Another Fine Mess?

Dr. Alex Lickerman is a physician and former Director of Primary Care at the University of Chicago and has been a practicing Buddhist since 1989.
— from the “About” page of http://www.happinessinthisworld.com/

Dr. Lickerman wrote about some of my favorite things: technology and relationships. A while back a good friend linked to this article on Facebook; some interesting conversations ensued, and oh my gosh, I have so many thoughts about this. Some of the thoughts are spurred from the FB conversations, but some arise from my navel. I don’t know about yours, but my navel is a demanding body feature. It has let my fingers know they’d better get busy putting some of these thoughts down, or else.

Ruining Relationships, or The Chicken/Egg Conundrum

I can’t be certain without spending time I don’t have looking it up (aka “Googling”), but I believe the notion that the Internet is addicting arose in the 1990s and has been with us since. The American Society of Addiction Medicine has this definition for addiction: “Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. This is reflected in the individual pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors. Addiction is characterized by impairment in behavioral control, craving, inability to consistently abstain, and diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships.

There are stories. Find them in your newspaper, in women’s magazines, and on Dr. Phil: Children whose schoolwork suffers, partners who split, scary tales of desperate people meeting up with psychopathic axe murderers in the hopes of finding true love; the list goes on.

Like any addiction, the real cost, for those of us who are truly addicted, is to the number and quality of our relationships with others. […] The problem, however, comes when we find ourselves subtly substituting electronic relationships for physical ones or mistaking our electronic relationships for physical ones.

I have a data point of one. I am divorced. I admit that my relationship with my former husband was worsened by my obsessive use of the Internet and I further admit I could have and should have paid a lot more attention to my children during their teen years. With respect to the marital relationship, however, I contend that there is a race between the chicken and the egg. Had my relationship with my ex been more whole to start, would I have sought comfort hitchhiking along the Info Superhighway? More to the point of Dr. Lickerman’s article, did I increase my isolation as a result? My marriage had lots of issues that, perhaps with time and determined effort, could have been worked through. Or perhaps not. Irrespective of its demise, did the friendships I gained during my years of heavy Internet involvement cause me more problems? Or did I increase the number, and perhaps the quality of my personal interactions?

I have a large number of genuine, in-depth conversations with people I know almost exclusively on-line. They share candid details of their lives in thought-provoking ways, and often spur a lot of soul-searching within me. I have grown in ways I never did with my physical-world relationships. I contend, here, that it was the access to a richer field of possible friendships that made this possible. The folk to whom I had intimate access in my locale, while wonderful and worthwhile people, were not people with whom I resonated. Is this, again, an egg and chicken thing, though? Did I decrease my interactions with local friends so that I could pay more attention to my “safe” and on-line friends? Did I derive a feeling of isolation from my local, physical environment, choosing not to pursue more in-depth interactions with these people because of my addiction to the on-line life?
I am convinced that I have always been prone to a more hermit-like, solitary existence. I have already written about having imaginary playmates as a child, and being painfully shy and withdrawn. The Internet provided me with a way to let my real personality bloom and I credit my years playing with trolls on the InterThingie with giving me the spine to let that personality shine in my real life.

Interestingly, The Pew Internet Research Center reported researchthat finds that people who regularly use social networking sites such as Facebook have significantly more close relationships and higher social support than the average American.

Isolation and the New Work Place

If, as Dr. Lickerman contends, too much reliance on on-line interactions is indeed fostering a growing isolation among us, how does this translate to how we conduct our day to day lives? What is the impact to our psychological well-being?

[…]we write things like “LOL” and “LMOA” to describe our laughter, but they’re no real substitute for hearing people laugh, which has real power to lift our spirits when we’re feeling low.

Dr. Lickerman is exactly right with that observation. No matter how truly warm my Internet relationships have seemed, there is no replacement for real laughter. In that picture-worth-a-thousand-words sense, so much can take place when you simply exchange glances with a real person sitting across from you. No amount of imagination or written words can ever fill the need for the reassuring touch of a hand, or the warmth of an embrace.
What about the work-place? I have had some experiences with remote and computer-based interactions at my former company. There, as the local work force was thinned and the global work force expanded, office and project communications moved from the physical meeting rooms, hallways, water coolers and cubicles to the telephone and the computer, and even then began to move from cubicles in the office building to home offices. We moved from having to dress decently and congregate under the fluorescent lights to an isolation that brought with it the potential for hunkering, unshowered and semi-clothed, over the keyboard in a darkened, sealed room. Interactions with other human beings could now take place via instant messaging and e-mail.

I hailed this as finally permitting me to be more efficient. Gone were long commutes, time and effort spent on making myself presentable, walks to distant restrooms. I could focus on my work, even while in a meeting! Multi-tasking was king!

I think Asimov wrote about a society like that in one of his series.

Anyway, moving from there to a different company that still operates using 90s technology and 70s mentality was quite a culture shock, but I was very pleased to actually see people again. And the big change was that these people were smiling and laughing and even hanging out with one another doing stuff on weekends and after work. The village was back!

Along with the village came the personality conflicts. I had been there but one day and already I had a parade of people coming into my cube and whispering to me. “Watch out for so-and-so. She is quite the little back stabber. If she gets pissed off at you, she’ll escalate instantly.” Such-and-so had “issues” and was “difficult.” Meanwhile, Such-and-so came to me to let me know that the person who had just cautioned me had “issues” and was “difficult.”

Is the As The World Turns mentality really necessary for our personal growth?

Confrontation

People are often uncomfortable with face-to-face confrontation, so it’s easy to understand why they’d choose to use the Internet. Precisely because electronic media transmit emotion so poorly compared to in-person interaction, many view it as the perfect way to send difficult messages: it blocks us from registering the negative emotional responses such messages engender, which provides us the illusion we’re not really doing harm. Unfortunately, this also usually means we don’t transmit these messages with as much empathy, and often find ourselves sending a different message than we intended and breeding more confusion than we realize.

If you weren’t sitting at your computer right now reading this, but were instead in my house as I type this, you’d see me raising my hand. (Side note: makes typing more difficult.) I am a warrior when it comes to on-line confrontation. In person? Not so much. Don’t make eye contact, they’ll sense your fear and go for your throat!

I’ve had mixed results here. I have enjoyed successes in dealing with conflict and confrontation when I handled it via e-mail. We got to martial our defenses, didn’t feel like we were put on the spot, had time to consider our responses, and both found relief by expressing ourselves in what we felt was our best light. No reddening of the face. No tears in the voice.

I have also had it go badly, badly bad. I’ve had something small explode with nuclear force because the wrong emotion was read into the statement. I’ve seen my words come back to me, turned inside out because the context was not understood, or was filtered through the emotions and expectations of the recipient.

I took a class offered by my company on how to have effective conversations and one of the conversation types they focused on was “confrontational conversations.” They suggested a strategy of putting together a 60 second pitch outlining the issue to be discussed, its impact on others(presumably you, maybe your family, your project, your community, whatever), an explicit example of the issue, how you personally feel about it, and maybe what you hope to resolve concerning it. Then you ask the confronted person for his or her thoughts on it, and you listen. You ask questions designed to get the two of you to the resolution. You may resolve it. You may end up, after a few moments of dialogue, realizing you’ll never meet eye to eye.

I wonder if sometimes a combination of e-mail and this … talking thing … might not be effective. Draft the 60 second pitch into an e-mail and set up a meeting to discuss it?

Difficult to say. I’ve tried the confrontational conversation exactly one time, and it was very difficult for me, with my personality. Red face. Difficulty making eye contact. Wanting to apologize for daring to be irked. That sort of thing.

And Finally, Same Ol’ Same Ol’

The Internet is an amazing tool. But even as it’s shrunk the world and brought us closer together, it’s threatened to push us further apart. Like any useful tool, to make technology serve us well requires the exercise of good judgment.

But this is not new stuff. I was researching this and finding the same cautionary words back when I was writing a monthly column on parenting in the computer age. The list of do’s and don’ts Dr. Lickerman provides could have come from one of those “How To Use E-mail” courses they made us take back in the late nineties at work.

And yet … we do seem to be withdrawing from one another as a society, even as we expand to embrace one another through all this online social interaction.

Even as a person should not overeat (except when it comes to bacon, or chocolate, or cupcakes), perhaps a person ought not overdo his on-line life.
If you made it this far, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Meet at my house, 5PM, bring goodies. I’ll provide the beer, wine and dog hair.