Keep in Touch

Why digital connections can’t sustain health, happiness or politics.

A quarter of a century ago, before the internet age really got going, I was having lunch one day with one of Toronto’s media heavyweights. As the meal was winding down, he said, out of the blue: “I had the strangest experience this past weekend. A friend invited me to his Ukrainian Orthodox Church for Easter services. It was absolutely creepy—all these people standing up in unison, sitting down in unison, praying, kneeling, chanting, crossing themselves in unison. Totally weird.”

“Doesn’t sound so weird to me,” I said. “It sounds like a community.”

“Community!” jeered my lunch mate. “Listen. Tonight is the Oscars, right? Millions and millions of people all over the world will be watching that event together—live! That’s what I call community.”

I have never forgotten that startling exchange, and as the wired world has gradually tightened its invisible grip over the real one, I have remained fascinated by the tension between the two and the ongoing debate between each side’s champions and critics. While Elinor Ostrom wins the Nobel Prize for her work on small economic communities that are run by users rather than by governments or corporations, a chorus of cybersingers—Nicholas Negroponte, Don Tapscott and Jeff Bezos, for example—paint an increasingly detailed picture of McLuhan’s prescient metaphor, the Global Village. Yes, there are international events that turn us all into citizens of Planet Earth—the Kennedy assassination, the moon landing, September 11, climate change—facilitated more and more by our expanding communications networks. But does that kind of global reach make us feel more connected, healthier, smarter and more valued? In these books, four Canadian authors wrestle with that question.

 

Heather Menzies describes herself as a “recovering expert.” With a stream of books behind her and an Order of Canada for her social justice activism and “contributions to public discourse,” she reached a point a couple of years ago where she felt she had come to an impasse in her work. She had witnessed “the scope for common ground and the common good slip away with both the loss of community locally and the withering of the social welfare state,” and had no idea what to suggest to stop the erosion. “I knew what I was against, but not what I was FOR,” she writes in the opening pages of Reclaiming the Commons for the Common Good: A Memoir and Manifesto. Having reached grandmother status, she sloughed off her credentials and went in search of her personal roots in the highlands of Scotland, feeling “a vague sense of wanting to dwell in a state of unlearning and even unknowing.”

What she found, at a ghost-filled place called Tullicro in Perthshire, was the remains of a fermtoun, the pre-modern commons community her ancestors had farmed. The Roman historian Tacitus had noted these Gaelic settlements, describing them as “chiefly democratic.” While each family had its own small strip of land called a kailyard to grow oats and barley, the majority of the land was farmed in common with large standing stones marking the fermtoun’s boundaries. In the summer, the entire village would move with its flocks to the upper grazing grounds, the shieling, also held and managed in common. “All were neighbors, all belonged together, though this didn’t rule out resentment and dissent,” Menzies writes. “The point was that all were also bound together by mutual obligation and mutual self-interest, and reminded of this every day.”

With the Norman Conquest, things changed. Now the lands were parcelled out to the king’s lords and barons, with the locals permitted to farm in their old commoning ways “by tolerance” and in exchange for set annual fees of agricultural produce. And then, a few centuries later, came John Locke, clearly the villain of Menzies’s story, with his reification and sanctification of private property, leading directly to the Clearances in the mid 19th century and to the migration of thousands of landless families to Canada.

It is a sad and familiar tale well told. For Menzies, it clearly has a spiritual dimension that readers may or may not feel in accord with, one that draws her close to indigenous Canadians as they try to express to the rest of us their connection to the land and to all of Nature. Serious activists may be interested in the “manifesto” sections of her book—an update of 1960s back-to-the-land hippiedom—but for the 80 percent of Canadians who dwell in cities and suburbs, perhaps the strongest takeaway from this volume is a new way of thinking about ourselves. “The commons,” she writes, “is a way of doing and organizing things as implicated participants, not observers, consultants, consumers, job holders or portfolio managers.” In other words, dig in, get your hands dirty, listen to others, make your thoughts known and be prepared to take responsibility for common decisions.

 

Alfred Hermida’s Tell Everyone: Why We Share and Why It Matters is so far at the other end of the spectrum from Menzies that they are virtually invisible to each other. A former BBC journalist who now teaches at the University of British Columbia, Hermida might cavil at being compared to Menzies, noting that his book is about how we communicate, not how we live. That is true, but he notes impressively that “by 2014, the average American adult was spending eleven hours per day watching TV, listening to the radio, checking their smartphone or going online on their computer. The figure is even higher for millennials: they’re spending up to eighteen hours a day skimming the web, using social media, watching TV, playing video games and more, doing several of these things all at the same time.” With numbers like that, it is fair to postulate that we are breathing a new kind of oxygen in the waking hours of our lives.

Hermida would deny that, though. The main through-line of his book is that we have not changed: that Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram are simply new tools we are employing to do what we have always done since we gossiped about each other around campfires in front of our caves. In fact, Hermida sees the past 200 years of the professional development of mass media as “more like an anomaly in the history of news than the natural order.” By allowing millions of us back into the conversation, social media has mitigated one-way journalistic pronouncements about what is important. The difference between a few dozen villagers (many of whom are related to each other) sharing crop information and untold hordes retweeting Justin Bieber’s latest folly is, apparently, negligible.

Tell Everyone is a mixture of familiar stories (the Colorado movie theatre killings, the internet storm over Joseph Kony, the Japanese tsunami, the Boston Marathon bombings, the Haitian earthquake) and mind-boggling numbers: the photo of Barack hugging Michelle on the night of his second election victory in 2012 “quickly set a new record for the most shared post in the history of social media. In less than twenty-four hours, almost four million people clicked to ‘like’ the photo and more than 500,000 people shared it on their own Facebook pages. On Twitter, it was passed on more than 750,000 times.” It turns out—surprise!—that the things that really take off around the internet campfire are those that are “exhilarating, hilarious, astonishing or uplifting” on the one hand (“feel-good stories” in the hack trade), and infuriating or disgusting on the other (“Air Canada Loses Greyhound”). Hermida cautions that “there are consequences when our social circles become our editorial filters, privileging the sensational over the important and the amusing over the earnest.”

Precisely. The problem with Hermida’s analysis lies in his subtitle: “why we share and why it matters.” He does report a number of answers to the “why we share” part, although most of them seem either idealistic or self-serving: “people … are driven by a desire to nourish relationships with others”; “it feels like I’m helping out people who need to know this stuff”; “digital sharing is the latest expression of the ritual exchange of goods and information that fosters social capital.” And to give all of this some scientific cred, Hermida cites UCLA research that shows how the temporoparietal junction in the brain, the part that considers other people’s reactions, lights up “when people find something interesting, helpful or amusing to pass on.”

But when it comes to “why it matters,” Hermida’s examples tell their own depressing tale about why it does not. Probably his favourite story, which he returns to over and over throughout the book, is that of the Arab Spring and especially the mesmerizing 18 days of the Tahrir Square protests in Cairo in 2011. Yes, we can all agree that social media played a key role in galvanizing and organizing protestors and in demonstrating support for the deposition of Mubarak, especially around the English-speaking world. However, and Hermida does note this, when Egyptians went to the polls later that year, they voted first for the Muslim Brotherhood and second for the hardline Salafists. “A year later came a military coup,” which put everything more or less back in Mubarak territory.

Other examples have similar outcomes: Joseph Kony, as far as we know, is alive and well somewhere in South Sudan; Enrique Peña Nieto made it successfully to the Mexican presidency in spite of a viral campaign called #YoSoy132; the Occupy and Idle No More movements … well. As Hermida says rather wistfully, “Tweets don’t topple governments. But that doesn’t mean they don’t matter.”

What the social media universe seems to be best at, in terms of the common good, is helping out instantly during enormous physical crises—earthquakes, tsunamis, floods and fires. And that’s an excellent thing. But is it, in Hermida’s words, “the glue that helps societies prosper and endure”? Doubtful.

 

With books like Menzies’s and Hermida’s such distant poles apart, one cannot help craving something that might restore a bit of balance. Susan Pinker delivers in spades. She writes, a little sarcastically, “some say we’re more connected now than ever—mostly due to the Internet—and some say we’re less connected—mostly due to the Internet. Both views are correct.” While it is clear in The Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier and Happier that the Montreal-based psychologist is more comfortable with Menzies’s bottom line than with Hermida’s, she nevertheless lives in the real 21st century with all the devices a plugged-in professional needs to survive. It is just that she clearly understands those devices’ limitations in terms of our personal and social well-being, and backs up her views with an impressive array of biological, psychological and brain research.

I think I have got this right: hormones such as adrenaline and corticosteroids, which our bodies produce in very stressful situations, can be valuable to Olympic athletes in competition but can wreak havoc with normal folks’ tissues and physical resilience. At the top of the list of very stressful situations for humans is loneliness or isolation, as the recent debate over solitary confinement in Canadian prisons has indicated. Genuine social contact—face to face, touching, talking, not Facebook or any other kind of screen time—encourages the body instead to produce endorphins (endogenous opiates) that quell pain, relax you and make you feel good about your life.

Throughout the book come Pinker’s examples: isolated female lab rats developed 84 times as many breast cancer tumours as female rats living in groups. In the United States, more than 62 million people say they are socially isolated and unhappy, more than half of those living alone. A 15-year study of older nuns in Wisconsin and Minnesota indicated that their risk of dying in any given year was 25 percent lower than for other women their age, in spite of eating diets high in animal fats and hardly exercising at all. The epidemiologist studying them put it down to their strong sense of belonging, as well as their spirituality. In spite of all the hoopla over MOOCs (massive open online courses) as magic bullets for underprivileged students, on average 90 percent of the students who enrol in them drop out, and only 3 percent say they feel satisfied with the experience. One particularly stunning conclusion comes from Linda Pagani at the Université de Montréal, who followed a group of 1,314 Canadian children, from age two up to age ten. “Every additional hour of [daily] TV exposure among toddlers corresponded to a future decrease in classroom engagement, less success at math, increased victimization by classmates, a more sedentary lifestyle, higher consumption of junk food and ultimately a higher body mass index.” Older married men drop like flies when their wives die, “a danger that ratchets even higher among more educated men.”

Being married does not solve the problem of social isolation because, as Pinker says, you are only one person away from being entirely on your own. “It’s social integration that matters most,” she writes, “being married and belonging to a religious group and playing bridge every Wednesday and volunteering at the church.” In an echo of Menzies’s somewhat utopian vision of the commons, Pinker ends her fact-finding mission with a visit to Pleasant Hill, California, a community of about 50 adults and their kids in 32 tangerine stucco houses who “created a village” back in 1999. They all go to their jobs, but on Sundays they check the community chore roster to see what needs doing.

Pinker is not completely enthusiastic about the value of face-to-face relationships. In her chapter, “When Money Really Talks,” she retells the story of Earl Jones, the Montreal financial planner whose ponzi schemes between 1982 and 2009 bilked 160 victims, many of them widows, out of $51 million. His trump card was that he had known his victims forever and they all trusted him. “He dealt with a lot of little old ladies,” said one woman who had known Jones since high school. “He had the looks and the gift of the gab.” Even more importantly, perhaps, the scammer and his victims all hailed from the somewhat beleaguered anglo minority in Montreal post 1976, so that, as Pinker writes, “homophily [love of same] intensified, as did mutual trust within a group that had battened down the hatches.”

 

Which brings us to the last book in this quartet, Belonging: The Paradox of Citizenship by journalist Adrienne Clarkson. The paradox, as she sees it, is that “we are most fully human, most truly ourselves, most authentically individual, when we commit to the community.” Margaret Thatcher’s famous dictum of the 1970s—“There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and their families”—earns Clarkson’s scorn: “that is a simple view suited to simple minds.” Clearly our former governor general has Canada—an ideal, multicultural, diverse, tolerant version of Canada, at least—in mind as a model of belonging, although she meanders from ancient Athens to medieval France to Bantu Africa to modern-day Bhutan in getting to it.

Since every Canadian, except for our indigenous population, started out from immigrant roots, we accept all newcomers on an equal footing with us, says Clarkson. This thinking makes us exceptional in the western world: Europeans are puzzled by our egalitarian view of citizenship, and whereas the Americans refer to immigrants as “resident aliens,” Canada calls them “permanent residents.” Her own arrival on these shores in 1942 as part of a refugee family gives her standing and credibility in these definitional matters, and it is interesting that she uses the same word as Menzies to describe the historically based responsibility Canadian immigrants bear toward the whole population: “everybody, like me, who makes the conscious choice that this is going to be their home and native land becomes implicated in all of our history, and therefore implicated in the consciousness of our past.”

This all sounds wonderful and responsible and endorphin producing, but Clarkson’s comparisons certainly give one pause. The glory that was Greece has been somewhat tarnished in modern times by the increasing awareness of how narrow the Athenian voting cohort was (no women, no slaves, nobody whose parents were born outside of Athens) and the downright bloodthirstiness of the city-state’s treatment of its enemies. Its slaughter of the adult male and enslavement of the female and juvenile population of Melos, for example, make the place sound like a 2,500-year-old version of ISIS. But Clarkson loves the combination of individual freedom and communal responsibility that she believes ancient Greece exemplified: “for all its flaws, Athenian democracy still has much to say to us, and for that reason we cling to its components as if to particularly well-balanced pieces of an ongoing shipwreck.” Shipwreck? Surely democracy, with certain setbacks, has improved since Pericles’s Athens, not deteriorated.

And then there is Bhutan. Clarkson’s final chapter is titled “Gross National Happiness,” a measurement introduced to that landlocked Himalayan kingdom back in 1972, consisting of four Buddhist-inspired values: generosity, ethics, patience or tolerance, and perseverance, which she believes can work equally well as guideposts for the further development of the Canadian national character. All well and good, but it is more than a little surprising that she does not mention the problem of the Lhotshampa refugees, an ethnic minority that was forcibly ejected from Bhutan in the 1990s and ended up in refugee camps in neighbouring Nepal. It is a bit like discussing modern Israel without mentioning the Palestinians. Bhutan’s social serenity appears to be based on quite stringent ethnic definitions, which makes it a very odd choice as a model for a sprawling multi-ethnic society such as Canada.

The good thing about Clarkson’s analysis of Canada is that it is based on what she calls a “passive acceptance” of others rather than a requirement to love them all. “We must understand each other’s realities. In doing so we will be able to recognize that others are not like us and never will be, but we still have to give them their space, as they, we hope, will give us ours.” I can live with that.

 

It seems clear that the difference between leading isolated and connected lives comes down, in very large part, to personal choices: joining a community garden, signing up to Facebook, attending church, heading to the gym, volunteering or curling up in your favourite chair with a good book. Yet there are larger public policy implications to these debates as well, none more pressing than in the field of education. In a country such as Canada, even though our education system is splintered into provincial shards, it is arguably one of our strongest nation-building tools and our best shot at making all of us, from kindergarten up, feel part of a common endeavour. Whatever weakens our schools weakens our social fabric.

Which takes us back to Susan Pinker, who spends a large chunk of her book detailing the massive amounts of current research on the impact the digital revolution is having on teaching, learning and the school environment. Starting in the early 2000s, she recounts, “seductive new technologies whipped parents, teachers, school administrators and even governments into a fundraising frenzy. Cupcakes were sold by the thousands to get computers into classrooms.” The U.S. has ponied up more than $40 billion for laptops, SMART Boards and other digital gear, the United Kingdom and Australia concommitantly massive numbers (she does not cite any from Canada). And what effect has all this technology had on learning? No significant difference, is Pinker’s verdict from the scores of evaluations she has digested. In one American study of 10,000 grade six students from 33 school districts, in fact, the laptop students’ math skills actually fell behind those of their peers.

Partly this is because, kids being kids, they tend to use their laptops for playing games instead of doing schoolwork; and partly, Pinker surmises, it is because the teachers are given little training in how to use the new devices effectively. Not that she is down on teachers: in fact, some of the research she has uncovered about the effect of a great teacher in a student’s life is astounding. Quoting the authors of a 2012 study by the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research of 2.5 million American families, she finds that one year with a great teacher between grades four and eight boosts the odds of the student attending college, earning more, living in a better neighbourhood and even saving more for retirement! So it is sobering to read, later in the book, that good face-to-face teaching is becoming a luxury item. In Miami-Dade County in Florida, children are being placed in teacherless online classrooms against their will, while smart, savvy and solvent Americans enrol their kids in low-tech Waldorf schools where the teachers are good and the tuition is $20,000 a year.

 

As Alfred Hermida writes at the end of Tell Everyone, today’s constant flow of information is ours to use. But it is important to remember that that is all it is: a flow of information, some well thought out, some deeply crazy. If we allow it to define our quality of life, our relationships and our deeds, we are in trouble.