The digital disconnect: In relentless pursuit of 'connecting,' we miss out on each other
While communication and gaming gadgets have convenienced and connected us in ways never before possible, they may also be profoundly hurting our ability to be social, empathic and involved with each other. The signs are everywhere — from the near collisions on city streets where drivers are too busy texting to pay attention to the virtual relationships on Facebook and the addiction to video games.
Just as I set foot into a busy intersection on Fifth Avenue in downtown Seattle, an SUV appears in the corner of my eye, and it's not slowing down.
As it speeds closer to the crosswalk, I notice the woman driving it has a mobile phone held to her ear. Does she even realize she's running a red light?
Suddenly, as if an alarm bell has gone off in her head, she slams on the brakes and stops so close to me I could reach out and tap on her driver's-side window. We lock faces. She's in shock. Her eyes widen with an "Oops, my bad" contrition.
I'm peeved. And I flash back a glare that retorts, "Yeah, damn right it is."
Funny thing is, in this whole 10-second episode, the driver never takes the phone from her ear. Satisfied she hasn't mowed down a pedestrian, she waves demurely, continues chatting and speeds right off.
If this incident was just a road-safety matter, that would be bad enough. After all, phoning and texting while driving are epidemic in this country, with cities and states either passing laws or, as is the case here, pushing to strengthen laws aimed at people who do it.
The danger on our roads is clear.
The much bigger question is whether something profound is happening with the way we use technology in our everyday lives.
We're entering uncharted territory as phones and computers get smarter and tools like Facebook and Twitter take their place on the social-networking landscape next to cafes, the public square and cocktail hour.
A recent Harris Interactive poll found that the average Internet user spends 13 hours online each week, e-mailing not included. A decade ago, the number was almost half that. According to a report from the University of California at San Diego, the average American consumes a brain-exploding 34 gigabytes of content and either sees or hears 100,000 words each day, from the Web to TV to text messages.
The wave of new traffic laws is but one symptom of an uneasy feeling that something's out of balance in a world where the Blackberry has jokingly been dubbed "Crackberry" by owners who can't seem to put it away even in social settings.
A cynic might say we're literally and virtually surrounding ourselves with this stuff, cocooning ourselves in webs of friends both real and fake with no concern about the distinction, filling the dead air of our mundane lives with tweets, texts, online alter egos . . . and ill-timed but seemingly urgent phone chats.
Here, people you think you know can click on your name and either add you to their lives or delete you in an instant. No muss, no fuss. It's all so impersonal yet hard not to take personally.
Connecting with people a more traditional way, like writing letters or spending face time with acquaintances or clinking glasses at a bar and batting eyes the way people hook up in the movies, can feel like a clunky vestige of another era.
But our relentlessly multitasking society's message is either learn to thrive in this fast-moving new realm or miss out.
"I tell my students all the time, 'You're being sent a double message by your culture,' " says David Levy, a technologist at the University of Washington Information School who focuses on quality-of-life and attention-span issues in our quickening digital age. "The very device, the laptop, which has become an essential tool for learning, is the same device that brings them music and their Facebook friends and pornography. The very device that's making possible whole new kinds of learning is also the source of endless distraction."
He says he hears from students all over the country that they want to scale back the time they spend online and devote more hours to quiet time.
"I'm now convinced that we in the older generation are missing a chance to have a real conversation with younger people about this."
By the time people reach the forested Internet addiction recovery center outside of Fall City known as reStart, the time for pre-emptive action has long since passed.
This is where counselors Hilarie Cash and Cossette Rae treat clients who are holed up in their Internet bubbles, sometimes after losing partners, jobs and homes because of their problem. ReStart, which opened in August, is the first rehab center in the nation aimed solely at helping a new category of addict that researchers are still working to understand. By February, eight people had completed the program.
What's not new, perhaps, is the reason people come to depend on their virtual tools and worlds. "I think what we do is seek emotional satisfaction through texting or the Internet," says Cash, who became intrigued by the Internet obsession in the mid-1990s after meeting her first video-game addict. The problem is "it's like satisfying hunger by eating sugar."
It becomes a vicious spiral.
"If we give up real-life social experience, then I think we starve ourselves of what we need emotionally," Cash says.
She once treated an addict of the popular role-play game World of Warcraft who went from being socially adept to feeling completely inept. The more he played online games, the more he regressed.
"He had to rewire," she says.
Cash notes humans learn to bond with each other, to attach emotionally, in early childhood, then cultivate that impulse through a lifetime of interactions. But the brain is susceptible to experiences that override our ingrained behaviors.
Cash has treated gaming addicts who were so withdrawn they were no longer able to look another person in the eyes.
One UW student and gaming addict forged academic transcripts for three years to fool his parents into thinking he was doing well in his classes. He wasn't even attending them. "That's not an anomaly," Cash says of clients she's worked with over the past decade.
One day at reStart, a woman named Peggy waits for her teenage son to finish a counseling session and explains what happened when he developed what appeared to be an addiction to World of Warcraft. By his senior year of high school, he was playing more and more frequently, sometimes missing school.
She'd take away his computer's power cords or Internet router, but he always found a way around her restrictions.
"I had the computer locked in the cabinet at one point, and he took the lock off the cabinet to get it out," Peggy says.
It was clear something deeper than a gaming obsession was happening with her son."The addiction had gotten so far ahead of those underlying issues that you can't get to them," Peggy says. Taking on another persona in an online game "was a way for him to escape, have fun and build self-esteem in a nonthreatening way. You become that character in a sense, and that character can gain admiration from other characters, and respect."
Now that Peggy's son has finished the program at reStart, he's allowed to use a computer set up in a common area at the family's home, but his mom has installed software to monitor his use.
Rae, who owns the reStart property with her husband and stays on site 24 hours a day, agrees that it's easy for even the well-adjusted to get sucked in.
"Think about that . . . Every whim and every desire you have can be met through a technical medium. There is at least the potential of the brain saying, 'I would like to have more of that.' "
When that happens, the world outside our windows gets shortchanged.
Western Washington University psychology professor Ira Hyman conducted an intriguing experiment last year that illustrates Rae's point. One of Hyman's students dressed up in a garish clown outfit and rode a unicycle through a busy campus square. When researchers later asked passers-by if they'd seen the clown, only a quarter who'd been talking on their phones said they had.
"Many people feel that they can multitask effectively and still remain aware of the world around them. But the fact is your head is intensely engaged in that conversation," Hyman says. "You are less aware of the world around you and less connected."
Walking the grounds at Heavensfield, the name of Rae's estate, one gets the sense of visiting a summer camp. Rae and Cash point out a petting zoo that former clients built as part of a therapy project to reconnect them with nature and nonelectronic pursuits.
Clients also built a treehouse meeting room and rope bridge perched above a shallow ravine and a climbing wall nearby.
Some of the Internet addicts who show up here are so far gone that simple experiences such as working in a group and chatting across the dinner table have become foreign to them. They need to be shown not just the emotional rewards of physical activities but the basic lessons of human interaction. They must be brought back into the world.
Morbid as the concept of a "Web 2.0 Suicide Machine" may be, the idea took off recently when a Netherlands-based Web site promoted just that program to weary social-networking freaks desperate for a way out of the technology matrix.
"Meet your real neighbors again!" the site implored users of Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and LinkedIn! "This machine lets you delete all your energy-sucking social-networking profiles, kill your fake virtual friends, and completely do away with your Web 2.0 alter ego."
Hundreds signed up for the service before Facebook led the effort to block it.
Recently on TV's "The Colbert Report," Seattle author Sherman Alexie lamented the loss of local bookstores and the rise of reading devices like Amazon's Kindle, but his musings on technology's ability to shape-shift our lives resonated beyond mere grief over the book industry.
"I'm still going to take advantage of the technology," Alexie said then, "but there's still going to be a human element missing . . . that sense of being with people."
Grant Sherrill, a 19-year-old from Shoreline, looks the part of a gaming fan on a recent visit to Best Buy electronics store with his geekster cyborg T-shirt and a handheld Nintendo DS tucked in his coat pocket, just in case the mood strikes.
He thinks of himself as an advocate for responsible gaming and says the issue of obsessive playing has come up with friends.
"A friend told me once that gaming is like drinking," Sherrill says. "You can do it socially with friends and it can strengthen relationships, or you can do it by yourself and it can consume you."
He's a fan of the role-play game series Kingdom Hearts, the first installment of which ironically involves a young man who must protect different virtual worlds from invasion by creatures known as the Heartless.
Sherrill says it's all about drawing a line between your online life and your physical one. A lot of his friends are fellow gamers, and they sometimes gather to play in groups. But at the same time, he's no fan of networking venues like Twitter. He quips that there's nothing he can say in 140 characters that he can't just say to someone whenever they meet in person.
His older sister, Ivy Sherrill, who was shopping with him, knows from experience how obsessive gaming can consume a life.
"My ex used to go on 10-man raids and stay up until 3 in the morning when he wanted to go to bed at 11," the 22-year-old says of a recent World of Warcraft-devoted boyfriend who once made fun of people who were so into gaming.
"He wanted me to play so it could be a bonding experience. I said no."
On a small farm near Woodinville, Alexia Allen brims when talking about being able to walk across her living room again.
She and her husband separated last summer, and one of the factors leading to the break-up was a marital culture clash between Allen's woodsy, Earth-mama pursuits and her husband's love of gadgets and technology, which she says left the living room piled so high with electronics the fireplace disappeared from view.
What also faded, she says now, was the human connection that one expects to forge when two people live together.
A 31-year-old wilderness-survival trainer who exchanges text messages just a couple times a year and uses a computer mostly for work, Allen spent much of her free time in other rooms doing lo-fi things they both used to appreciate like tanning sheep hides, spinning wool and making tools out of deer bones.
With soiled jeans and a makeup-free face that's strikingly handsome in a pioneer woman sort of way, it's certainly hard to imagine Allen hunched over a laptop tweeting her every thought.
Perhaps both her and her husband's lifestyles were pretty out there, but as Allen stands in what's now an eerily empty living room, she waxes philosophical about the potential for modern-day technology to separate us from lived experience — and each other.
"Any technology that insulates me from my essential humanity and my ability to connect with others is worth examining, whether it's made of bone or stone or metal or plastic," Allen says resolutely.
As a couple, she and her husband finally had to confront their lack of bonding, and they had to make a choice.
He moved out in August. By winter, she finally had the fortitude to start hauling away the electronics he left behind.
"I love realizing that I don't need all of that to stay alive," Allen says of 21st-century technology.
"I'm not interested in depriving myself, though. I'm just looking to enhance my life and enrich it, and being able to make choices about the tools I use is enriching."
Tyrone Beason is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer. Ken Lambert is a Seattle Times staff photographer.
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