Technology is more than an abstract concept associated with advanced tools and systems used by businesses and end-users for convenience and automation of complex tasks. It also shapes the way societies and people behave, grow, evolve, and develop, both within their own lives and in their relationships with others. While technology has developed over the millennia that humans have existed - from simple tools such as the wheel, irrigation systems and chariots, to complex tools such as computers, cell phones, the Internet and airplanes - the last century has seen an explosion in technology that has influenced subtle but crucial changes in how humans see the world and interact with others. Specifically, the Internet and mobile devices (i.e. smartphones, tablet computers, mobile gaming systems, etc.) have radically altered the way people interact with each other, since one of the major impacts of technology is the optimization of communication systems in the form of telecommunications and networking. While the Personal Computer and other electronics affected human interaction, they arguably did not have such critical impacts on human sociology until mobile computers came about. Mobile devices brought groundbreaking change to human interaction due to the innate nature of always being connected to the digital world via an easy-to-carry device that one carries around.
The very nature of all technological systems has altered human behaviors and interactions in some negative ways, but has also created unprecedented opportunities for modifying human behaviors in positive ways.
Computer systems and the Internet have altered human interactions arguably in the most critical ways when compared to non-computer technological systems that have been developed in the last few centuries. The alterations in how humans communicate with each other in the modern day - which is largely via smart apps, through the Internet/WiFi - has both good and bad consequences. The wide availability of Internet-capable smart devices means that it is now possible for loved-ones to be in close contact wherever they are on earth (assuming that WiFi is available). The advent of VOIP also allows near-instant communication via the Internet even when cellular service is unavailable. It is easier now than ever for people to stay closer (digitally) to their loved ones when they are physically far apart. Skype, FaceTime, Facebook Messenger Calls, Viber Calls, and WhatsApp calls all give people robust capabilities to utilize the Internet as a platform for global communication. This also translates into the business world where it is not uncommon for global companies to interview clients or prospective personnel using VOIP and messaging apps. Additionally, social media, forums, and the interactive Web 2.0 allow people from all over the world to connect, meet, learn, and grow together over a digital medium. Technology has even transformed certain common behaviors associated with learning about the world and connecting with people around the world. Pen pals, for instance, have largely been replaced with “key pals,” and instead of people going to language centers to learn a language, people often turn to YouTube or podcasts to learn about other cultures and languages.
The effects are not all positive, however. While technology has helped to bridge a global gap by connecting people via the digital world, those who are physically close together are often far apart due to their inability to separate themselves from their mobile devices. This is called Virtual Distance. Additionally, modern Technology is often linked to an over exposure to EMFs, and is linked to excessive blue light exposure, while developing children not only face possible cognitive changes due to constant exposure to the above factors, but often grow up in a possibly more isolated manner due to constantly being “wired” to their smart devices instead of physically spending time with friends.
The Positive Effect
Technology (including both computational and non-computational systems) has helped to bridge a global gap during an age of globalization. This bridge has allowed multitudes to learn about the world, and connect with others, in ways that were previously impossible. Traveling across the world by booking tickets and a hotel from one’s smartphone also allowed for fast, convenient and efficient completion of a desired task (traveling), which, unlike before, does not require a travel agent, thus making the task more streamlined. Online and mobile banking have also largely replaced the need to interact with a bank teller for monetary transactions, as have ATM machines, which save time, resources and overhead, while increasing task efficiency and efficacy.
The Internet has also provided a near unending source of resources, educational materials, and learning systems for people to learn or work from their own home, without interacting with anyone. This has seen an increase in digital nomad word/telecommuting, and distance learning education systems, translating into increased convenience for those on-the-go, but also often has the unintended consequence of students, workers, adults and children losing their social skills due to being increasingly isolated from others.
Additionally, for social interactions, people often meet friends or dates using apps, from the convenience and comfort of their own home. This is contrasted with a previous age of meeting friends and dates via day-to-day mingling outside of one’s own home. The downside to this is a possible prevalence of antisocial behavior and lack of social skill development, where, instead of meeting people in the outside world, some youth are only able to communicate by texting via messaging or dating apps.
Faster and Ease of Communication
Communication, transportation, and interactions with others are faster than ever before, with the advent of airplanes, trains, buses, cars, and computer/mobile messaging and social media apps. Not only are such complex tasks faster, they are often more efficient. In antiquity, it would have taken months, if not years, to travel from one end of the globe to another, or to even make contact with someone from the other side of the world. Today, those tasks can be completed in a day, or within minutes, making living in the modern world much easier and more efficient. For those with a busy lifestyle and for businesses, “time is money,” so saving time and increasing task efficiency is critical.
The Negative Effect
Technology has both eliminated a gap and created one. Virtual distance is the phenomenon where people are physically together but detached from each other due to being completely absorbed with their technological device, such as a laptop or smartphone/tablet (mobile device). This translates to couples, parents and children, and all types of other human interactions being relegated to the background while people are busy connecting with others in digital space via their technological device.
The End of Intimacy
It is not uncommon for people to prefer texting instead of actually meeting, or at the very least, calling and thus hearing another human voice. It is also not uncommon for people to walk around, or even sit with others, head bowed to their digital device without saying a word or even noticing anything about anyone else. Human interactions and relationships have thus largely decreased, while intimacy and human-to-human interactions have been replaced with human-to-machine interactions. Technology has helped to modify human behavior by creating a gap between people and reducing intimacy. In an age where robots and AI are slowly replacing humans within the workplace, this interaction between humans and machines is only set to increase.
Defining Human Interaction
Human interaction can be defined as any action that is taken between two humans, for better or for worse. Sociology is the study of human interactions and relationships, with relation to societies and cultures.
Changing the Rules of Human Interaction
As a globalized world increases the intertwining of societies and cultures - often via technology such as social media and the Internet - many cultures are absorbed by an ever-increasing culture that is heavily reliant upon technology. While telephones, for instance, have existed for many decades, messaging apps and mobile devices have allowed people to adopt brand new behavioral mechanisms that allow for more convenience and streamlined completion of tasks, with the trade-off being reduced human-to-human interactions. For example, it is not uncommon for expats in foreign countries to defer learning the local language, and to use Google Translate and other translation software for communication, which often results in misunderstandings and the creation of a digital wall between the two parties. Technology now serves as a medium for human interactions, which (in the case of computer technology) only increases human-to-machine interactions.
Virtual Distance and the Growing Child
As noted above, the phenomenon of Virtual Distance affects every human on Earth utilizing mobile technology, but is particularly destructive to growing children. Behaviors are rooted in the brain, and due to neuroplasticity and epigenetics, cognitive development also sees the development of psychological factors and human behaviors as a child’s brain “responds” to environmental cues and the behaviors of others. Children learn from observing and interacting with their parents and peers, but their cognitive and psychological development can be hindered, and certain social skills lost or delayed, when they are disconnected from others and overexposed to technology. Reduced human-to-human interactions and increased human-to-machine interactions has the potential to greatly obstruct normal development among children who need healthy human interactions to grow.
The phenomenon of virtual distance also harms the serve and return interaction that shapes brain architecture and neural connections. This interaction is an action-reaction based sociological mechanism where, for instance, a child or infant cries, which should result in a cascade of responses from a parent or other adult. As noted by Harvard, “when an infant or young child babbles, gestures, or cries, and an adult responds appropriately with eye contact, words, or a hug, neural connections are built and strengthened in the child’s brain that support the development of communication and social skills. Much like a lively game of tennis, volleyball, or Ping-Pong, this back-and-forth is both fun and capacity-building. When caregivers are sensitive and responsive to a young child’s signals and needs, they provide an environment rich in serve and return experiences.” (“Serve and Return”). This response can also help to build a child’s empathy and compassion when their own needs are met in an empathetic manner (usually from a parent). This is critical as it is noted that an overuse of technology has often resulted in a lack of empathy among some, who are so disconnected that they are unwilling to engage in helping behaviors.
How is Virtual Distance Affecting Human Relations?
Virtual distance has created a gap between a myriad of types of human relationships, including:
- Couples: It is not uncommon for couples to spend less and less time actually talking with each other, and more time glued to their mobile devices or TV sets.
- Teachers and Students: The advent of tablets, apps and computer devices has seen schools using mobile devices and internet gateways for assignments and learning
- Parents and Children: Often, tablets raise children more than parents do, while a parent’s inability to directly engage with their children often results in disconnected children who have not developed the correct social skills to engage with others in a healthy manner.
- Co-workers: With a modern increase in technology that serves to automate tasks and replace certain non-technological systems, personnel often do not have to interact with other workers as much as before, but often interact more with computer systems. This is even more of an issue with telecommuting and digital nomad work. This often results in a lack of enthusiasm for work and/or a lack of commitment to projects, along with miscommunication and misunderstandings.
One of the main areas of interaction that has been impacted by Virtual Distance and technology besides parenting is dating. With the advent of popular dating apps like Tinder, people do not utilize social skills to meet potential mates, but simply swipe through a “catalog” of people. Additionally, ghosting (simply disappearing from the digital world when one is no longer interested) is often very prevalent, which results from a lack of social skills - or courage - to end a relationship in the old fashioned way. Thus, virtual distance directly results in the reduction of refined social skills that was previously universal.
When Connectivity Really Means Disconnection
Though technology has helped to bridge global gaps, devices and social media/messaging apps, for instance, have largely helped to create a larger disconnect between people. Increased isolation, reduced social interaction and social skills, and increased human-to-machine interactions are all a result of an overuse of technology, which has created a wall between many people globally. Instead of physically experiencing the emotions of another, most people who solely utilize technology for interactions rely on emoticons, for instance. And instead of meeting physically, many people opt to chat via text over the Internet. When meetings do occur, social interactions are often reduced and relegated to chats in between being glued to one’s mobile device.
In the modern day, many people live in the digital world more than the real world. This has often resulted in a myriad of shallow relationships, and a great reduction in intimacy which directly affects the way people operate, the values and expectations people have, and the way people think about others. Technology has shaped the way children see and interact with others and with the world, which greatly affects their development.
But technology does have the ability to bridge gaps when used correctly. It has greatly improved communication worldwide, has increased the efficiency of transportation and other personal and business tasks, and thus has given people all over the world the opportunity to engage with others in a powerful, albeit, different way.