Is technology hurting social capital?

November 11, 2011

Political Theory


In this day in age, we often wake up in the middle of the night, role over to check the time, read the new message on our phones that many of us keep near our beds, and maybe even respond before falling back to sleep. We figure that since technology never sleeps, neither should we, and we should always be alert to what’s going on in the world around us. At the same time, we often immerse ourselves in our private life through our cell phones and disregard everyone else. With cellular technology more prevalent than ever before, people are hiding themselves in their texting conversations and are no longer actively engaged in discussions around them. The temptation to check your messages or update a Facebook status or tweet a quote is now becoming a norm to interrupt personal dialogue and real-life interactions with others. We become addicted to our phones that our desire for face-to-face communication is decreasing.

Author Daniel Sieberg tells CNN, “In truth, a strong case can be made that when a person lives too many hours a day in the digital universe, that is when he or she is really missing something — missing the things that are taking place in the flesh-and-blood world.”

Are technological advancements causing a decline in our connections to the world around us? We can observe ourselves in relation to modern society and analyze our decline in physical connections. As addressed in Bowling Alone: American’s Declining Social Capital by Robert Putnam, we’re living in a world of much less personal interaction which is contributing to a more selfish view and less communal outlook to life. As Putnam describes, when we do things alone, such as bowling, we lose interest in society and disengage ourselves from the community. Similarly, when reading media and information to ourselves online instead of having a personal conversation or debating the issues while sitting in a coffee shop reading the paper together,  we miss out on interactions which expose our emotions and allow us to partake in civic society activities as members of a group or community. Although we are networking on the Internet, we are missing that face-to-face conversation which helps our society thrive. Putman explains that without this sense of community, democracy will not flourish. We are now less involved in politics and government as a whole and we are becoming disengaged from important societal endeavors. For example, we can only read so much about candidates online; if we heard each other’s personal opinions and attended candidate debates, and then went out to vote based on the new knowledge we have learned from these personal interactions, we could be influencing our government and playing our part as citizens. If we increase our social participation and social capital, we will improve society. For instance, if we join organizations and clubs, we can have inter-personal communication and work together on projects and have face-to-face discussion versus just joining a Facebook group and posting emotionless opinions in a technological forum that does not provide for disputes nor compromise greater than the text written.

Think about it, we not only have texting and Facebook at the palms of our fingertips, but we also have access to the Internet and news. We can now listen to public speeches and debates on our smart phones and stay up to date on government policies. Should we be using technology to broaden our social engagement and move back to personal conversations with others about what we read? We are using technology for “social-networking,” while in reality our social engagement is declining. Should we be defining ourselves less with our phones and revert back to our face-to-face contact with others? Could having a cellular device with you at all times prove to be beneficial and cause more community involvement as our entire society embraces technology?

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17 Comments on “Is technology hurting social capital?”

  1. Steve Dougherty Says:

    Nonproductive of technology uses strike me as a lack of impulse control more than a fault of the technology. I agree that technology should be used to fortify meaningful interaction, and that it often seems like it’s not. I think part of it is that the government does not have much of an accessible Internet presence, and another part is that participating in government is not particularly fun. If voting were online in addition to the existing political discussion, that’d make things easier for me at least. That said, I have met people online that I otherwise would have never known existed, The more common side of that is someone not being available for conversation because they’re listening to music or texting.

  2. jordanwylie Says:

    I also agree that social networking as decreased our sense of community. For example, one of my friends on Facebook got married recently. Directly after the ceremony she updated her Facebook relationship status to “married” and changed her last name. I am not even sure she had left the church yet before she had pulled out her iphone to update her profile. I think that Facebook is a great way to stay connected to people who live far away, but when people are this addicted that they can’t go a few minutes without reading their news feed, then there is a problem.

    However, I don’t think there is anything wrong with reading about candidates and watching debates online. For some people, this may be their only chance to learn more. I think politicians can use the Internet to their advantage. The Internet is the new form of communication for the public. People can easily spread their viewpoints and platforms on social networking sites. As technology progresses, people will adapt to it. If politics does not adapt then constituents may see them as “old school” and not be as willing to vote for them.

    I think utilizing the Internet and social networking sites for political uses can be extremely beneficial. However, people need to realize that social networking sites do not take the place of partaking in your community and having real face-to-face interactions. Without how these personal interactions are community will sadly start to fail.

  3. blakesimons Says:

    This is an interesting post, and while I do understand your argument, I think the benefits of technology for social capital far outweigh the losses. I do not think technological advancements are at all causing a decline in social connections. On the contrary, I believe that advancements have effectively enhanced worldwide networking and communication. The power of the internet and other forms of technology are truly endless, and because of this, ideas and conversations are able to spread quicker and on a larger level. While these conversations may not be “face to face”, they do indeed still benefit social capital.

    Taking your example of a lack of involvement in politics into account, I think, oppositely of your view, that technological advancements have greatly increased political participation. You claim that citizens would be more interested and involved in politics if they “heard each other’s personal opinions and attended candidate debates”. I disagree with this because technology gives people a form for hearing more opinions. Imagine if an individual lived in an area in which a vast majority of the population held the same political opinions. In this case with the absence of technology, that individual will only be exposed to these particular views. What technology is able to do is to allow people to be exposed to a more diverse and wider array of views.

    Overall, I think that utilizing the internet and other technological sources can be extremely beneficial to social capital. While your view “that our desire for face-to-face communication is decreasing” is completely viable, that may not be such a bad thing. Technological communication has many benefits that face-to-face communication cannot always satisfy, and while it can be argued that a lack of face-to-face communication limits social capital, I believe that it has the great ability to strengthen and foster social ties and communication.

  4. cblaskie Says:

    I am a firm believer in Spiderman’s famous quote, “With great power comes great responsibility”. Technology gives us the ability to look up just about anything in the known world within seconds, and has the potential to be useful in intellectual conversation. The problem is with the people that use the technology, while the it has the potential to be a powerful and wonderful tool most people do not use it responsibly. Checking Facebook 100 times a day is not a responsible use of technology, I can see some merit in the argument that checking Facebook could facilitate conversation, but in excess it becomes a detriment to conversation. Technology as a whole is a good thing especially when used intelligently and responsibly, often times when I am having a conversation with my friends about something I don’t know much about I will look it up on my phone and then throw in my two cents. I feel that technology isn’t too blame for the decline in social capital, the people that use the technology irresponsibly are the ones to blame.

  5. ymsyed Says:

    I agree with most of the things that have been said so far. Technology can be considered both a benefit and a detriment to social capital in our society. In “Bowling Alone,” Putnam made the claim that the introduction of such things as “electronic networks” are simply another form of communication between individuals. Although he personally believed that meeting someone online would not be the same as meeting them in person, he acknowledged that only time would tell.

    I think it is important to understand–like a lot of you have been saying–that this has both its goods and bads. Facebook might keep many of us distracted in class, but it also was the main tool used to organized many of the revolutions in the Middle East in 2011. Without it, many protests would not have been able to organize at such a large scale. Putnam seemed to acknowledge in his article that things would simply be different. The way we interact with others and the way we view things is always changing, and social capital is no different.

  6. bsrobin Says:

    This is an issue and question that is becoming more prevalent than ever in the past few years. Smart phones, even after all of their advantages, are the primary factor for this deterioration in society of face to face interactions. Smart phones are the closest thing to have a computer in your pocket, which gives each person the ability to access any social media or communication tool necessary at any time. People never want to be left out or feel out of the loop so constant communication with friends in other places are actually destroying relationships with friends or people you are with. I like and agree with the point the author brought up about joining more clubs, which would increase personal interaction. Social networking is easy so people would prefer to join clubs or “groups” on facebook rather than actual clubs.

    When thinking about some social theorists, I wonder what Hobbes would think about this. He believed that any type of social interaction, idea, or disagreement should be encouraged because it promotes the transfer of information and ideas; the more there is to talk about the better society will be according to Hobbes. Well, facebook and online social networks have made the transfer of ideas and information easier than ever before but it comes at a price. Hobbes could have never imagined anything related to the internet or the web but I think he would still encourage this behavior. He may promote the joining of real clubs, however, but he would probably like the easy accessibility of social networking online.

    Having your phone with you at all times is great for work and your own accessibility from others but it does damage the face to face interactions that are decreasing in society. People will often go to their phones if there is a silent moment in the conversation and this small habit becomes a ritual and norm for conversations. Phones should be designed better to get in and out quicker so personal interactions can once again return.

  7. jacobdockser Says:

    I agree with some of the previous comments. While I think that the non-productive use of technology (such as insignificant browsing, stumbleupon, etc.) can be attributed to a lack of impulse control, I also think that these activities are favored because of our generations lack of desire to engage the world around us. This has lead to an increase in the participation of video games and online communities, however these avenues fail to bridge gaps between communities on a larger scale. When it comes to increasing communication and “social capital,” I believe combining gaming and other internet experiences with substancial cultural exchange. This has begun with social networks, however I think there is much more to achieve.

  8. danielpienkowski Says:

    Starting off with a short anecdote, two weeks ago while at a friend’s apartment, I left my phone indoors as we all left his place, only to realize shortly after that my friend had locked himself out. Bottom line: I wasn’t able to get my phone back for a full day. Only over the course of the day did I end up realizing how much I actually rely on my phone to stay in contact everyone and up to speed with what’s going on. It was actually quite disconcerting as I realized how just often I kept reaching into my pocket out of habit to check my phone or to contact someone, only to realize I didn’t have it on me. At first I thought that this was a sort of crippling addiction to technology, but I eventually realized that really, my phone provides a level of convenience that is almost necessary in my day to day life, as I’m sure is the case with the vast majority of people (especially college students) throughout the nation.
    I would argue that technology is more beneficial than it is detrimental to human capital. For example, my homepage is Yahoo!, so every time I open the internet browser I have access to worldwide news as well as trending stories on the internet. Whenever any shocking news breaks, it is widely discussed on Facebook and other social media sites, and thanks to that I’m allowed to discuss such issues with friends worldwide.
    Altogether, in agreement with the majority of the comments above, technology is a great tool to stay in touch with current events and stay in contact with others. It has also added new levels of convenience to everyday tasks and activities. However, everything must be in moderation. It shocks me when I hear stories about teens who send tens of thousands of texts a month, and other who spends the majority of the day in front of the TV, playing video games or watching television shows with little redeeming value. My high school English teacher my senior year was very “anti-technology”, and was greatly opposed to all social media sites. He viewed sites like Twitter and Facebook as extremely detrimental to one’s ability to express their thoughts and opinions eloquently as well as master social and conversational skills. He thought Twitter, for example, that limits posts to 140 characters, was to blame for the downfall our generation’s ability to truly express our thoughts as it unnaturally condensed and limited our thought patterns. Maybe he was just old-fashioned, or maybe he was onto something. In any case, I view the use technology to be analogous to the use of a credit card. A credit card is just a piece of plastic; it is neither “good” nor “evil” in and of itself. It is up to the card owner to decide how to use it – if they are smart, it is a great convenience with many benefits and practically no downfalls; if they abuse it and aren’t responsible, however, it can lead to lifelong struggles with debt. The same thing with technology – it is neither good nor bad, and it is up to us to be smart about the way we use it.

  9. mrau188 Says:

    I feel like people that use technology solely for their personal communication are missing out on some of the main points to why we have had these specific technologies invented in the first place. I believe that they should be used in this way. It helps us communicate with people when we would otherwise not be able to talk to them. For instance, back in high school you stay up super late texting your girlfriend because you cant just leave your house and you still want to talk with her. Your phone keeps all of the information that you would be required to carry around in a little black book in a device that you can also do way more things with. We are more connected to what is happening int he world around us which i believe in turn makes everyone that reads it a little bit better educated and this makes me feel like we should just be expanding on the technologies that have been invented with our social life. We don’t need to solely facebook message them, you could facebook while your are at the library studying and then call her to meet up for coffee after because you know she isn’t really doing anything else because she was just talking to you on facebook. The main point that I am trying to make is don’t let technology take over your social life use it as a tool to make your social life just that many times better.

  10. bmauto21 Says:

    When reading this post I think of the song, “It’s a Small World After All” that is played throughout a disney ride of the same name. Technology makes that song a reality. We truly are connected to anywhere in the world at any given time. While technology sometimes hinders relations (war) it also bridges the gap between societies. Without technology social capital would never be what it is today. Through the use o media, cell phones, and the internet, there is not place that can not be reached. combine this technology with the freedom of speech that our government grants us creates unlimited possibilities.
    Even our entire social life exists through technology. Facebook allows people to do what Mark Zuckerberg intended, it allows us to put our social life out there on the internet. technological advancements allow us to share our ideas with a vast majority of people and is an effective tool when it comes to politics. When thinking of the social capital that technology allows, we are truly blessed to be able to communicate to anyone anywhere in the world. It expands our horizons and allows for us to further everything that humanity is working for. We are truly one people that are separated by borders. The use of technology eliminates those borders and helps to further social capital.

  11. blogger32 Says:

    I thought this post was cool because it talks about issues I have spent a lot of time reading into since social media technology has taken off. One thing you mentioned that I definitely can relate to is how people are completely immersing themselves in their “cellular and technological lives” while forgetting about what is going on around them. I’ll be the first to admit, there have been times where I’ve seen someone walking towards me who I didn’t want to speak….so I did what most college students do in that situation…pull the cell phone out and pretend to be reading or sending a message. Additionally, I think people are becoming lazier due to technology. I know in my house my family has an intercom system, so instead of walking downstairs to discuss something with my mom, I’ll just do it over the phone. There have been many times, where because we are not communicating face to face, we haven’t been able to understand what the other is saying. I think this disconnect would not happen nearly as often if we spoke in person.

    Although the effects of technology I mentioned above seem to be pretty harmless, there are definitely times where that is not the case. Something I agree with in your post is that because we read so much news and media on our phones, we often lose interest in what other members of society have to say. I think that by interacting and engaging in conversation with other people, we are exposed to other opinions that help to broaden our views and make us more tolerant of others. Because we are so connected to technology, I do think people have become more narrow-minded, which can be a real negative to society. Although I’m not ready to say this may seriously influence an election, I definitely think our society is less tolerant and more narrow-minded than it was say 5 or 10 years ago. Hopefully, we can work on finding ways to still use our social media technologies, while not shutting out the thoughts and views of others.

  12. Danielle Studenberg Says:

    As you’ve stated, it’s not surprising to hear about the impact technology has had on our daily lives and relationships. We’ve become more distant with those around us and face-to-face contact is becoming more rare with time. Although there are many drawbacks to personal technology I believe that the benefits outshine them all.

    With the growth of technology and the Internet has also grown the phenomenon of blogging (which is what I’m doing now actually). Basically, this is the online-version of “grabbing coffee with friends to talk about current issues.” The Internet gives us unlimited access to news and information making these discussions more accurate and knowledgeable. Our sense of community can thus still thrive because of our virtual unity.

    Yes, I do believe we should use technology to broaden our social engagement. Personal conversations are important to human existence; we cannot simply talk to each other through social networking sites such as Facebook or Twitter. Face-to-face contact is necessary and still needs to be apart of our culture.

  13. ldahbour Says:

    This is an interesting point you bring up and was one that I discussed in my recent paper that I submitted. I believe that technology can create a tertiary association in organizations but that does not necessarily mean that it decreases the social capital that exists. Who is to say that the convenience of that technology did not encourage civil engagement? People are lazy, being able to keep up with life on iPhones might be the only reason people keep up at all. I run an organization here on the UM campus called Wolverine Tutors. It is an undergraduate ignited organization that uses Google Groups, Skype, and video editing software to tutoring Detroit high school students online. We never have to go to Detroit and all our work is done from the laptops of 45 active members. We are exercising civic engagement through tertiary association, which I believe Putnam would support as he states that America should not be so attached to the traditional requirements of being a member of an organization. Life gets busy, as Putnam talks about, and maybe the means by which the value of social capital is perceived is subject to change, rather than the value itself.

    However, if technology is used to in a nonproductive manner, perhaps it does pose a threat to social capital. As long as the benefit of society is kept in mind I feel like technology cannot hurt social capital. It may do the opposite and promote as our needs change in society with the advancement of technology.

  14. godzillagti Says:

    There are obviously pros and cons to this technological debate. What is funny to look at is the fact that this post was written for class credit, but was most likely written in someone’s bedroom or the library all alone. The class requires that we use technology rather than keeping it old fashion and writing our posts on paper. Society is becoming much more technologically involved and we’ve gotten to the point where people believe that they can’t function without their phone. The truth is, they can. Our parents have survived years without cell phones or computers wherever we go. They didn’t have the option to look at their phone and pretend to text while someone was sitting next to them on a bus. Technology is separating us physically, but it can bring us together mentally. I may be at home on Facebook, away from my friends, but I can still have conversations with them and express my idea through the internet or my phone. Overall I think that what society needs is to back off of the heavy cell phone and internet usage. I personally have been trying this my freshman year in college. I text quite a lot and I even check my phone constantly to see if I got a message, but once it is 10 p.m. I turn my phone off. I’m still spend time with my friends in real life, i go to communal meetings and eat lunch with others. If society learns to balance their usage of technology and become more social with those around them, then I find all of this technology to be beneficial to society without hindering our social skills.

  15. samhock15 Says:

    This is a very relevant topic that needs to be discussed. I sit in class and instead of most students intently paying attention to the lecture being presented by their professor, they are occupied by their private life. These students are either texting on their cell phones or on their Facebook page. The advancements of technology never seem to end. Does this mean that people are going to keep their private lives more reserved and hidden from the rest of society? Not only has the technology movement driven people to be more private in their daily lives, but it has also effected the productivity of people in the workforce. With a weak economy and the unemployment rate way above the natural unemployment rate, it is essential that people are more focused on their jobs and less focused on what their friends are doing at that present moment. This is effecting the whole country because this is a trend that occurs in all professions. The abuse of technology also sends a negative message to this countries youth. It sends the message that it is alright to not pay full attention to important daily activities, but to instead be glued to a cell phone screens. Also, cell phones are used as an excuse during meetings and discussions. These meetings are designed to relay messages between multiple people, however, cell phones make this process much more difficult and unsuccessful. People lose focus and become dazed in the vast amount of technological opportunities that are very easily accessible. The internet serves as another barrier between the coercion of people. All these technological advances make it extremely difficult to take a large group of people and ideas and turn them into one proposal that takes pieces of all these individual ideas into account. Therefore, restrictions in the workplace and in schools need to be installed in order to help humans maximize their potential.

  16. mnilya Says:

    If politics/democracy is about a community making collective decisions for the betterment of the body they inhabit, then social networking is the tool to slowly degrade it. Websites like Twitter and Facebook train individuals to care less about the community, and more about themselves, teach them to value their OWN views over the views of others, and even physically cuts people off from their community (literally isolating them- mentality developed by someone typing on a computer vs. someone physically conversing in a forum of people). They feel less obligated to make decisions for the community/with the betterment of the community in mind and feel more inclined to blindly push their own ideals.
    Everything about social networking caters to individuals rather than a community and this only fosters egocentric, self-indulgent expectations from those participating. We create personal profiles with hundreds of photos of ourselves; we tell everyone how we feel with statuses; we send out “tweets” about everything we’re experiencing in a day. Yes, we’re technically “interacting” with people (in the sense that information is exchanged), but at the end of the day we’re just painting an image of ourselves for the public. Talking at each other, rather than with.

    With so much time and thought spent in a day on ourselves, it’s hard to imagine how technology has NOT turned us into a society of self-interested individuals completely oblivious to any sense of community. Instead of being a collective of citizens open to conversation, willing to hear different ideas and thus progress as a society, I fear we’ll turn into a collection of uncooperative individuals completely confident and stubborn in our own values and convictions. Every man is “right” and fighting for himself, unconditionally standing behind his beliefs. No one learns to understand (or even just tolerate) different perspectives.

    The Internet grooms us to have no need or regard for a community, the concentration is only on you. Instead of turning to each other (for answers to our questions or for face-to-face interaction) we do a quick Google search, or post a statement on someone’s Facebook wall. Instead of helping each other, technology helps each of us separately. We’re spoiled by and dependent on the instant gratification and ease of the Internet. As the Internet has given you the power/opportunity to be well versed and well equip to form a perspective that is truly your own, social networking instills the bad habits that keeps you from understanding anyone else’s perspective that strays too far from your own.

    This is an extreme view, and I’m kind of playing devil’s advocate here, but still. I wouldn’t be surprised if (in the FUTURE) social networking and technology is deemed responsible for making us a generation of individuals unable to cooperate, empathize or come to make (progressive) agreements.

  17. dkap7 Says:

    Technology has brought a lot of positive components to society that would not be there without these advancements, however, has technology stripped away a social aspect that has been a part of this world forever? In my opinion it has tainted the way we connect with the outside world and connect with other people. There is a lot less face to face conversations because of the advances of the cell phones, computers, and internet. These devices allow for all these messages and strips people of their emotions because as everyone knows it is close to impossible to understand the complete emotions that are represented in a single text message. It partially strips society of its creativity and definitely strips society a connection to the environment. For the most part, people do not walk around soaking in the beauties and purities that can be experienced on a leisurely walk, but instead have their eyes planted on the screen reading emails and text messages. It takes away a whole dimension of society that has been prevalent for thousands upon thousands of years. In my opinion this dimension was extremely important to social capital. It allowed people to be in peace with nature and not only that it helped calm people down. The speed at which society moves is continuing to increase, which in a sense helps improve society, however it does cause a lot more anxiety and stress amongst people. People are always in a constant rush and never are able to take a moment out of their day to just indulge in what is going around them without worrying about all these media devices.

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