Ever since the popularization of the Internet, a debate has raged—within and without Christian circles—about the effect of the medium on human development and relationships. A serious and plausible charge against the Web came from those who thought its mode of disembodied communication would alter the form of human interaction for the worse. (See, for example, Quentin Schultze’s Habits of the High-Tech Heart, reviewed in the Journal of Markets & Morality by Megan Maloney.)

As is usually the case with new technologies, an accurate assessment of the effect of the Internet seems to be a weighing of tradeoffs. That’s the gist of an interesting interview on Zenit today (daily dispatch 7/12/06). Psychologist G. Alexander Ross summarizes the findings of various studies that gauge the impact of cyber communication on human relationships. Here’s one passage:

This limitation in the richness of communication has obvious disadvantages, yet research suggests some interesting compensations.

Social psychological research shows that physical attractiveness often has a more powerful influence on relationship formation than the deeper, more significant personal factors that we would prefer to influence friendship formation.

Although members of some of the cyber communities will share personal photos and other media as well as messages of text, the physical characteristics of the individual are not normally visible to the communicators. This can allow the deeper personal characteristics of the individual to be more salient in the interaction that occurs.

One interesting laboratory experiment found that subjects who met for the first time on the Internet liked each other more than those who first met each other face-to-face.

Today, too, Reuters has this story on telecommuting, which indicates that many potential in-home workers choose to go to the office because they “miss the social interaction.”

The verdict is still out on the long-term impact of the Internet, but early evidence suggests that it is not unlike other technological advances in its potential for both benefit and detriment. On social interaction in particular, there are surely limitations to distant and disembodied communication, but people are negotiating those limitations in diverse ways (by choosing not to telecommute, for example, or by using e-mail to initiate or sustain relationships that will end or began as face-to-face). The social nature of the person cannot be suppressed.

  • Clare Krishan

    Ever since I read about Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi theory of mind back in 1990s I have been intrigued about the implications for online behaviour. An outline of his book “FLOW: THE PSYCHOLOGY OF OPTIMAL EXPERIENCE” can be found at
    http://web.ionsys.com/~remedy/FLOW%20%20.htm
    University of Pennsylvania lecturer Martin E.P. Seligman, author of “Authentic Happiness,” says Csikszentmihalyi’s work on improving lives has been important in his own effort to encourage psychologists to focus on building human strengths (virtuous conduct) in a movement called positive psychology. Wikipedia characterizes three degrees of flow, a phenomenology whose underside I paraphrase thus:
    *Pleasant* *Life* or the “life of enjoyment” examines how people optimally experience, forecast, and savor the positive feelings and emotions (e.g. relationships, hobbies, interests, entertainment, etc.)
    _Averse_risks_ hedonism, addictive pathologies, unhealthy neglect of self and personal responsibilities.
    *Good* *Life* or the “life of engagement” investigates the beneficial affects of immersion, absorption, and flow that individuals experience when confident their strengths match the task they are doing (e.g. vocational aptitude, supervisory responsibility, accumulation of assets, artistic discernment)
    _Hazards_of_indifference_ egoistic pursuit of surpassing accomplishments, identification of obstacles as ‘unworthy’, to be eliminated, illiberal individualism/elitism.
    *Meaningful* *Life* or “life of affiliation” questions how individuals derive a positive sense of well-being, belonging, meaning, and purpose from being part of and contributing back to something larger and more permanent than themselves (e.g. nature, social groups, organizations, movements, traditions, belief systems)
    _Detrimental_conceits_ utilitarianism, intolerance towards deficits/faults, isolationism, coersive paternalism.

    It isn’t a case of degree, negative aspects of online socialization can be seen in all three:
    ~~ unbridled concupiscence in the ‘flow of pleasure’ enslaves souls in pursuit of self-gratification via IM/text messaging, file-sharing piracy, online gambling, anonymous sensuality;
    ~~ unqualified ‘flow of ideas’ deceives souls into pursuing efficient means of material gain without ultimate purpose, self-validation being notoriously precarious; and lastly
    ~~ unreflective ‘flow of compliance’ can entrap souls in imprudent associations, imposing metaphysical obstacles that restrict liberty and deny inherent dignity, e.g. radical forms of human relationships, certain despotic political dogmas and the majority of exploitative spiritual cults.

    IMHO the most effective guard against “going-with-the-flow” into ‘being-in-the-zone’ is to call to mind our dependence on a higher power. None of the positive things we experience are of our own making, they are all gifts from on high for the purpose of helping us return to His side. Those whose narcissism hinders self-awareness are most vulnerable to the vagaries of online vanity. Hopefully most of us have a healthy sense of proportion, yet we could all do well to consider how our online habits reflect Ad Gloriam Dei. ;-)