Wired for distraction

Photo: Electrical Tower.USA Today identified 2010 as “The Year Technology Replaced Talking.” Rather than face-to-face communication, it seems a significant number of us prefer using cellphones and other wireless devices to keep in touch, even when the person we want to talk to is just a spoken word away. (93% of Americans have cellphones/wireless connections.)

In her book The Winter of Our Disconnect, Susan Maushart chronicled her family’s attempt to live without wireless connections — a move she felt was necessary for regaining the old-fashioned way of connecting. Maushart’s gave the following observation of life before disconnecting: “It was like real life was an appendage to what everyone was doing. We had stopped making eye contact. I was literally text-messaging them to come to dinner.” Sound familiar? I can admit to emailing my husband while he was sitting at his desk four feet away from me.

Experts have varying opinions about the impact of communication technologies on relationships. Some are concerned the distraction these technologies cause keep us from attending to our relationships in meaningful ways — not to mention being connected to the real world environments we inhabit. Sherry Turkel of MIT claimed the obsession with continual connection can actually lessen the quality of relationships. Quoting Turkel: “We’ve come to confuse connectivity with making real connections. We’re ‘always on’ to everyone. When you actually look more closely, in some ways we’ve lost the time for the conversations that count.”

Although I am concerned with how communication technologies are changing the nature of our relations, I am most intrigued by the question posed in the USA Today article by Claude Fisher, author of Still Connected: Family and Friends in America Since 1970: What are people doing with technology?

There are quite a few obvious and practical answers to this question — e.g., keeping in touch, making plans, escaping boredom, avoiding loneliness — yet there seems also to be deeper reasons for the present obsession with wired connectivity that may be driven more by how humans evolved than by the novel social landscape emergent with the advent of the Internet and cellphones.

The seeds for the cellphone’s success may have been planted over five million years ago when our hominid ancestors left the diminishing jungles during their ice age and began to live a more precarious existence on the open savannahs. Our hominid ancestors lived solitary existences in the jungle canopies, yet in the less protected open grasslands (where they were easy prey), banding together likely led to their survival.

In his book, On the Origin of Human Emotions, sociologist Jonathan H. Turner argued modern humans have retained our distant ancestors’ propensity for solitary existences despite our evolution towards increased social connection and dependency. According to Turner, “at our ape core, we are individualists who chafe against organizational constraint, but we are also an animal that can use a highly attuned emotion system to create social bonds and to sustain tight-knit social structures.”

To support his argument, Turner looked to our need for highly ritualized behaviors to curb the anxiety present in varying degrees in most, if not all, social interactions — whether celebrating a holiday, attending a concert, visiting the doctor, going on a first date, or simply meeting a friend for coffee. As Turner remarked, “interaction is always double-edged: we recognize emotional cues that signal associative tendencies, but at the same time we generally seek to avoid interpersonal immersion and, thereby, attempt to sustain autonomy of self and a certain interpersonal distance.”

It may be more than coincidence that communication technologies have become so ubiquitous during our postmodern era, when so many of our sources of ritualized interactions — e.g., family, religion, schools, government, nation states — are in decline or full-fledged chaos. How are close ties and intimate relationships supposed to develop when there is so much uncertainty in the institutions that once structured our anxiety-ridden attempts at intimacy? Are we so different from our hominid ancestors leaving the trees for the open savannahs, completely uncertain about what the future may hold, forced to depend on near strangers for emotional survival? With so much uncertainty, intimacy may have become a liability.  Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman observed: “The main identity bound anxiety of modern times was the worry about durability; it is the concern with commitment-avoidance today. Modernity built in steel and concrete; post-modernity, in bio-degradable plastic.”

Bauman’s observations remind me of Temple Grandin’s description of living with autism in today’s postmodern society. At a lecture hosted several years ago by the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco, Grandin spoke of the challenges of having autism in the twenty-first century. Autism is a spectrum of disorders marked by high levels of anxiety that occur in response to the person’s inability to emotionally (and thus intuitively) comprehend the meaning of social cues. When Grandin was growing up in the 1950s, there was far more adherence to social norms. Thus she could memorize the expected behaviors of the social worlds she inhabited, such as schools and social clubs. Her keen intelligence allowed her to identify repetitive patterns in structured social environments that she could mimic, thereby fitting into her social worlds and avoiding overwhelming anxiety. However, with the unraveling of modernism, social flux has become the norm and the capacity for fluid adaptation to changing social environments and relationships is increasingly rewarded.

There is nothing inherently wrong with periods of pronounced change. Given the social and environmental destruction caused by  modernity, change is what we need today. Nevertheless, a cultural ‘autism’ seems to be emerging in which the avoidance of anxiety — or soothing anxiety — has become as important as the establishment of meaningful and intimate connections with others. Our wired world may be keeping anxiety at bay as much as it is keeping us connected.

Another contributor to the ubiquity of cellphones and wireless connection may come from a different type of ‘autism’ — or emotional misalignment — that is associated with histories of adverse childhood experiences. According to a study conducted by Kaiser Permanente and the CDC-P, adverse childhood experiences include:

  • Recurrent physical abuse
  • Recurrent emotional abuse
  • Contact sexual abuse
  • An alcohol and/or drug abuser in the household
  • An incarcerated household member
  • Someone who is chronically depressed, mentally ill, institutionalized, or suicidal
  • Mother is treated violently
  • One or no parents
  • Emotional or physical neglect

Up to two-thirds of the 17,000 participants in this study had at least one of the above experiences in childhood. The size of the study supports the tentative conclusion that in America a significant portion of us experienced profound suffering as children — and emotional invalidation is a prominent component of all the experiences listed above. According to psychologist Marsha Linehan, “an invalidating family responds to private experiences [e.g., beliefs, thoughts, feelings, sensations] with either nonresponsiveness or more extreme consequences than more sensitive, validating social environments. This leads to an intensification of the differences between a child’s private experience and the experience the social environment actually supports and responds to.”

The reason emotionally invalidating environments are so damaging for the developing child is because humans evolved to have specific emotional responses to certain conditions, and in particular, in response to specific facial expressions of primary caregivers. Through these first relationships, we learn the nature of our feelings when they are mirrored back to us. We learn to identify a smile with happiness, a grimace with disgust, and a startled look with fear. However, when as children we learn it is not safe to openly express our emotions, or if we feel we must show one emotion (or no emotions) when we are actually feeling something else (usually anger or fear), the foundation is set for increased feelings of anxiety when we later find ourselves face-to-face in an intimate encounter. Beneath our conscious awareness there may develop a habitual search for the possibility of emotional betrayal occurring once again.

Some of the challenges of face-to-face communication that Turner identified as emerging with a history of adverse childhood experiences may also contribute to the preference for wired connectivity:

  • Uncertainty about how to ‘read’ which social cues are important and which are irrelevant
  • Uncertainty about what is considered normal
  • Uncertainty about what is actually being exchanged in the encounter
  • Uncertainty about whether one’s subjective experience matches the subjective experience of the other person
  • Doubts about the inherent significance of the interaction
  • Lessened trust
  • Lack of confidence about the outcome of the interaction

Granted, these challenges can also occur with communication technologies, yet wireless connections are more tenuous than face-to-face connections. When wired, we can cut the connection more easily if anxiety threatens, and there are many other connections and distractions to be had should we need to self-soothe.

Of course, having human connections — whatever form they may take — is ideally better than having none at all. However, over reliance on social networking via technology can increase feelings of alienation and depression. Thus not only must we try to understand what we are doing with technology (and why), but we also need to learn how we can use communication technologies to increase our humanity rather than repeat  old patterns — albeit in novel, technological ways.


Bauman, Z. 1996. ‘From Pilgrim to Tourist — or a Short History of Identity.’ In S. Hall and R. du Gay (eds.), Questions of Cultural Identity. London and Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 18-38.

Fisher, Claude.2011. Still Connected: Family and Friends in America Since 1970. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Linehan, Marcia. 1993. Skills Training Manual for Treating Borderline Personality Disorder. New York: Guilford Press.

Maushart, Susan. 2011. The Winter of Our Disconnect. New York: Penguin Group.

Turner, Jonathan H. 2000. On the Origins of Human Emotions. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

© 2011 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).