Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Social Networks, Fast Food and Evolution.

Lost in Space

Humanity has been subject to the laws of physics and the dictates of Mother Nature since the birth of the species. Evolution shaped humankind over hundreds of thousands of years to operate within the natural world. Human psychology is still embedded within brain structures that were optimized for the pre-technological past. So it makes sense to keep an eye out for issues that arise when ancient biology meets modern technology.

Most problems related to modern life are caused by "legacy" brains and bodies that can't respond appropriately to a radically changed environment. For instance, historically unprecedented calorie counts are reflected in widespread obesity. The introduction of manufactured chemicals into the food-chain have created a corresponding increase in many diseases.

I don't think humans ever quite adapted psychologically to the move from tribal hunter-gathering to urban wage-earning within nuclear families. It seems to me that one of the main reasons for the explosion in social networking is a powerful subconscious drive to reclaim the sense of being an integral part of a tribal family that is embedded in the web of life. Although the focus of the desire is healthy, I suspect that a radical transition to social networks and virtual relationships may be the psychological analogue to the turn to cheap and abundant junk food.

Just as humans can feel genuinely connected in virtual spaces when they are separated physically, so too can people be light-years apart when they share the same physical space. The ongoing maintenance of intimate real world relationships requires commitment and ongoing effort. I fear that many people are bailing out on the work of deepening their face-to-face relationships by turning to less demanding and much more disposable virtual connections.

How are virtual relationships and "screen time" impacting your relationships in the physical world? That's certainly a question worth asking.

There's a sister-post on the fourworlds site with a song that speaks to this topic.



Lalo Telling said...

Short answer: I have no physical-world relationships. So, in that respect, my 'screen time' isn't affecting them at all.

The opposite question, for which I don't have an answer, is: Is my screen time an excuse for not seeking relationships off-screen? Or, would I have no relationships at all, were it not for the virtual ones?

In any case, I don't consider virtual relationships "disposable". Turn the computer on the next day, log in to SL or Twitter, check the blogs and forums... they're all still there.

Maybe, to use your analogy, the way to keep the mind healthy is also analogous: avoid junk food, and exercise.

Botgirl Questi said...

Thanks for asking that important opposite question!

By disposable, I meant easier to walk away from if you want to. It's a lot easier to move to a different sim than to move to a different city. Which has nothing to do, of course, with how important or committed a relationship is.

When I started writing this post, it was more focused on the web-of-life thread, but eventually morphed into the relationship focus.

Crone on the Loose OG said...

I am in awe of your insight :) I am constantly reminded and amazed at the power of the parts of our brain which seem to think we need to hunt berries and stalk elk.

I remember reciting back to my mom when i was a kid "humans are social animals" ... i really didn't know what i was saying, but at the basis of that statement is, i believe, what you mentioned about the getting back to communites or tribes, and of course more .. i mean the cosmic implications.. i would talk too much :)

And of course our online relationships affect our offline relationships. All relationships affect each other whether virtual or physical as both are genuine connections.

sororNishi said...

While online relationships do affect all aspects of our lives, I am in doubt that this is purely the negative effect that is often implied.
I believe strongly that the best elements of an online relationship, platonic or otherwise can be a very positive influence on how we meet others in all worlds.
Any true friendship where I feel I am liked, respected, valued, in spite of my weaknesses, is going to have a good effect on my self-respect, and, obviously, improve my interaction with others.
Once again I wonder if there is actually any difference where I live my life (inworld or not) as the 'rules' are the same.......play nicely.

Sassy said...

I love the ongoing discussion across many blogs, forums, and occasionally even face to face regarding virtual relationships. I'm glad to have yet another place to continue it! ;)

I don't believe in virtual relationships. There are relationships, and there are the media through which we enact and maintain those relationships.

In days of yore, face to face was the only available medium, but that has not been true for centuries. The advent of writing letters changed that permanently. There are many fine examples of friendships and even romance conducted via post going back quite a long time. In the last two centuries the telegraph, telephone, and more recently such media as email, SMS, and virtual worlds have increased the means by which people conduct relationships.

The primary differentiators of so-called "virtual relationships" from "real relationships" are whether one has ever had a face to face encounter with a person, and whether the relationship involves knowledge of one's "real name" and characteristics. Whether these differentiators are as significant as we assume is debatable.

I have a "virtual" relationship in which we communicate almost every day, often for hours. We know each other's daily activities, health concerns, job frustrations, and feelings. We lean on each other for emotional support, encouragement, and validation. And yet we do not know each other's names in the "real world", don't know what the other looks like, don't know addresses, phone numbers, or employers.

Contrast that with a sibling with whom I was raised. We lived together until the elder of us left for college. We share parents, other relatives, know each other's private information and oldest secrets. And yet we rarely speak, and then only in polite and somewhat distant ways. Our paths have diverged, and while we still care about each other, and help when we can, we are not close like I am with my "virtual" friend.

Could I "walk away from" my virtual relationship? Theoretically, yes. Does that make it any less valuable or real? Not to me.

There are certainly cases in which people have allowed a relationship conducted via electronic means to crowd out one that is supposed to be face-to-face. While it's sad to see a marriage or other committed relationship break up, I'd put forth the idea that all of one's relationships are in competition for one's time. If you allow your most important relationships to be damaged by any other relationship, you have the same issue. The fact that it is an online relationship causing the rift is no more sad than breaking up because the husband would rather be spending his time with his buddies at the bowling alley.

I have, at times, allowed one relationship to impact another. I'd bet we all have. Nonetheless, I can state categorically that at the present time, my most important relationships, both in cyberspace and in meatspace, are better than they have ever been before. The things I have learned in "virtual" relationships have allowed me to be better to the people in my physical life, and vice versa. I am mindful of the time I spend, and am careful to spend it wisely.

I'd also say that I am richly blessed with wonderful people in all of my various "lives". Learning to treasure the people you care about, wherever and whomever they may be, is key to happy relationships.

Sassy said...

Pardon the double post.

I'd like to add, in regard to Botgirl's original post, that tribalism is most certainly alive and well, from political parties to social organizations to family reunions to membership in online communities. The increase in communication capacity and the interconnections available via the web have caused an explosion of tribes, for better or worse.

And often the ancient tribal means of conflict persist as well, though thankfully internet flames cause less physical damage than a tree branch upside the head. On the other hand, the emotional damage that can be inflicted can be every bit as awful and permanent.

However advanced we may think we have become, it's readily apparent that the inner ape is buried in a very shallow grave, if at all. We are still learning how to use the tools we have made to make our lives better, and not worse.

Botgirl Questi said...

zola: Marshall McLuhan wrote "“We drive into the future using only our rear view mirror.”

soror: I was thinking more about the amount of time spent staring at a screen, vs. interacting with those in our physical environment...and within the natural world itself. I just read an article that American youth average 1/2 of their waking hours in front of a screen. Who knows how this trend will play out in the long run, but I think it's worth being conscious of the impact to the extent that we can discern it.

Sassy: I think a lot of the energy of the cognitive part of the human brain is spent rationalizing the urges of its older siblings. :)

iliveisl said...

what a truly fascinating post! i loved it and it has expanded my yardstick, thank you =)

oh nice points Lalo - same here - i value my virtual self (even though facebook said boo to the Ener wiener) and i can't walk away or dump Ener Hax, it is part of me - it is my inner child running free and smiling ear-to-ear (which makes the real one smile too!)