In the 1840s, Benjamin Disraeli, still a long way from being prime minister, wanted to wake people up to the plight of the British working class -- and move them to act. The alarm he sounded wasn't delivered in a speech, a pamphlet, or an article -- but in a novel, Sybil, published in 1845. It had the desired effect -- raising awareness, provoking outrage, and leading to the passage of several fundamental social reforms.
Disraeli knew that one of the most effective ways to touch people is through narrative -- putting flesh and blood on raw facts and data. Ever since I read Sybil when I was at Cambridge, I've loved thinkers and writers and gadflies who use storytelling to reach people and get us to act. Of course, since Disraeli's time, other powerful ways of telling those stories have emerged -- including movies.
And so it was that I found myself moderating a panel discussion last week with the director and two cast members (Frank Grillo and Marc Jacobs -- yes, that Marc Jacobs!) of a movie that uses storytelling to wake us up to one of the biggest problems of our modern age: the effect that being "connected" to technology 24/7 is having on our ability to connect with our lives, ourselves and the people we love.
The film, written by Andrew Stern and directed by Henry-Alex Rubin, is called Disconnect, and when it opens on April 12 I urge everybody to go see it. I found Disconnect incredibly compelling -- a perfect use of storytelling to vividly dramatize an issue that permeates our lives to such an extent that it's hard to even see. As well as Frank Grillo and Marc Jacobs, the cast includes Jason Bateman, Hope Davis, Paula Patton, Alexander Skarsgård, and Michael Nyqvist.
Disconnect -- I'll try to avoid spoilers -- interweaves three stories, each involving characters whose lives have reached a crisis exacerbated by their dependence on technology at the expense of real human connection. There's a couple that has recently lost a baby. Instead of grieving together, they turn away from each other, and lose themselves in online distractions. There are two boys who use the power of social media to take advantage of another boy's loneliness and isolation -- itself partly caused by his father's obsession with work and email. And there's a woman reporter who becomes involved with a 18-year-old webcam porn performer who lives in a house run by a porn kingpin played by Jacobs. Now do you want to see it?
The stories become more and more enmeshed and finally come together in a gripping ending. In each instance, it takes a crisis to shake the characters up. Disconnect shows how easy it is to allow technology to lure us into a somnambulist life, gradually being pulled away from a sense of who we are and what really matters. At one point, the father, played by Jason Bateman, huddles with his wife, played by Hope Davis, and his daughter, played by Hayley Ramm, and looks at his son, played by Jonah Bobo, and says, "Everything I love is in this room." And yet that's certainly not how he had been living.
It's easy to get seduced by technology. As Henry-Alex Rubin said during our Q&A, many people use the Internet as medication, to dull pain and disappointments. One thing leads to another and, before you know it, you're missing your own life. Before the screening, Marc Jacobs told me that he'd banished all technology from his bedroom and has a low tolerance for it at dinners. "You have friends over for dinner and they're on their BlackBerrys and iPhones all the time, and you think, 'Why are you even here?'" And in fact, it was the sight of people around the dinner table emailing and texting that inspired Andrew Stern to write Disconnect in the first place.
As Sherry Turkle, a professor at MIT and author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, pointed out in a TEDTalk: "People want to be with each other, but also elsewhere -- connected to all the different places they want to be."
Turkle explains that technology exploits our loneliness and our fear of the hard work and messiness of intimacy. "From social networks to sociable robots, we're designing technologies that will give us the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship," she says. As a result, "we slip into thinking that always being connected is going to make us feel less alone," but "actually it's the opposite that's true."
Even worse, it's not just that overuse of social technology can make us feel lonelier and more disconnected, there's now scientific evidence that it can actually diminish our capacity to really connect.
Barbara Fredrickson is a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina and the author of Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become. She explains how, in the same way that leading a sedentary life changes our bodies, our online habits can actually rewire our brains. "Experiences leave imprints on our neural pathways," she writes. "Any habit molds the very structure of your brain in ways that strengthen your proclivity for that habit."
And so, she says, your answer to questions like "how much time do you typically spend with others?" and "when you do, how connected and attuned to them do you feel?" can in fact "reveal our biological capacity to connect." And, the research shows, by changing the ways you connect, you can change your capacity to connect.
She cites a study that showed that meditators who were taught a practice aimed at increasing their "warmth and tenderness toward themselves and others" were able to increase their vagal tone, which is part of our cardiovascular system. And she notes that other research has shown that "by increasing people's vagal tone, we increase their capacity for connection, friendship and empathy." In short, she writes, "the more attuned to others you become, the healthier you become, and vice versa."
In other words, "Your heart's capacity for friendship also obeys the biological law of 'use it or lose it.' If you don't regularly exercise your ability to connect face to face," she writes, "you'll eventually find yourself lacking some of the basic biological capacity to do so."
So while we may think we are using technology to connect, we are actually diminishing our capacity to really connect. We're machines that are built to seek out connection, so it's no wonder we are drawn to technology that seems to offer easy connections. It's not unlike the proposition that diet soft drinks may actually lead to gaining weight. "Some studies suggest that when our taste buds sense sweetness, the body expects a calorie load to accompany it," dietician Cheryl Forberg told Men's Health. "When that doesn't happen, it may cause us to overeat because we crave the energy rush our body was expecting."
Here at HuffPost, we are taking steps both editorially and personally to course-correct and help our community end our addiction to technology. Last year, our Executive Lifestyle Editor, Lori Leibovich, announced to her young children that she was going on a "digital diet" while on summer vacation. "If you see me doing anything on my iPhone besides taking pictures," she told them, "take it away from me." Her kids were thrilled. How did it go?
There were moments when I felt existentially lost ... But it also felt exhilarating to use my hands for digging tunnels in the sand and turning the pages of a novel instead of just for tapping away on a screen. For the first time in I don't know how long, I was really seeing my kids. And they were relishing being seen.
Of course, as Henry-Alex Rubin said during the Q&A, it's not like people weren't lonely and isolated in the past. But the Internet and social media amplify everything, including isolation. And while we're surfing the web, it's easy to ignore that we might also be surfing through our lives. Nothing against surfing, but it's by definition staying on the surface, which is great for surfing and terrible for life. The writer and cartoonist Alan Saunders, in a line later used in a John Lennon lyric, once wrote that "life is what happens to us while we are making other plans." And now we have technology that's really, really great at helping us make plans -- for experiences that we're not fully present for when they actually happen because we're so busy making more plans.
Like so many people, this is something I struggle with on a regular basis. That's why Disconnect struck a nerve. Through the unique stories it so masterfully tells, it speaks to some universal truths about one of humanity's core traits -- our desire to connect. And, I should add, there is absolutely nothing didactic about the film. "I didn't approach this with any sort of theory or polemic," Henry-Alex Rubin said in the Q&A. "I just wanted to make things as real as possible. I approached it like a documentary."
Like a modern Sybil, Disconnect sounds the alarm through fiction and drama about some very dark realities and deep truths.