Technology and Social Isolation

By Chris Barylick

Contributing Editor


Coming home for Thanksgiving last November, I noticed something: my family had finally shoved itself forward in terms of its technological knowledge, spouting geek speak and e-mail addresses to contact each other by. The relatives who would call tech support if their computers were unplugged had discovered Instant Messenger, Yahoo’s chat client and ICQ. Technical wisdom was palpable over the Barylick dining room table, complete with its Irish bread, mashed potatoes and semi-incinerated turkey. The most unlikely people in the known universe to grasp technology had finally gotten a hold of it. 1994’s “Information Superhighway” predictions had come true.

For the most part, technology is an inherently a good thing. Even if only a few web sites that show a profit don’t offer hot chat with sexy coeds, the current Internet is a rich, strange and vibrant place with an unbelievable amount of information to its name. We can communicate more easily than ever before, share files, entertain ourselves and contribute to discussions with minimal effort. What was purely science fiction 30 years ago is now a concrete reality that has pervaded most of our lives. There are plenty of ways to get lost in this world of wires and numbers, and sometimes you can lose a part of yourself in the process.

I can’t fully explain this without telling some of my own story, or more specifically, the story of a friend. Call him “David”, it’s what other people call him and isn’t equivalent to handing out his online handle, the thing that may define him more than his actual name.

I met David back in my sophomore year of high school, and being of the same geek/nerd mentality in a jock-centered population, we got along famously. I was tall and gangly, passing for a malnutrition victim at 5’11” and 104 pounds. David was heavy and uncoordinated, suffering for his lack of ability to stop soccer balls with his body and wondering what the point of this was when I met him. Allergic to almost everything, and constantly reliant on an inhaler, there was no way for him to fit in. But he knew computers inside and out, this making up for quite a bit in his life. We were the Mac geeks, the loser nerds of the school and we had this in common. Friendships have been based on less.

While I returned home every night to sit down, tackled my homework and hacked around on my family’s LC II with programs that made it whimper in pain (Bryce on an LC II IS possible, by the way), David absorbed himself even more deeply. He hid. In his room. With nothing but an LC III, a PowerBook, a vast number of peripherals, programming books and a slew of pets to keep him company, David began to avoid people and place his existence into the technology he loved. The people on IRC and MUD zones quickly became better friends than the inconsistent ones in his real life. With nine e-mail addresses, dungeons to code into existence and Unix to learn, everything was taken care of minus family, friends, school, bodily functions and the occasional movie that pulled him away from his computer.

He hid for four yours of college, able to make a few friends, but wrapping himself in Linux, MP3’s, IRC chat, games, anime and a black trench coat that seemed one step away from a Columbine reenactment. This became his personality, his weirdness the perfect shield against the jerks who threw baseballs at his head as he walked to class and the girls who snickered at him in the supposedly more mature world of college where people are more understanding of differences. He hid behind LAN games of Quake and headphones when his roommate’s girlfriend decided to spend the night without asking. And it protected him well.

Despite the fact that he’s a close friend and one of the nicest people I know, he continues to hide. I sat down with him for the first time in more than a year around Christmas, and watching the snow fall on Providence’s trendy Thayer Street, I asked what had happened to him. Decked out in black from head to toe and sporting a Johnny the Homicidal Maniac t-shirt, he spouted geek wisdom, talking about technology and checking code on his Palm Pilot. And nothing else.

Ask him how he’s doing on an interpersonal level in any way and it’s deflected back to the thousands of mp3’s in his collection, Monty Python quotes, Terry Pratchett novels or the latest upcoming anime series. I didn’t know what to think when he logged on to his e-mail later in the day, his hands moving so fast that it seemed like he had done nothing else for the past four years. His social skills are nothing compared to his online prowess and something seemed went wrong somewhere along the way.

Watching a friend drive off is a weird experience in and of itself. You analyze the person, what you’ve seen and how this relates to you. And I have no doubts that one day David will rise above being his university’s system administrator and move on to bigger and better things, his programming skills leading to things I can barely dream of. He’ll know more success than I ever will. But for now, he’s been hurt and hides beyond the technology and geek culture he loves. And it shows.

Online, David and a thousand others like him are in complete control, the system administrators of their worlds. The people in David’s life have hurt him consistently, friends and family having split apart without his being able to help it. The shield of technical knowledge and self-imposed differences from other people he’s sheathed himself in has solved some of his problems, driven the right people away and attracted friends with similar interests, which was perhaps what he wanted.

“You have to draw the line somewhere,” my dad argued later that night when we discussed David and what he was up to these days. David had discovered the things he liked and could get into, ruling almost everything else out of his life. Despite the fact that I try not to agree with my dad unless absolutely necessary, I found myself digging for ways to explain that David was ok, well- adjusted and happy. I knew I was lying the whole time.

David isn’t alone in this, something I can attest to from personal experience. There’s a point where technology becomes the end to all means, where you place your own happiness and self-image in the technology you have access to and can learn about. The idea of going out to meet new people or expand yourself and your interests becomes all the easier to do without.

Like any possible addiction, accepting technology as the main component of your existence becomes easier over time. No plans for the weekend? Just hack around on your computer or current favorite game to pass the time. With this come the virtual friendships that instant messaging, chat and online gaming bring with them. From this point on, you’re only more isolated and happy to be this way. After all, you’re talking with people, aren’t you? And don’t these people have similar interests as you, meaning you’ve filtered through all the usual getting-to-know-you small talk and found something worthwhile?

And you hardly notice what’s missing. Everything is there with the technology; people who share your interests, hold similar opinions and are always ready to talk at any time of the day. There get to be fewer reasons to go out and actually deal with the world, my second semester of college being largely composed of online chat, Myth, Quake and trying to forget the horrors of being placed with five roommates I had nothing in common with. Obsessive doses of Hotline Client, a burgeoning MP3 collection, modem access and little interest in anything else didn’t help. It was me, the gooey bits of exploding monsters in my games, chat, music, classes, the warez I could download, science fiction and the occasional visitor to the 10’ by 12’ Unabomber-hut-style single dorm room and not much else. Everything was pretty much taken care of.

For most people, moderation with the technology in their lives isn’t a problem. It’s a tool, it can make certain tasks easier. End of story. For others, this isn’t so easy. Technology and geek culture becomes valid addictions and there are times when you need to tear yourself or others away from the warm blanket of a computer screen, head out and experience the real world. No matter how interesting the game, how fascinating the online conversation, how fast the net connection or how new the hardware, you’re still just a person typing on a keyboard in front of a computer screen.

Another compelling reason for the potentially addictive nature behind technology is the idea that you may be achieving something useful in the long run. Today’s high school geeks are tomorrow’s network admins, graduating with Cisco certifications and enough Unix knowledge to pull down $80,000 a year within weeks. Not bad for an 18-year-old who just received Warped Tour tickets as a graduation present.

As time goes by and you experiment more and more with the technology at your fingertips, you convince yourself that this is for the future. Most jobs require basic computer skills and heavily reward people with these abilities. So why not learn what makes your computer tick, inside and out, especially if it can more than pay the rent somewhere down the line?

In the end, it’s not enough. You can have the most amazing Mac on the planet, the fastest Internet connection and software that makes your PC-loving friends drool with envy, but this doesn’t replace relationships with the people around you. The geek culture is cool beyond belief in controlled doses and provides some amazing toys to play with, but it doesn’t beat going out and meeting new people or trying something completely different.

My PlayStation 2 may be the most one of the most useful things I’ve ever purchased, but it’s not a life in and of itself. One $250 device solved my lack-of-a-DVD-problem as well as providing me with an incredible game console, but it can never replace completely something as simple as sitting down and talking with a friend. Spending hours watching a movie or playing a game may expose you to some incredible stories, but heading out and seeing something completely new has more value in the long run. One can only wrap themselves in technology for so long before this begins to affect them, and social interaction skills, like any trait, can erode without practice.

David will either come out of this in time or lose himself completely, as even Linus never found this much comfort in his security blanket. For now, take comfort in the fact that David’s content with what he has, even if it does separate him from many of the people he has contact with. As for myself, the techno-geek in me still loves to play with any toys it can get its hands on, and this is something I fight with. There are times when I have to make a conscious effort not to wrap myself up in the technology, science fiction and the geek scene as I’d like to be, leave my apartment and try something I wouldn’t have envisioned myself doing when I woke up that morning. This is always challenged when a new computer catalog comes along to show 58 new ways to use technology through a few small purchases, making the effort even more considerable.

We all have to bend a bit, accept the real world and its people into our lives and, most importantly, find a balance between the technology you care about and the people around you. Today’s technology is unlike anything that’s ever existed to date, and despite its cold exterior, can be a warmer and friendlier place with fewer jagged edges than the world around us.

Everything’s good in moderation, and the important thing to find a balance between the real world and technology, even if one is more comfortable than the other. Today’s technology was never meant to adversely effect our social lives, but in some cases it can outright replace them. The time may come when you have to realize for yourself or another person that it’s a means to an end, not the end to all means. Life isn’t a spectator sport, nor has it ever been. Turn off the computer, step outside on a random weekend night and see where your feet take you among the thousand options that open up when you’re looking for them.