By day, I am a technology lawyer. I deal with cutting-edge communication systems, information processes and the movement of data. The nature of the craft also requires me to work with others to negotiate conflicts and disputes. Through those two functions I have become profoundly interested in what technology does to the way people relate to one another.
I am by no means a Luddite. Through the wonders of technology I was able to go back to the University of Pennsylvania to earn my masters, while still working at home in North Carolina. From my laptop I am also able to keep close contact with friends in India and Israel and Norway who would otherwise be inaccessible to me.
But something significant is lost when we no longer have to look one another in the eye. I have seen my teenager receive both insults and apologies electronically from someone he thought was his friend, when they could have spoken face-to-face that same day.
The same technology that so wonderfully places the world right at our feet, tends to push aside other aspects of human interactions – the facial expressions, the tone of voice, a well-timed touch on the shoulder. Strengths of humanity such as kindness, generosity and compassion require a certain orientation of empathy between the self and the other. Likewise, our strengths of fairness, citizenship and loyalty, all depend upon the social bonds we form to groups and to the broader community.
How can our children develop these sort of empathic bonds with others if their interactions are with a screen rather than real-life, flesh-and-blood people? At an age when my son needs to be learning how to connect with others and how to navigate the difficult moments that do occur in human relations, technology adds still more hurdles.
Photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand had an idea. While stranded in Mali in the 1980’s, Arthus-Bertrand spent an evening listening to another man’s life story. It was during a drought and the poverty was severe. But the fears, dreams and memories offered were not a complaint. They were not a request for anything. Rather, what was shared was a connection between two small people, next to a fire, from vastly different places, but with worlds in common.
Since then, Arthus-Bertrand has recorded interviews with 6000 people from 65 countries, many of which can be found on the website 6 Billion Others. Each person tells his or her earliest memories, dreams, and what they believe happens after they die. They talk about the last time they cried, and what they learned from their parents. The aim, according to the website, is to create a “sensitive and human portrait of the earth’s inhabitants.”
Of course, when visiting the site, the communication is only one way, and your interaction is with a screen. Yet, there is an honesty and an intimacy there that connects and elevates. The interviews also offer a chance for increased understanding and empathy. Peterson and Seligman (2004) point out that empathy is biased toward those who are similar to the self. At first blush, many of the people interviewed do not appear to be like me. Kole, an Ethiopian herdsman, speaks with pride and joy about his goats. My children giggled when they first saw Maremba, from Papua New Guinea with his bone through his nose. Yet what is communicated so honestly are the ways in which we all are the same. Kole taught me about gratitude and the ability to rejoice in simple things. When Maremba spoke about his father, I found that I too had to fight off tears.
The 6 Billion Others exhibition will be on display at the Grand Palais in Paris from January 10, 2009 until Feburary 12, 2009. Until then, enjoy . . .
Peterson, C. and Seligman, M.E.P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook of classification. New York: Oxford University Press.
Images are drawn from the 6 Billion Others site.
What a great idea!!! Though trained as a psychoanalytic therapist (I’m so old, that’s all there wa), I am “recovering, and do a lot of strength based, solution focussed work. And with my last name you learn early how humor can shift perspectives!!!
I’d love your thoughts about my new book– “Can’t Find the Willpoer? Everything You Should Have Learned from Kindergarten.” It’s available at Amazon.com ($12). Based on the notion that most people know what they need to do to answer the question “What kind of person do I want to be?” When we don’t it has less to do with in sight than willpower– it just seems too hard. Anyway, it urges people to look at strengths and not become obsessed with “what’s wrong,” as I take it is similar to your apprach. Thanks for listening…
My children are older (early twenties) and in a way have had the best of both worlds. They did not grow up with emails and cell phone text running their early live. Yet now, they use the technology heavily. So they were able to have the benefit of past generations of human contact, something that is is actually harder to do with this generation growing up today. I also think that a strong religous influence by their mother has had a profound positive impact on their ability to offer the type of human relationships identified in this article. Bottom line, it was porbably easier to develop “face to face” relationships in past generations, but it is not impossible to continue it with today’s generation – it’s just a little harder for parents to compete with the technology. Although I will admit, I communicate with my children substantially more than my father did with me as a result of texting, and I think that has lead to better family contact and relationships.
Wonderful column, Sean. I can remember drawing out people on Amtrak trains, planes, on the street, in the stable, down at the dock… on Eleuthera Island… in Afghanistan… and scribbling down quotes and life stories from people out of a similar impulse, but I never did manage to get 6000 of them from all over the world and put them on the Web! How wonderful that someone has done it (I didn’t think anyone could one-up the great Studs Terkel!), and that you have the sensitivity and appreciation to write about it, connect it with Positive Psychology, and share with us. Thank you Sean!
Ironically, this was pretty much my first-ever time to spend ALL day online. I have strongly resisted being plugged in so much, for all the reasons you listed re face to face interactions, and then some; my body needs to move, too! But it’s gotten so that I finally feel I have no choice if I want to stay deeply connected with community and family, do good activism, and do business. I felt both energized and sad, at first — more energized than sad, but I still felt the loss due to so much face-contact with my screen! Then, at the very end of the day came this lovely gift from PPND, from Sean, and from the six billion others represented in the 6000. As if a message that it’s really OK to go online with the rest of modern civilization; that there is no dichotomy between connecting face to face and connecting online; that these modes can support, instead of undermine, each other.
Sean, I appreciate your writing and make me think about the magic of MAPP. When I read the wonderful stories of my classmates and feel that everyone has something to share and say, something that I can relate in one form or another.
In that way the whole world is not that different and is possible to see every creature with new eyes and possibilities.
There is unity and I just love to be able to experience this feeling.
Thanks to MAPP and thanks to you for writing so well and sharing with us.
This is something to tuck away and visit when I need an boost. It’s like an update on the Family of Man.
I think every new technology brings losses as well as gains. But my thoughts about social life and technology are colored by the experiences of a young friend with muscular dystrophy. When he was growing up, he had fewer and fewer chances to develop friendships because as he grew weaker there was always a grownup overseeing him. But when he discovered online gaming, he opened up a whole new set of friendships that are his own.
When I was working in technology, we had many virtual meetings with people we’d never met. I always found they went a thousand times better if we’d gotten together face-to-face at least once — but it wasn’t always possible.
I really do appreciate the world-wide reach of technology. For example, yesterday I organized submissions to the IPPA world congress that involved participants in California, Virginia, Malaysia, Australia, Mexico, London, and Brazil. Email and instant messaging made it possible to be in touch with everybody — and I even had a voice-over-IP call with Australia. That level of collaboration is truly amazing.
Thanks, Sean! Great post. One of the changes I noticed in myself as I went through MAPP was a much greater tendency to draw folks into conversation and get to know them. Happened a lot on the plane rides to Philly. Positive energy for me, and I trust for them also!
I wonder what is the common thread among the 6B?
Is it love of self-preservation? Our survival assured, do we then seek survival of others – family, friends, co-workers, community, country….
Can the common thread link the co-workers of LCA to move the needle?
Deep stuff for a Wed. morning!
Keep me up-to-date on the post-survey plans…
Wow! Thanks to all of you for your thoughtful comments! Each of you tapped into some things that could be whole separate postings on PPND!
Lew, No need to put qualifications around your past training. I am lawyer – one of the main functions of my job is to look for everything that can go wrong! However, the strengths–based/success-focused approach is great for both fields. I look at it like losing weight. You really need both attend to your diet AND increase exercise. For so long in our fields, the focus has been almost exclusively on deficits. Congratulations to you for recognizing and shining a light on the life-giving sides of human experience!
David, you make a great point about the value of technology. I can also see opportunities to connect with my son that were not available when I was growing up. The challenge is in convincing him that I am not a Luddite, and that sometimes it is actually better to put down the phone, or walk away from the screen.
Iris, I am so glad I caught you on your on-line day! Please do plug in every now and then. (Maybe the 30th of each month when I post my articles – hint, hint) That is a way that I can enjoy your company and presence even being miles away! In your note, you expressed beautifully the tension I feel with our increasing reliance on technology (look at my note to Kathryn, below)
Maria, Thank you for your lovely note. It does feel good to know that the postings that I shoot off into the ether are read and appreciated. Keep your eyes open and keep celebrating that unity everywhere you find it!
Kathryn, I remember those studies that showed that most people felt a low-level depression when watching sitcoms. I think sometimes it is the same thing when surfing the net. I can waste tons of time just browsing nothing on-line (and then feel bad that even my wasting time was half-hearted). While it can take time, The 6 Billion Others site does provide a pick-me-up.
Dave, I had the same experience. As I would tell people what I was studying in MAPP, I noticed their posture would change and their faces would soften. People want to connect with one another. I just think that we do not always know how. Keep talking to strangers!
John, Wow. What is the common thread that links us with our 6 billion+ neighbors? That is a great question and requires so much more than I can offer in a short comment posting! At least part of it is that we are all trying to make sense of things, connect with one another and find some level of happiness. We are each given a life-time supply of suffering, joy, challenges and dreams. The messages and signals we get from the world often seem inconsistent and we are generally bad at guessing what will bring us fulfillment. And after our command performance, we know we will die – but we don’t really know what that means.
I use to be a competitive runner (60 pounds ago) and so I interpret a lot of life through that lens. A race may hurt, but you keep trying to push yourself forward despite the pain. Even though no one else can run the race for you, it helps to see other people cheering you from the sides. It helps to look around and see others alongside of you also struggling valiantly to hold the pace on every uphill. It makes you realize that you are not alone and gives you a shared pool of strength upon which to draw.
Thanks again to all of you.
Great insights, Sean!
I have to confess to having Luddite leanings. So despite my working with technology for most of my career, my approach is normally one of skepticism. Technology certainly has a place in the business arena. In the personal realm, I’m with you: There is nothing like one-on-one, in-person contact for learning how to navigate humanity.
On the other hand, Arthus-Bertrand has harnessed technology to remove the transparent wall of perceived differences (national, geographic, cultural, religious…) and show us all how connected and alike we really are. What a cool project!! And thanks for sharing its lessons with us.
Thanks for the post Sean, what a wonderful site, a fascinating mosaic of insights into the human condition and from such a diverse range of people & places, whose voices it would be hard to hear any other way.