One of the most apparent contradictions that defines our current society is that we are globally connected by technological advancements, but ever more estranged and removed from those that we are supposedly connected with. In the rooted, agrarian societies that defined the livelihoods of our not-so-distant ancestors, the problems and issues that affected those who shared the immediate space where we lived, were problems that we intimately felt as our own. Community was necessarily geographical by nature, whereas today we choose our sense of community based on shared interests and social media profiles.
While we know more about the wars, famines, and injustices that cause suffering to billions of people around the world, our distance from those calamities the sense of being overwhelmed by the constant bombardment of 20-second news bits announcing yet another disaster immobilize our human ability to respond with compassion, empathy or sincere concern.
At the same time, the globalized connectedness of our lives has concealed from our sight the plight of those closest to us. Before our morning coffee, we might read a quick news story about another village destroyed by wars on the other side of the world, but have no idea of the suffering of the family evicted from the apartment below us who now faces the risk of homelessness.
The Atrophying of Empathy
Technology is not the sole cause of our ever-increasing separation from a placed sense of community. It has, however, aggravated some of the worst symptoms of our utter lack of belonging to any tangible community. It´s all but impossible to care about those around us with our heads buried in our smart phones.
One recent study centered on the issue of cyberbullying, found that adolescents and teenagers felt that they had a certain sense of impunity due to their bullying because of the anonymity associated with social media. A lack of face-to-face interaction with other human beings only intensifies the unbridled individualism that is a distinguishing characteristic of our modern society. Whereas empathy results almost naturally in place-based communities where neighbors (and even enemies) share a physical space that delineates the parameters of their livelihoods and very survival, our disconnectedness from those around us inhibits our ability to respond with true empathy, often because we simply do not know what is occurring.
Related to the cyber communities of convenience and like-mindedness that have replaced tangible, geographical community, technology has impaired our sense for true interaction and care for others. Today, unfortunately, we show our interest in the lives of others by offering a “like” on Facebook or Twitter. When people aimlessly and hurriedly scroll their social media feeds, they may pause for 3 seconds to view the most recent picture and offer a “thumbs-up” like.
Facebook has attempted to “remedy” this situation by allowing us to offer other “emoticons” such as a heart, a mad face, sad face, or surprised face on the posts of our friends. People who are apparently in need of a deeper attachment might ask us to “share” their post, message, or call to action. Politically speaking, instead of joining with neighbors to struggle for a cause that bodily affects us, our advocacy is reduced to sharing articles that demonstrate our political tendencies.
Lastly, a rooted sense of community is dependent on a sense of knowledge and memory that is connected to a physical place. Indigenous people around the world develop an innate and almost distinctive sense of territory, wherein certain physical markers of those territories remind the people of those who have gone before them, the ways in which the land has sustained them, and their obligations to the people and other forms of non-human life with which they share a place. This sense of territorial knowledge and memory enhances our sense of empathy because it connects us to a place and the people we share it with.
The increasing presence of technology in today’s society, however, has led to us outsourcing our knowledge and memory to Google. Smart devices like the Amazon Echo and Google Home allow us to have instant access to knowledge with a simple question, but the overload of information often plays into our self-absorption and inability to process that information.
Connected for a Purpose
Technology is certainly not the only culprit of our narcissistic and individualistic society. The increasing estrangement from our physical neighbors, the distancing between producer and consumer that is a hallmark of globalization and that severs our economic connection to place, and our consumer-based lifestyles that equate happiness and fulfillment with purchase power, are all symptoms of a civilizational crisis that has several causes and origins.
One of the fundamental challenges we face is re-learning how to re-root our lives and livelihoods to physical and tangible community. Developing a sincere sense of belonging to place forces us to confront some of the incoherencies that are elemental to the society we currently live in. It also will put us in contact with those physically closest to us, which is necessary for true empathy to flourish. Technology, despite the problems outlined above, can help us create a deeper sense of belonging.
Like most people with smartphones, one friend of mine has downloaded a weather app onto his phone offered by Weather Bug. When he heard the predictions for major cold front that was going to affect his hometown of Tallahassee, Florida (where snow fell for the first time in three decades), he prepared by purchasing coats and blankets from a local thrift store to hand out to the homeless families who lived on his block.
Additionally, thousands of small farmers, artisans, and other small, community-oriented business owners are using the internet through social media and email-marketing campaigns to connect with local consumers in their area. This helps to strengthen local economies while also relinking the economic bonds that hold community together.
Deliberating over how technology affects our lives and discovering ways to utilize technology to connect with our physical community and allow empathy to flourish is a fundamental task we all face.