I read an article this morning about a photographer’s project capturing images of people who are together…but separated by their smart phones.
Shortly thereafter, I found myself in a conversation about how online engagement compares to “traditional” civic engagement. That is to say, is engagement online an acceptable replacement for face to face interaction?
This is a hot topic in many spheres – raising important questions about how we act and interact. Does digital technology open new horizons of global communication or ironically block us each off into our own self-imposed cell?
The answer is entirely unclear.
Probably its a little bit of both.
As framed, of course, the question is misleading. As if all in-person communication is some ideal and digital communication is audacious to think it could ever be equal.
This is a false dichotomy. Different forms of communication work well for different kinds of people and different kinds of communication work well for different kinds of topics.
Face to face interactions are high-context – that is, there are many contextual clues to draw from in interpreting your interaction. Language and words used are a piece of it, but tone, body language, and facial expressions mean everything.
Digital interactions started out exclusively low-context, but they don’t have to be.
But even if you assume low-context discussion spaces, that doesn’t intrinsically mean that deeper dialogue is not possible. It’s just different.
It may be better for some people, it may be worse for some people. It’ll just be different.
To be honest, I personally have a general bias in favor of the in-person experience. I don’t have a smart phone. When I was little, I stopped listen to my walkman on road trips because it distracted me from the experience.
I’m just kind of old fashioned like that.
But what’s best for me is not best for everyone. Just because I’m not big on communicating digitally doesn’t mean that my traditional modes are intrinsically preferable.
If you have a smart phone and you feel like it’s detracting from the life you want to live then by all means, take screen breaks or develop other tools to manage your connection. But your personal distaste for smart phone browsing doesn’t translate into a universal wrong.
So let’s stop screen-shaming. Let’s stop assuming that digital communication needs to meet some theoretic ideal measured against in-person interactions.
Let’s keep asking how to build spaces where people of all backgrounds and communication styles can interact genuinely and respectfully, where they discuss important issues and collectively work to address pressing problems.
We have many real and virtual tools to help build these spaces. And we should take advantage of all of them.