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.