed, the vastly superior efficiencies of using technology to arrange social occasions, sharing experiences captured in photos or video, and myriad other ways. I just don’t personally perceive this supposed erosion of human interaction. I only see it greatly augmented and enhanced.

I responded:

You are right that people are connecting with one another more digitally, and social media, photo sharing, etc. have been good additives in that respect. But my observation is that people don’t do as much face to face, in person … that’s what I am calling out.

Richard countered:

Actually this is just what I meant. Technology facilitates more face-to-face interaction than I would have in my life otherwise… e.g. the ease with which I can organise social outings via FB, MeetUp, Eventbrite, Whatsapp, etc, the serendipitous real-world encounters created when FB, Swarm, etc let’s me know someone else is nearby, or real-world moments shared simply watching videos or sharing photos. I’m just not buying this supposed erosion of face-to-face interaction as the evidence supplied in its favour is almost always anecdotal. It pulls at people’s heart strings and makes for a tear-wrenching story of the supposed deterioration of the human condition, but it strikes me as hogwash.

My response:

I will give you a trend as a counter example, although, by and large, I do not disagree with you that many more interactions are happening today due to social media than would be possible otherwise.

I’ve been at many restaurants, including very high-end, Michelin starred ones, where the waiters complain, and I have seen with my own eyes, that a couple sits across from each other, heads down, typing on their smartphones. They are not communicating with each other across the table. (Perhaps they are sending texts to each other, I don’t know!) Some take pictures of the food to post online. Meanwhile, the food goes cold. They then call the waiter and complain that the food isn’t warm. Well, it was, when it was served. Personally, I find the trend quite annoying.

But like you, I do enjoy the ability to keep in touch with a much larger number of people around the world – friends, family, business contacts – on a semi-regular basis, using social media. I also enjoy the chance encounters and the ability to collaborate widely. My entire business is based on this assumption that we can, indeed, do virtual incubation on a global scale.

So, thank you for the counter points you’ve made here. They are valid and worth pointing out.

The topic is an important one. I would love to hear more of your thoughts, and learn about the trends you are observing. Please weigh in.

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