Does 24/7 connectivity connect us or leave us alone together?

Alex Howard presents various viewpoints about how technological changes and uses affect cultures. Weigh in on whether you think such advances are corrosive, liberating, or both.



This winter, I had the unwelcome opportunity to think about how much the world had changed over the past century when my grandmother died unexpectedly at age ninety. In the decades since her birth, there has been an extraordinary explosion in invention.

Along with two world wars and a man walking on the moon, she witnessed the rise of new industries, like commercial aviation, photography, personal computing, radio, television, mobile devices, and nuclear energy.

She saw the introduction of antibiotics, radar, the Global Positioning System, electron microscope, microwave ovens, Scotch tape, Velcro, and ballpoint pens change how we healed, navigated, saw, cooked, wrapped, fastened, and wrote things.

Over the years, the invention of credit cards, barcodes, and scanners changed how we paid for nearly everything and how the vendors that sold it tracked and sold it. Audio and video cassettes, along with the devices that archived music and movies and played them, profoundly changed the way we could record our experiences, remix it, share it, and take it with us.

While my grandmother had a cell phone, she never logged on to Facebook or received pictures of her grandchild over email from me. While we talked about my work over the past decade (which has been published almost exclusively online), I know she didn't read much of it, including the more than 95,000 tweets I've sent.

When we discussed the rapid rise of search engines, social networks, mobile devices, and video sharing platforms like YouTube, I could sense some unease with these unknown platforms and technologies. Her feedback was similar to feelings I've observed elsewhere around the cultural changes in norms around how we share data, information, and knowledge about where we are, what we're eating, reading, watching, or how we're feeling.

In 2014, we've now had years of anecdotes about people being embarrassed or worse when their behavior was recorded and shared online, from Congressmen to criminals. I know my grandmother didn't care much for texting at the dinner table, much less exchanging more tawdry communications that way.

On that count, there's a clear cultural change around the etiquette and social mores of using mobile devices around family and coworkers, from dinners to meetings, accompanied with copious commentary regarding the potentially corrosive effects of all of this connectivity.

While some people I know have chosen to turn off their devices at dinner and leave the smartphone behind when they go to bed, a majority of Americans under 25 are sleeping with their devices. An increasing amount of evidence suggests that keeping the glow of blue screens and the information streams available through them would be healthier for us in the hour before bed as we prepare for slumber or if we awake to depart briefly from its delicious environs. The pull of social networks, games, and viral media is strong, however, given that the designers of these platforms have every incentive to keep us coming back for another hit of dopamine.

At we go further into the 21st century, an increasing number of observers are examining what it means for us to have part of our attention continuously captured by the neverending pulse of information coming to us over tethered mobile devices.

Some authors worry about potentially socially corrosive effects of these changes, like Robert D. Putnam in Bowling Alone or more recently, Sherry Turkle in Alone Together or Andrew Keen in Digital Vertigo. Other researchers, like Rutgers professor Keith Hampton, suggest that technology is not driving us apart, highlighting the ways that we can now easily keep families, friends, and coworkers updated during work, play, and crises.

The rise of mobile phones, wireless Internet, and powerful laptops has enabled millions of people to work wherever and whenever they are connected, shifting and blurring the boundaries between work and home, changing both the expectations for responses to inquiries or service, at once liberating people from an office and tethering them to an email account around the clock.

More cameras and sensors in phones, public spaces, and survey vehicles also are changing how we experience time together, along with shifting our expectations for privacy. When mobile devices and telecommunications passively collect and store meta data about whereabouts, contacts, networks, and communications, the patterns in our behavior can be enormously revealing -- a brave new world that we've been thrust into that the public is now beginning to understand. That awareness has been driven by great reporting on the predictive power of data analysis by both commercial and government actors and then vaulted into high relief by the disclosures of mass surveillance by intelligence agencies.

As with previous generations of technology, the panoply of devices and services of today have been pitched to be liberating. Unlike labor-saving devices of the past, it's not always clear that our newfound connectivity is actually saving us time in the way that a washing machine, a microwave, or a dishwasher did my grandmother, born long before such appliances become ubiquitous in American homes. Anyone who has spent much time with a balky printer or a slow workstation may also be skeptical of promised productivity enhancements, despite the improvements in integration and interoperability.

While those of us who are lucky enough to be connected to vast pools of information and data can now navigate the world in ways that my grandmother's generation would have situated in a Jules Verne novel, billions of people have yet to be connected. From north Africa to the Middle East and southeast Asia to South America, the social disruptions we can see around the world now inevitably have a technological component.

While the impact of the connection will vary from country to country, based upon pre-existing cultures and contexts, it may be greatest in autocracies where information and communication have been held in tight control. Powerful mobile devices, streaming video, and social networks are connecting people not just to information from outside of their countries but to one another. Sometimes the images that result put the lie to false claims by government officials and corporate spokesmen. Sometimes lies and rumors race far ahead of truth, even in countries with strong traditions of press freedom and a vibrant civil society. Everywhere, however, the same digital platforms that enable free expression may also be used to subtly or unapologetically filter, censor, track, and repress dissent.

In this moment, with such promise and peril, the digital divide is not only about access to the Internet or broadband speeds but how such access is used. Online, a teenager or a senior citizen can choose to learn how to play the guitar or to play games, watch documentaries or funny animal videos, trade jokes about an awards show, or give feedback regarding proposed legislation to a Congressperson. Some people might do all of those things in a given day.

I'm not sure what my grandmother would have thought of me wearing Google Glass or tracking my vitals on an iWatch. I suspect she would have preferred that I would take them off and power them down at the dinner table. I do know that I'll dearly miss the opportunity to talk about it with her. Sadly, no technology can change the finality of her departure. 


Alex Howard writes about how shifts in technology are changing government and society. A former fellow at Harvard and Columbia, he is the founder of "E Pluribus Unum," a blog focused on open government and technology.


I tend to think of the "smartphones are making our teenagers socially inept!" argument as similar to the "rock and roll is making our teenagers delinquent!" argument. When a movement changes the ground underneath us (and it's not something we immediately connect to or understand), it's easy to see it as a threat. That doesn't mean the assessment is accurate. I like the point you made in a reply here: teenagers sitting in a group, all on their phones, may only *appear* to be distant and antisocial. In fact, they could be connecting & strengthening their social bonds. 

This isn't much different from the 6-8 simultaneous IM sessions I used to have with my high school friends. The only difference is that I had to do that from the house. If I'd had a smartphone, I would have been doing the same kind of thing (and sharing rich media too -- what an awesome development), and I'd be trying to maintain it everywhere I went. It didn't mean I was antisocial; I was being deeply social. I was compelled to stay connected to my tribe at all times.

That said, face time is face time. As much as I love current technology and how many opportunities it's sent my way, I believe it simply can't be replaced by in-person interactions. Yes, it can build upon them and make the time in between them more efficient, but we still need to be able to have meaningful conversations with people. No matter how much digital charisma you have, it has to be matched by the same level of charisma (and etiquette) when you're sitting across from someone. I think it's when we try to substitute the former for the latter that we get ourselves into trouble.


Every generation before it has proclaimed that the current generation is doomed. As a Millenial, I find the claim that my generation engages in shallow conversation myopic. What about the telephone? What about mail? Each has had its detractors. Even Plato lamented the use of writing and claimed it would be end of memory. Technology allows us to extend ourselves further and to connect with others. Because of Google Hangouts, I am able to talk with my grandparents half a country away. Because of text messaging, I can send my brother updates during work. Technology is only useful to the extent that you are willing to use it to enrich your life. And it enriches greatly. 

I am especially grateful for technology, and I still feel as though I have deep and fulfilling relationships. And isn't that what matters? 

Does technology distract? Of course. And so do the books and the art and the movies that are now so lauded. Communication is not an easy task and it never will be. Everyone knows this. It takes a lifetime to learn how to connect and communicate. Somehow, we forgot that people are human and that Millennials especially are learning how to connect. Instead of simple opprobrium, we should be pushing for best practices. We should be consulting communication experts and psychologists on how to incorporate these tools for the best outcomes. 

As with any social change, society needs those with open minds and solutions. Detractors should just do what they do best. Stay away and fear a better future.  

sissy sue
sissy sue

I think it is sad to see a group of teenagers or young people, ostensively friends, "hanging around" together, each staring down at his phone, totally oblivious to the others around him.  Yes, I am old fashioned.  In my younger years, if I had been with a friend who was more interested in his game or book than he was in having a conversation with me, I would have told him "I've leaving.  Come see me when you want some company."

Incidentally, there used to be a commercial featuring a family sitting on their porch, texting each other.  I thought it was a disgusting commentary on our times.


Professor Rutgers and others of his persuasion are delusional. "...highlighting the ways that we can now easily keep families, friends, and coworkers updated..." - well yes, as long as you realise "updating" and "communicating" are not the same thing. Tweeting is essentially one-way comunication, as are facebook updates and even comments. Yes, others respond - sometimes - but only to toss out their own one-way utterances. Very few are communicating, many are pronouncing.

Just yesterday I received one of those (badly punctuated) email comics: "Putting your phone away and paying attention to those talking to you? There's an app for that, it's called 'Respect'".

Incredible that in less than 20 years we have become so used to using the technology that we couldn't imagine life without it. When mobile phones first became popular it was immediately thought of as rude to use them at table or in meetings, but it rapidly became widely acceptable (yet in a meeting this week I felt guilty using my iPhone to take notes and make appointments because I still associate poking a cell phone with not paying attention to the person you are talking to. I'm just old-fashioned I guess).

I'm sure it's just a matter of time before we are all truly "alone together". The more we tweet, email, and text each other the stronger the illusion we are communicating, while our actual social intercourse is decreasing steadily.

Doug Vitale
Doug Vitale

The 20th century will definitely go down in human history as the period with the most social upheavals and technological innovations. The life of the average person and the characteristics of society in general in 1900 vs. 2000 are simply staggering, especially in the 'Western' world of Europe and North America. Fourteen years into the 21st century, I would say that the differences between the years 2000 vs. 2100 are on pace to be as striking (or even more so) than 1900 and 2000. As to why this happened and is continuing, it's a subject for a very thick book but I would think it has a lot to do with the theory of "Accelerating Change" in the broad fields of science and technology. See Moore's Law as an example. 

It will be interesting to say the least to observe how Man, with his brain wired for the Stone Age, handles this transition further into the "Information Age". Let's hope we survive it.

Shawn Quinn
Shawn Quinn

It gives and it takes away. It's a big part of the story of stuff.


@wrinehart  But why do you find the need to connect all the time. What about solitary pursuits? What about private time. Time with no interuptions or need to communicate with others. Life is not all about relationships, it's also about the things we do for and by ourselves.

It seems now that there is no space for private time any more.


@wrinehart  Thank you for the comment, Will! Glad to see that I was able to bring you here from a conversation on Twitter. 


@sissy sue  If I encountered a friend more interested in a game or book than me, I'd leave as well.

I'm not sure that's what's going on here, though. I've observed many such gaggles of teens; I'd posit that it's a mistake to see them as "totally oblivious" to those around them. Many young people live and work in a state of continuous partial attention now, loosely connected to friends and family through various apps on their mobile device as they move around the world. The teens you describe, for instance, might be gaming together or interacting over txts, Snapchats or Facebook messages while they play a game together, or observe the same live event or video. 


@chrisbedford  Thank you for the comment. I'd caution that how these social platforms are used is based upon the people. For instance, I treat Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and yes, blogs like this one, as conversations. When I post something, I expect people to communicate and then go from there. I regard Twitter as microblogging, which may differentiate my usage of it from traditional broadcasters. It's only a one-way conversation if you treat it that way. Sometimes, such updates can be welcome, too: after a major storm or disasters, Facebook updates from friends and families confirming that they're safe and well are generally received gratefully and get a lot of comments to that effect. 

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