“Things are in the saddle and ride mankind.”


Smartphones, text messaging, and social media seem to consume more of our time each year, and are so much a part of everyday life that it is difficult to imagine living without them. They are so inescapable and ubiquitous that one might think that they are somehow necessary, and some very young people may even believe that, for all other people as for them, these things were always there, always a part of life, allowing a person to touch base, to keep up, and of course, to “like.”

And yet they remain relatively recent cultural phenomena. I look back no farther than about ten years ago, when I was in my mid-twenties, and recall a very different world, and a very different social scene. Back in 2004 it was much more common for me to meet new people simply by talking with a stranger, at a bar, a cafe, or wherever. In 2014, this is much less common.

Social interaction is now frequently buffered by a machine. As a result, people become less interested in striking up random conversations, and more and more, they don’t know how to. And so it happens that trying to share meaningful words with a human being I do not know is often a dull and flat experience. The interlocutor is inadequate. One comes away feeling stale, and even more bored and lonely, though deep down it’s boredom and loneliness that drive people together after all.

There can be no doubt, to anyone of a certain age, that the art of carrying on a polite and intelligent adult conversation is regressing in America. This, of course, is part of our more general cultural breakdown. Just as people no longer know how to date, and just as honor and the belief that you should keep your word are antiquated things, so one of the most basic social skills—the ability to engage other people in a friendly, substantive way—is becoming outdated like VHS and Nintendo.

Technology reduces engagement with others

Why, then, are so many Americans—and millennials in particular—lacking in conversational skills? What is the problem when it comes to articulating what we think and feel? Perhaps it is that, in situations where previous generations interacted in person with fellow human beings, today people simply press buttons on a screen. This is cold, impersonal and isolating. Instead of nurturing development, it stunts development.

A machine places other people at least one level of removal away from us. The depth of our engagement will be limited by the nature of the medium. Now there’s no tone or body language in a text message or an email. And the representations we get on social media are nowhere near as rich and revealing as those in real life, where nuanced perception enables us to see what people endeavor to conceal, and what, in some instances, they themselves are not even aware of.

Words and images, in any medium, are no substitute for people themselves; if most of your interactions with other people are in the form of text messages, as opposed to the natural context in which you see other people and hear their tone, then your conversational skills—and social skills generally—are bound to be inept.

The sense of what makes a life significant—what gives it meaning and a sense of forward drive—is marked by complex relationships. Navigating any one of those relationships—whether it’s between two best friends, a parent and a child, longtime lovers, or whatever—requires the ability to empathize with others, to interpret not just their language, but also their tone, eye contact and gestures.

Of course, all this can only happen in the flesh, face to face. So, if you place a machine between people, a remove that deprives human interaction of its extraordinary richness and depth, then social retardation must be the inevitable result. This retardation may be a new phenomenon, but it has already had widespread pernicious effects. We have little idea of just how far recent technology will go in shaping human nature for the worst, but there is no doubt that it is doing so, nor is there any reason to think this trend will not go on apace.

A troubling increase in the transactionality of human interaction

Immanuel Kant taught that we should never value other people for merely utilitarian reasons; we must recognize their inherent dignity. Yet the truth is that human beings are naturally so self-interested that treating others as a means to our own ends appears to be our natural inclination. The hard conditioning of morality, occurring first in the family (always a complicated and, in some respects, fraught moral place), is needed for us to learn not to treat people like this.

But smart phones, texting and social media create huge obstacles for moral growth, in other words, to becoming a moral human being. For they allow us to deal with others only when its convenient. In fact, by their very nature, they seem to promote this. And more and more, there is effectively no difference between a person and the image of that person, or between a person and the sense of him one gets via text or email, both quite limited forms of language which lend themselves readily to misunderstanding.

We cannot overestimate the significance of this fact: that today, more and more, people are perceived and their value is determined in mediums in which they are not physically there. Hence our perception of and regard for them is bound to be quite limited. Who cares about other people’s feelings when, for the most part, other people amount to nothing but texts, profiles and images? Hence today people flake, where in the past a person kept his word or promise simply because you’re supposed to. The notion of being supposed to do something certainly was much more meaningful in only the recent past, when people as such were not filtered through technology.

If you are a keen student of human nature, then you are necessarily aware of how poor people are at understanding one another, so that a certain amount of solipsism is inevitable in every life. For all sorts of reasons, from differences of personal experience to differences of age, gender, and culture, we frequently misunderstand other people. We misperceive their intention, or attribute a false one to them, though of course we don’t know that we do. That last clause is the most important one. For it isn’t just that we are ignorant of others—of their intentions, motives, values, beliefs, fears, insecurities, and so much more—we are ignorant of our ignorance. We are unaware that we often don’t get people right, and vice versa.

Why we can no longer understand our fellow man

Meanwhile, smart phones, texting, and social media condemn us to lives of even more impenetrable solipsism. Human beings are remarkably complex creatures. We are set in motion by forces beyond our control, we are governed by forces over which we can have only limited control, and we consist of contradictions. Knowing what another human being is, how he came to be that way, what he wants or expects from you: essential knowledge such as this requires tremendous nuance, and it’s only through interacting with others in person over and over again that we can transition from having the rudimentary social skills of childhood to those of a fully formed adult. Nor can this happen if friendship means social media profiles and our primary mode of communication is a medium which reduces language to its most impersonal form.

A young person sets out in life overflowing with phantasmal hopes and expectations. Time thwarts many of these, with the result that a mature adult is marked by at least some hard-won wisdom. But here too recent technology serves as an impediment. Smart phones and social media, it is true, give us access to countless people whom we would not engage otherwise. And that seems to be a good thing, on the face of it. But then we find that dating, for example, becomes a kind of buffet in which the goal is not to nurture oneself through a healthy and happy relationship, but to entertain the overwhelming abundance of options. Which great catch, out of your 500+ Tinder matches, shall realize your pursuit of happiness?

Alas, good team members, meaningful relationships are not so easy or superficial. If a person matters to us, then we are willing to compromise for them. We are willing to put up with them, to suffer with them. We do not act as if they no longer exist once an awkward moment arises. But this recent technology, because of how it affects human nature, lends itself wonderfully to that fantasy world—that utterly selfish and immoral one—where there are no awkward moments: in the face of them, you can simply go silent (flake), hit “unfriend,” or declare that you “aren’t going to settle” where a person of a previous generation would have been accountable for his behavior.

The price we pay here is immense. A culture where people are conditioned to avoid awkward encounters is also one where people no longer know how to develop satisfying relationships, where the hard work of being a good friend or husband, or a loyal employee or boss, is conveniently avoided. It is just then that all sorts of private addictions, obsessions, neurosis and other disorders of mind and body spring up, problems that were less common in the days when people actually knew how to develop meaningful relationships. Indeed, people are unhappy today because they don’t know how to live.

Finally, a culture where people are conditioned to avoid awkward encounters is also one where such encounters may seem “wrong,” or even “criminal.” Faced with a compliment from a man in whom she is not interested, a millennial woman may see herself as a “victim of harassment.” A generation before she might have said “thanks, but I’m not interested” and kept walking.

Of course, smart phones, social media and texting have their practical uses, and I have no interest in suggesting otherwise. It’s very convenient to be able to look up something on the web wherever I happen to be. Facebook allows me to keep in touch or reconnect with people in ways that a phone does not. If I am on the train and running late for a meeting, I can send someone a brief text, without having to disturb my fellow passengers. And so on.

Still, this recent technology also has many (and perhaps mostly unseen) bad effects. They reinforce, as we have seen, some of the worst aspects of human nature. And they cheapen the quality of human relationships, even as they provide us with a huge variety of people and interactions.

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote that “The Machine endangers all we have made./ We allow it to rule instead of obey.” The poet’s insight seems even more apt now than when the lines were written. Technology should serve and enrich human life. Mere gadgets, however useful and convenient, should not blind us to the wonder of being alive. Nor should they keep us from trying to know and understand other people in non-superficial ways.

So spend less time with our time’s machines. Turn off your phone and log out of Facebook for a while. Do not let technology rule—make it obey. Let your friends be able to hear your voice and to see your eyes. Look around you. The world is uncanny, a strange mystery to face.

Read More: American Cultural Trends And The Future