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In connected worlds we've become detached

My daughter, Julie, informed me last week that one of her classes this semester at the University of Florida — Interpersonal Communication — is conducted totally online while students sit alone at home, or wherever, to watch prerecorded video lectures from the instructor. Interaction happens as students post comments online.

Wow.

This isn't a major advancement in education or communication. This "distant," not "distance," learning class should be called "Impersonal Communications" — and the trend risks UF becoming better known as "Gator Alien-ation." But it's happening everywhere, and the critical issues raised go beyond education to nearly every way that we spend our time at work, study, home and leisure.

The rush toward connected detachment is not just a generational divide, because it is sucking all of us in. Sure, incredible advances in technology have "shrunk'' the planet and the mere push of a button transports us to other people, other places. The benefits are bountiful and have led to giant leaps of advancement in many fields.

We are the "best'' communicators of modern time because of the speedy, diverse ways we do it: inane cell phone chats with anyone — just because we can; effortlessly texting dozens of messages when we've largely forgotten what our own handwriting looks like. We are too snug in our modern communications cocoons, opting for exchanges that provide empty, soulless solitude rather than enriching human interaction.

Notre Dame football star Manti Te'o's humiliating revelation that the ''girlfriend'' he had been ''attached'' to for the past two or three years was one that he actually never met makes the point in a most bizarre way. Though he may have been duped into this nearly unbelievable hoax about which all of the facts are still murky, the anecdote demonstrates that too many people are living their lives virtually.

That's not living.

Thesis: We're in the beginning of the end of real human communications. But where's the rebel force fighting to retain the last vestiges of human contact that could prevent us all from being voluntarily locked in our own narrow stalls of technology?

Why visit our friends or family when you can just text them, or Skype them? Why write a real letter in our own hand anymore when we can email it, text it, or even command our iPhone's Siri to do it for us?

The written word in our own hand is an endangered species of communications. So are the one-on-one conversations that are the other main anchor of human connection.

At a Thanksgiving dinner two years ago, I watched a friend's teen text her way through dinner, rarely looking up to relate to the family and friends gathered in her home. The disconnection powered by our tech connections makes all of us producers and publishers, but the quality of our interaction is at an all-time low.

Seduced by the addictive allure of devices that we don't fully understand but still are determined to use, we are connected from our first waking moments to our last conscious acts. The frantic daily sprint to constantly stay in touch has helped us lose real touch with the most important principles of human connectedness.

When was the last time any of us disconnected from the tech world for an extended period? The truth is many of us would feel a separation anxiety from the voluntary, brief abandonment of technology, but not so much from people.

Multifunction technology has devolved us into multitasking fanatics who willingly choose to isolate in the process of communicating. The death of the real written and spoken word has not yet occurred, but we are close to laying them both to rest. Ironically, we believe we are communicating at the highest level in history when we have reduced the art to a cold, technical exercise devoid of deeper thought, feeling and warmth.

The answer to this global warning and threat is for each of us to examine how we communicate — and what we could do differently to become the masters of our technology, rather than its willing slaves.

It all could begin with a simple letter, in your own hand, to your mother — or a face-to-face friend meeting that starts and ends with a hug.

Ron Sachs, a former newspaper and television journalist, was director of communications for Gov. Lawton Chiles. Since 1996, he has owned a statewide media consulting firm based in Tallahassee. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

In connected worlds we've become detached 01/29/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 30, 2013 9:31am]
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