Early human communication was likely nothing but signals and grunts, but over the next 200,000 years, the human brain grew and true language developed, or vice versa.
Eventually, we developed written language, then the printing press, newspaper, and telegraph. Soon after, the telephone, radio, and television became our primary modes of communication.
In the past 50 years, human connectedness has increased at a rate far exceeding everything that has ever come before. Today, the Internet connects normal humans with literally billions of other people at any given moment!
Of course, that would not be happening if those people did not want or enjoy that contact. But what need does this constant contact fill? Is there any reason for people to have thousands of “friends” whom they will never meet face-to-face?
Obviously, some very good things can result from so much contact. People can easily manage a lot of details in their daily lives. It is easier to stay up to date on everything from sports scores to financial markets and the latest mass shootings and Trumpisms.
But at the same time, it is clear that human evolution has been unable to keep pace with today’s technology. In reality, very few people can truly handle more than a few dozen friends at most. Therefore, the other thousands of so-called friends are at best an illusion and at worst a distortion of normal human social processes.
For thousands of years humans have been learning to read expressions, body language, and tone as crucial inputs in communication. Without these, something important is lost: humor, trust, love.
At times, modern technology that enables constant contact seems like a narcotic. Walking down the street, you see everyone absorbed in their phones, unaware of the world clattering on around them. But that contact isn’t real, just as the high from a drug is not real happiness.
There are more problems associated with this constant contact. it appears that few people know more than a handful of neighbors by name, which makes it far more difficult to come together to solve community problems.
Years ago, a Harvard professor named Robert Putnam wanted to know why different regions of Italy had very different records of social/political success. Eventually, he discovered that the only variable that correlated with those differences was the number of CHORAL SOCIETIES in those regions. More singing, more success. What on earth could singing have to do with good governance?
All sorts of people like to sing—plumbers, secretaries, lawyers, town council members, moms, truck drivers, and so on—and AFTER they sing, they drink wine and discuss their common local problems, which often leads to creative, collaborative solutions to those problems that would likely otherwise have remained unresolved.
The irony and perversity of today’s rapid increase in human connectedness is that one might naturally infer that more connections should lead to more helpful togetherness, when the reverse actually seems to be the case. For example, today’s political anxiety and anger surely reflects, at least in part, confusion among people who are distracted by so many varied and conflicting sources of misinformation.
The only realistic conclusion to draw from this situation is that quantity of connectedness is vastly different from quality of connection.
Perhaps in time human evolution will catch up with our technology and enable us to manage such extensive connectivity—one way or the other– but in the meanwhile, we have to be careful not to become too infatuated with our new tech toys until we understand what effect they are having on our basic and real human relationships.
For the record, I am about to be 85 and I am more than aware that my views on these topics are largely dismissed by most young people.
To all young people of today I say: “If you want to be really cool, invent new ways for humans to process, understand, and deal with the tsunami of connectivity and information that is drowning mankind! And please hurry and do it before us oldies get too old. We want to be able to compliment you on being so clever! However, if you can also invent a way to speak to us in the worlds beyond, you need not hurry so fast!”