Walk into a bar today, where people presumably go to meet others, and look at how many are looking down at their cells, texting. Question: Were they to physically meet their text mates, would they be satisfied? Or would they not also interrupt that in-person conversation to text someone else? Is the unstated goal that by eliminating voice inflection, body language, and eye contact, they safely limit their interaction with another?
But not only do we hide behind our cells and laptops, presenting the image we want others to see rather than who we really are; such forms of limited communication become addictive. In one survey, 89% found texting to be addictive, like the use of alcohol or drugs, while only 2% maintained it was non-addictive.
How addictive? The average teen now texts 60 messages a day – up from 50 a day in 2009, according to a Pew Research Center report. Then again, one teen-ager got a bill for 15,000 texts in a single month – or about a text every two waking minutes. Given the time and energy she put into texting, it’s fair to ask how much she had left to deal with the real world.
Although in decline vis a vis texting, cellular voice service remains addictive enough that 6% of Americans over 25 years old have said they would interrupt sex to answer their cell. Among those under 25, the number jumps to an incredible 10%.
Or, as a phone addiction website puts it, “Cell phone use undoubtedly activates pleasure centers in the brain. It creates a sense of pleasure and well-being by making you feel connected to the larger world...If you’re prone to addiction - particularly if you have difficulty coping with life due to anxiety or depression - cell phone technology could easily become as addictive as a mood-altering drug.”
So we have apparently replaced real in-person communication with a safer, distant superficiality, along the way becoming more isolated and afraid of each other?
But there is one more force aggravating our increased isolation: our accelerating economic stratification. As recently as the 1990s, rich and poor lived just blocks from each other, mingling together. Yes, the rich had fancier homes and cars, but the economic gulf between classes had not yet become so wide, and social interaction across the spectrum regularly took place.
I moved to Santa Monica in the 90s not only for its beaches, but because I was drawn to that social mix, best embodied by Third Street Promenade’s rainbow of high and lower end stores. Just across from Tommy Hilfiger’s was a store that sold inexpensive clothing – the catch being that those new shirts or pants might have holes in them; you had to look. Across the Promenade was an international food court, with various ethnic groups operating small kitchens selling their native foods, while the patrons mingled on the veranda, sharing our “finds.” It was here I discovered chicken doro, cooked by an immigrant Ethiopian couple. Their smile was not the polite one of the clerk at McDonalds; it was a smile which came with pride of place, with putting themselves and their culture out there.
One by one, however, the mom and pop shops gave way to anonymous chain stores which could pay higher rents. The site of the inexpensive clothing store now holds an Urban Outfitter; the site of the international food court now has yet another boring apparel store.
Manhattan, where I now live, has been undergoing a similar metamorphosis, with higher rents pushing artists and musicians ever further out. Now, most no longer live and work across the street, but must travel in from the outer boroughs.
And that economic trend is accelerating nationwide. In 2010, 93% of the income created in that year compared to the year before went to the top 1% - those with at least $352,000 in income.
So, given these trends, how many more international food courts and cheap clothing shops are going to be pushed out of the public square? How much more are we going to become a nation divided between Rodeo Drives, (Ever try finding any signs of life there at night?) or Santee Alley, a lively outdoor L.A. super-mercardo, but mostly for the poor?
These two trends: cyber addiction, coupled with economic stratification, result not just in a loss of real community. The result, as I reported in the first two parts of this series, is also an American epidemic of obesity accompanied by poor health, social isolation, stress, and depression – and shorter lifespans.
Additional evidence for this were reinforced by two studies recently cited in the New York Times. The first was by a psychologist at Baylor University, who taped conversations with nearly 600 men, a third of them with heart disease. Dr. Larry Scherwitz counted how often the men used first-person pronouns — I, me, mine — and found that those who used them most often were most likely to have heart disease and, when followed for several years, most likely to suffer heart attacks. He advised: “Listen with regard when others talk. Give your time and energy to others; let others have their way; do things for reasons other than furthering your own needs.”
Does this sound like cyber “community,” or real community?
Another study of 7,000 men and women living in Alameda County, Calif., led by an epidemiologist at Yale, found that people who were not connected to others were three times as likely to die over the course of nine years as those who had strong social ties. The kind of social ties did not matter. They included family, friends, church and volunteer groups.
They did not, however, include most cyber-communications.
Thus, rethinking and redesigning better communities becomes crucial. Yes, we are making progress in getting people out of their cars and interacting face to face in selected venues from Atlanta to L.A., as I previously reported. And yet we are still falling behind, compensating for our isolation and fear of the “other” with addictive behaviors – and living shorter, less healthy lives.
The question, then, is whether we can summon the collective vision to look beyond the “rugged individualism” we project onto ourselves from behind our cell phone screens and windshields, and instead rediscover our shared humanity, embracing our disparate, multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-sexual, multi-religious communities. It may not always be comfortable, but it is life-enhancing. It is also very real.By Joseph Hanania, Aslan Media Columnist