Technology has impacted the ways we communicate in profound ways; both positively and negatively. While innovations like the phone and internet have made communication more accessible, they have also altered the quality of those interactions; often replacing face to face communications and relationships with digital versions. With important exceptions to be discussed later, advancements have generally led to interactions accompanied by sensory disengagement and greater isolation. While some innovations have re-engaged the senses; for example, video communications, the overall trajectory of recent history points towards increased preference and reliance on sensory deprived interactions.
The Phone and Internet
Before the advent of the telephone, spoken interactions required people to be within visual proximity. While invention and advancements in telephone technology increased communication accessibility, inherent to the interaction is visual disengagement; the eyes can no longer see with whom we are communicating. The internet and other modern digital advancements have generally amplified the same effects; increasing communication accessibility, while further disengaging the senses from the interaction.
For example, we might send to someone a text message, a communication greatly deprived of visual and auditory engagement, over a face to face interaction. While endless variables might necessitate one specific delivery method over another, we often have a choice; perhaps between a phone call or text message. Under such circumstances, we might be surprised at how often we choose detached structures for our interpersonal engagements. For example, perhaps text messages and emails are often easier; we have time to process and respond; there are no uncomfortable silences; we can avoid the awkward stumbling to find a conversational rhythm with a new telephone partner. However, in choosing a type of communication that is seemingly easier, we are also choosing further detachment and isolation.
Sensory Deprived Communication; The Negatives
By minimizing the intensity that stems from sensory engagement, some people feel more emboldened to behave and express thoughts and feelings that otherwise might be kept to themselves. We see the ugly side of this all the time; when people post hateful messages or send unsolicited nude photographs. Protected by the anonymity of online discourse, many behave differently than they would in person; as our screens disconnect and isolate us from each other’s humanity.
When our communication embodies an environment divorced from the senses, our commonalities blur. In other words, when we can’t see or hear with whom we are communicating, we become partially disconnected from their humanity. The more our senses envelop an interaction, the more likely we are to recognize our reflections in the person with whom we communicate. In other words, if they look and sound like us, they probably share many of our same experiences; the triumphs and sorrows inherent to this human life. When the senses are partially divorced from the interaction, all we see are words on a screen; an idea detached from the human source behind them.
Hateful Moments Don’t Equate to a Hateful Person
However, let us not confuse many of the online remarks and behaviors as representations of a person’s absolute authenticity. In other words, a hateful statement online represents a hateful moment; not necessarily a hateful person. The online assertions are momentary personal truths that reflect the disconnection provided by a barrier; the screen.
The reason why people don’t share the same beliefs in person isn’t necessarily because they are scared to state their true beliefs; but rather, the truth has changed to reflect new sensory information that reveals the humanity before them. In seeing you, they see themselves. Consequently, it becomes easier to recognize that any heinous message to another would also be an act of masochism; a hateful message to themselves.
Assessing our own Choices
While we might attribute the above examples to other people, perhaps we can notice the subtle influence these barriers have on our own tweets, posts, and text messages. Maybe we can pause to consider how the message we are about to send is influenced by the disconnecting fibers of the barriers in front of us.
Sensory Deprived Communication; The Positives
While it’s easy to pile on the popular notion that modern technologies have an adverse impact on the quality of our communication and wellness, let us at least recognize some benefits that are often ignored.
Have you ever noticed that it sometimes feels easier to write a message to someone about an emotionally sensitive topic, rather than to communicate in person or over the phone? While this route is sometimes employed inappropriately and disrespectfully to avoid uncomfortable but necessary conversations, it also allows for the safe expression of truths that might forever remain hidden.
For example, while ending a serious relationship through a text message might be easier; avoiding and minimizing the discomfort and intensity of our partner’s response, it ultimately disrespects the person by marginalizing them and the relationship. However, conversely, a detached form of communication can provide a safe conduit through which severed relationships can begin reparation, healing, and reconnection; creating a safe environment to unearth the buried past; to provide voice to the previously unexpressed; and potentially opening new pathways to the fertile grounds of vulnerability, acceptance and greater intimacy.