2010 : HOW IS THE INTERNET CHANGING THE WAY YOU THINK?

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Psychologist and Biologist, Harvard University: Author, Moral Minds
CONNECTING THROUGH CONTACT, NOT ELECTRICITY

Let me answer this question by recounting a personal story that took place 25 years ago in Kenya.

I was in Amboseli, National Park, Kenya to complete my PhD thesis on the development of vervet monkey behavior. I had never travelled to Africa. Kenya was my first exposure to the continent. I gradually learned Kiswahili, the local language. I learned it while playing on the local soccer team. I also learned another custom, one that started out as a shock to my male-ness, but soon became a lovely manner of interaction: holding hands while talking to good male friends. When I returned to the United States, and reached out to hold the hand a good buddy, I received a dirty look, followed by some lovely explicatives. I tried to explain that it was a way of connecting, and was not what he thought. Physical contact is good for us. I tucked this story away for years. It was resuscitated in Australia.

When we contact another human being? holding hands, touching a cheek? we are doing something that is evolutionarily ancient. Our primate ancestors did it all the time, and do it today: they groom. Yes, grooming removes bugs, but it has a massive social effect. It jazzes up the feel-good chemistry of the brain, the endorphins. Travel to a hunter-gather society, or watch National Geographic, and you will witness people in contact. To contact is to connect.

Today, most of our connections are through the Internet. The closest haptic experience we have is with our keyboards or the magical glass of an iPhone. We Twitter, Facebook, Chat, IM, Google-Talk, and Skype. And there is even chatiquette to make sure we do it with, you know, appropriate decorum! As remarkable as these technologies are, and as wonderful as they are in enabling us to stay in touch with friends and family that live in other countries or even other states, they have caused a fundamental decline in our capacity for normal, face to face. They have, in a word, enabled us to be mindblind, insensitive to others' body language, to the way they hold themselves, and express feelings in an eyebrow or curled nose. Our capacity to connect through the Internet may be breeding a generation of social degenerates.

And online chatting is only one source of disconnect, of breaking the human physical bond. We now kill without seeing our enemies, running the show, as first witnessed in Desert Storm, by remote control, coordinated by private Internet links. The days of looking your enemy in the eye, and driving a knife into his body, are over! So too are we witnessing the decline of the hands' on doctor, the medical man of compassion. Surgeries are being handed over to robots. Of course, doctors control them today. But they no longer have to touch the patient. In fact, because of the Internet, a gifted surgeon in Boston can guide a beginner in Bangkok, without even meeting the patient, let alone touching his body.

Lest I be misunderstood, I do not have Webophobia, greatly profit from the Internet as a consummate informavore, and am a passionate one-click Amazonian. But our capacity to connect is causing a disconnect. Perhaps Web 3.0 will enable a function to virtually hold hands with our twitter friends.