Our Lives Have Become Conveniently Lonely

This is part three of an eight-part series published over eight consecutive weeks.  

You can make the decision today to question what and how you consume from the digital spigot. You can have a heart-to-heart with yourself about what you truly enjoy, and whether the easily accessed digital options are a sufficient substitute. 

Do What You Love—In Real Time 

If you enjoy going to the supermarket and touching, smelling, feeling, seeing the food your family is going to consume and conversing with the checkout person and even sometimes other shoppers, you can decide to forego online supermarkets, where you often receive food closer to the expiration date anyway.  

If you enjoy going out with friends and socializing, you can stop engaging in laconic text exchanges and instead call a friend or two, go out, and leave the evening to chance. 

Whatever you love to do, ask yourself whether you will do it in real time in the real world. Alternatively, consider whether you will allow yourself to habituate to yet another questionable digital alternative that keeps your neck in place bent over your phone for yet even more of your limited time on this earth. 

So Many Digital Nomads, So Little Time 

“Now hang on a moment, partner,” you may be thinking. “I’m a lover of convenience and not ashamed of it in the least.”  

Well, it is true that our phones have made our lives easier and safer in countless ways. Yet let’s not forget that the quality of a mobile call is a fraction of the quality of a call made with a landline. Two mobiles connecting often sound like two-way radios. 

Working has also become more convenient: you can work from virtually anywhere as long as you have a permissive boss. (For this reason, many people have chosen to work for themselves—considered by many the badge of freedom in the digital age.) Most of us have learned to work from home during the pandemic, and the norms of in-person versus remote work are currently being negotiated in many companies.  

The downside of a world filled with “digital nomads” is a lack of connection. Sure, you can join a phone conference while waiting in the doctor’s office for your teenager to finish her appointment or while you’re on a beach in the Caribbean—but so can everyone else. As a result, your sense of friendship and community is likely to diminish along with your physical colocation. 

Productivity also suffers. Ninety percent of knowledge workers in a 2014 survey admitted to doing other things during work phone conferences that distracted them from the topic at hand. Only 44 percent found virtual communication as productive as face-to-face communication. 

The cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham notes, “One of the most stubborn, persistent [aspects] of the mind is that when you do two things at once, you don’t do either one as well as when you do them one at a time.” It is for this reason that multitasking has been found to be a poor use of time. 

To Multitask is to Do No Task Well 

In fact, research has uncovered that attempting to do two tasks at once takes longer than performing them one at a time, burns more cognitive energy, and hence wears down the brain more—which causes more stress and produces more mistakes

Perhaps for this reason, a study conducted by the late Stanford communication professor Clifford Nass and his colleagues found that adult media multitaskers exposed to multiple streams of electronic information simultaneously do not remember facts or solve problems very well.  

Why? They become unable to prevent irrelevant information from surfacing in their minds. In other words, they become so highly distracted that they cannot concentrate effectively on what’s most important, leading “to the surprising result that heavy media multitaskers performed worse on a test of task-switching ability.” 

Not Just African 

Lest you think community is a distinctly African phenomenon, a few years after living in a rural town in Kenya for three years, I returned to the San Francisco Bay Area, where I became an honorary member of the Kenyan expat community.  

While we had wonderful parties with about forty regulars with whom I practiced my Swahili—some still close friends to this day—each person was working two or three jobs to survive, and their community was becoming increasingly fractured due to the scheduling challenges of bringing everyone together. 

They Want Your Presence, Not Your Presents  

We focus on giving others our presents, when what they truly want from us is our presence. In many families, the first has become a poor substitute for the second. And even the first has taken a hit: many of us no longer spend any significant amount of time choosing gifts for others, and instead email gift certificates—which are useful but lack soul. 

These words—useful but lacking soul—could be a mantra for this phenomenon of convenience trumping enjoyment in the digital age. Since you can buy just about anything with it—the purpose of legal tender, after all—an Amazon gift certificate is one shade short of giving cash. 

There is a reason we give gifts to the people we love: a gift signals that you actually took some time out of your busy life to think about the other person because you care about them. That feeling—that the other person put a lot of time and energy into searching for a gift for you—has, for many, become an evanescent memory.

Are you truly present when trying to connect with others in the real world?