By Father Jacob Dankasa
Special to The Texas Catholic
We have all praised how technology has brought the world together, how the world is now, using the cliché a “global village.” Technically, this is true, since many of us can communicate with ease within seconds to anyone in any part of the world.
Researchers in the new media, information, communication and technology fields have dedicated many studies to understanding the effects of technology on human behavior and relationships. Results vary, depending on the outlook or focus of the research. Some in earlier studies claimed that technology has made people more sociable through the availability of technology and the ease of communication by social media, instant chats, and email, while others in more recent studies are finding correlations between technology use and negative social behavior. Although I have conducted some academic research on a similar subject because it is one of my areas of study, in this article I’m not focusing on the scientific certainty of this issue. Rather, I’m presenting a reflection based on my observations and my personal opinion of the topic in question.
The question is this: Has technology made us more or less sociable? My answer is: It depends. Not-too-good answer, right? Of course. Yes, it depends on one’s usage and the type of media technology used. It also depends on how the term “sociable” is conceptualized, that is, how it is defined. In any case, I believe that there could be a relationship between technology use and some anti-social behavior exhibited by adults. To be clear, this is not to imply a cause-and-effect relationship. I’m not claiming that technology in itself causes anti-social behavior — I don’t have the data to back that up. But I’m suggesting here that over-reliance on technology has a tendency to influence the development of anti-social behavior in humans. To avoid the temptation of getting too academic, let me focus on real-life situations here.
From my perspective, I think that some usage of technology is influencing anti-social behavior. My focus is with reference to adult usage of technology. There used to be criticism that teens and young people in general are always on their phones and not willing to engage in face-to-face conversations with other humans. Families with young children and teens can attest to how difficult it is to get the kids to stay away from their phones while at the family dinner table or at any gathering. Unfortunately, however, this criticism of the young can now be attributed to adults as well.
I have observed, on several occasions and over a relatively long period of time, that today many adults use technology, especially the phone, as a means of escape from engaging in real life conversations with others. If you haven’t noticed, next time you’re gathered for a face-to-face meeting, watch everyone around the table before the meeting starts. Chances are that a good number are focused on their phones, and what they’re doing only God knows. Granted, some will want to catch up with a quick email or send a quick text, etc. But in many cases, people are focused on their phones just to escape from engaging or being engaged by the other people present. Some no longer know how to start a face-to-face conversation. In fact, some may actually be doing nothing in particular on the phone, but only using it to appear to be busy and unavailable for conversation right now. This behavior may be observed not just when gathered for a meeting, but at most gatherings of adults.
This escapism seems to have made many adults unrelatable, unfriendly and simply anti-social. The false focus on the cellphone (or any other technology device) during a gathering of people, especially in order to avoid engaging in conversation, is something many of us may be guilty of. We don’t even notice it because of overdependence on technology devices. If being sociable means having the ability to initiate or participate in real-life conversations comfortably, or the inclination to associate or be in the company of real people, or the willingness to engage in conversations with familiar or unfamiliar persons in real life, then many of us will fail the test of sociability in the age of new media technology. As a result, many of us are guilty of anti-social behavior due to engagement with media technology as a preferred tool for interaction. The downside of this behavior is that we become “uncompanionable,” which has a negative effect on real life relationships.
As much as we love and enjoy our virtual and technology life, we must not sacrifice our everyday face-to-face interactions. Here is some real-life advice: Don’t send a text or a chat to a person that you can simply talk to face-to-face unless it’s really necessary. Don’t email, text or chat a spouse when both of you are home together (unless you have some mobility issues or you’re unable to locate the other); sometimes too much reliance on text or technology to communicate with a spouse is a sign of marital problems. Don’t send a handshake emoji to someone sitting at the next table in your office when you can get up and offer him a real handshake (after the pandemic ends, of course). Don’t busy yourself on your phone when you’re in the company of someone or some group of people that you know or are related to.
Yes, our world is getting more and more virtual, especially as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, but our real physical lives should never be ignored or diminished. Therefore, don’t destroy your relationships with family, friends, and colleagues by ignoring the effects of real-life physical gestures (smiles, handshakes, hugs), only to replace them with depressing virtual contact. Whenever possible, real-life connections should be chosen over virtual ones. Remember that the medium is the message. Text messages, emails or chats you send can be misconstrued by the recipient, simply because people sometimes read unintended things into those messages. And sometimes our human language and expressions are so inadequate that we may come across very differently in our text messages, emails or chats than what we intended to communicate. Therefore, let’s enjoy our text messages, chats, email and social media communications, as they make many things easier for us. But let’s be careful not to take the easy path and destroy our relationships by ignoring real-life human interactions. No matter where our world takes us, we must make sure we don’t give up communicating with our loved ones in a real-life, real-time manner.
On a final note, for us religious people, the Covid-19 pandemic has subjected us to virtual church services for almost a year now. This is a reality that keeps us safe, at least for now. But don’t get so comfortable with virtual services that you wish to make them your preferred way of worship for the future. Rather, let’s continue to hunger for the time when we can safely be physically present in our houses of worship again. And when this COVID pandemic is over, let us pray that our physical presence in our particular house of worship never be interrupted again.
Father Jacob Dankasa is a parochial vicar at St. Gabriel the Archangel Catholic Church in McKinney and a regular contributor to The Texas Catholic.