Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Head in the cloud & social isolation- random thoughts

I was going through the latest edition of “Time” magazine (dated March 12, 2012) and was struck by two unrelated articles. One was on “your head is in the cloud” by Paul (the author of “Origins”) and the other one is “living alone is the new Norm” by Klinenberg. There is then a third issue which is fast gaining menacing proportion and that is 'web or net addiction'. All these three issues sort of highlight the growing role of the web in our lives and how it has been shaping our social psyche.
While the life truly seems to have become so much easier with the “Google search engine” and with the advent of smart phones, we are increasingly outsourcing our memory to such tools and are somehow very sure that the information will be instantly and continuously available. And this is changing our cognitive habits. While the horizon of the information spectrum and the speed with which it’s available is really welcome, I do think that somewhere, it is hampering our natural ability to think and this also is affecting our memory and retention power. I still recall how, we, as a kid used to remember the flags of the countries, their capital, currencies, languages and so on. Betsy Sparrow of Columbia University, based on her experiments has concluded that when we don’t know the answer, we tend to think not of the answer but where we can find the nearest web connection instead of the subject of the question itself. It is also a fact that we don’t remember information as well if we are sure to find it again easily when compared with the situation when it might become unavailable. We get conditioned in being lazy mentally that we don’t encode the information internally. While, some may argue that what’s the need to store things in mind and burden it over things which are otherwise available outside our system, the other side of it is that mind has certain capacity to retain and keep churning information based on competitive selectivity and keeping it idle or not using it to its capacity rusts it prematurely. So, what is it? Is it we turning into a cyborg or this symbiosis with digital devices is just a variant of transactive memory where humans are being replaced with digital engines.
However, one can’t Google context. Skills like critical thinking and analysis are native to human mind and can’t be outsourced beyond a point. As Daniel Willingham, a professor at University of Virginia puts “factual knowledge must precede skills”. It’s strange how, with the advent of “Facebook” etc, we have got so used to the virtual world and virtual friends that it’s almost like a vacuum when one is suddenly deprived of an internet or web accessibility. We are forgetting to go out and mingle and feel fresh air. That way, the web addiction, is also affecting our physical health adversely. It has affected our interpersonal skills and our ability to deal with people, especially among the young. The number of friends, one has on Facebook is taken as a sign of one’s popularity and it doesn’t matter how many of them are actually friends and meet regularly. The question is whether advent of web –socialising has actually diminished the social bonding and thus reduced the quality of life?
A related issue, though, not so apparent in terms of its interconnectivity to web based outsourcing of our knowledge skills is solitary living. As per 2011 census, nearly 33 million Americans which is about 28% of its households, live alone. And the percentage is as high as 47% in Sweden and 34% in Britain. India also has about 5% of its folks living alone. Does the rise of soloists signals the ultimate atomization of the modern world. Robert D Putnam in his book “Bowling Alone”, published in 2000, has argued that social splintering has diminished the quality of life in US. More recently, in “The Lonely American” Harvard psychiatrists Jacqueline Olds & Richard S Schwartz opine that “increased aloneness” and “the movement towards greater social isolation” are damaging health and happiness. Interestingly, there’s little evidence that rise of living alone is making people lonely. Its the quality of social interaction that determines loneliness – the “feel alone” rather than “live alone” phenomenon. Klinenberg, a professor at New York University concludes in his study that most singletons are not lonely souls. For those, who live alone by choice, it serves a purpose – pursue individual freedom, personal control and self realization. I still remember my answer vividly when asked for the reason as to why I preferred to go on a 12 weeks sabbatical to LSE (a paid one of course) which was “for introspection and self realization”! In the age of digital media and ever expanding social networks, living alone offer time and space for restorative solitude.


  1. A break for professional or experimental cause is always a welcome step to expand one's horizon or hone professionalism and that isolation is always fruitful however the deep penetration of net and lack of will power either for ease or for convenience is not allowing us to restrict or moderate its use either for social networking or routine googling.This is where a timely intervention is required to moderate the use specially for younger generations which may take care not only their mental growth but also make them a really social citizen ...

  2. Sir, I like these key messages in what you wrote:
    1) We get CONDITIONED in being lazy mentally
    2) not using it to its capacity RUSTS it prematurely
    3) the web ADDICTION .... has affected our interpersonal skills and our ability to deal with people
    4)The number of friends, one has on Facebook is taken as a sign of one’s popularity and it doesn’t matter how many of them are ACTUALLY friends

    Sure, there are adverse effects, well documented, of getting caught in the WEB. However, there are equally compelling arguments on some of the positive aspects that are happening and are enabled, for the first time in human history, by the web and social media. One of the books where those positive effects are well explained is "Cognitive Surplus" by Clay Shirky. Here is the link to his TED talk on that subject: http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/clay_shirky_how_cognitive_surplus_will_change_the_world.html

  3. Nice write up. A book "The Shallows_What the Internet is doing to our brains" by Nicholas Carr might interest you.

    Mikhail Prokhorov, the russian billionaire who was about to challenge Putin in the Presidential Elections, doesnt have a computer, nor does he ever browse the internet. Strange, no?

  4. The rise in people living alone is happening anyhow. It probably has other causes,like the hectic pace of work today that leaves no time for extended families. So having the means of staying in virtual contact with others is perhaps better than no contact. I have lost touch with my school friends and barring one or two, with my college friends. My children are in touch with friends way back from when they were in class 7 and on occasion, meet these friends in person. This is possible only due to facebook. So the internet is perhaps helping people keep at least some sort of contact in their solitary lives, rather than being the cause of this solitariness.
    Howevr, this lazy memory does scare me. Few months back I realised I am not able to retain 2 digits at a time, when I take down phone numbers. Now I make it a point to key in phone numbers at least 4 digits in one go.