The railway platform was crowded and buzzing with conversation along the lines of “Mornin’ Bob – how’s the kids?” On the train, those not catching a bit of sleep discussed, argued and shared items from the daily paper.
In London recently, I went to town during the morning commute. The railway platform was crowded and quiet. Rows of commuters stood with heads down gazing at a screen, with thumbs rapidly moving. On the train the journey was hushed.
Similarly in Canada. I am an Eastern Health frequent-flyer. At one time, in the doctor’s office, you chatted to other patients. Now there are the bent necks and thumbs. Doctors are seeing painful results from hunching over a device for too long, resulting in upper back muscle strain, a condition called “text neck” — of special concern for teenagers whose spines are still developing.
Social media supporters say there is more human interaction via the various platforms because we are able to connect with anyone, exchanging photos, news, opinions and discussing human affairs. This is misleading on two counts.
First: complete communication takes place face-to-face and has two components, the spoken word and the accompanying body language. When we listen we are also, consciously or unconsciously, making judgments about, for example, the sincerity or truthfulness of the speaker. We are interpreting feelings, attitudes and moods, through body posture, facial expression and eye movement. None of which is possible on the little screen.
Of course, the opportunities for face-to-face conversations are relatively limited, but at least we can be aware that the screen may not tell the whole or the truthful story.
When and how spoken word evolved is much debated academically. Certainly it was a long time ago, before which our ancestors communicated with expressions, gestures and vocal sounds (plus grunting, probably). The ability to interpret these signs became imbedded in our nature, and is still used today (minus grunting, hopefully). Politicians’ media training includes body language. (Donald Trump frequently uses an oratorical gesture favoured by Marcus Tullius Cicero around 63 BC — watch the president’s right hand).
Second: the promise of social media opening up the world to free discussion has not been realized. Instead, the like-minded coalesce and reinforce their beliefs within their own bubble or echo chamber. Those expressing alternatives are excluded, especially those with views contrary to today’s popular morality but dare not utter them lest they are ridiculed or abused. This is unhealthy.
Used carefully and critically, the interconnectivity through internet is of value in research, education, government and commerce. As for socializing, well, users will make of it what they must.
The internet is a powerful tool, but one with a sharp edge. Caution is required.