The Human Beast

Why we do what we do

I Text Therefore I Am

Modern humans defined by electronic connectedness

The digital revolution has altered not just what we do but who we are. Electronic interconnection is a key feature of the modern community and we are diminished if deprived of it.

Electronic Diets no Better than the Other Kind

In a recent move, I found myself without a home Internet connection for a few days and wondered how I would respond to the change. I could easily have brought my laptop to the corner coffee shop with its wifi connection but in the interest of the experiment, I resolved not to do that. I also refrained from using a cell phone to access the Internet.

So how does an electronic diet feel? Not much better than going without meals. It is depressing. It produces an oppressive sense of isolation not too different from being trapped in a wilderness and cut off from human contact. Little productive work gets done without an electronic connection of some kind.

So it is hardly a stretch to claim that without electronic communication a modern human (or Homo Interneticus) is not a fully functioning member of the community. Conversely, frequent electronic communication fosters an intense sociability that begs comparison with other social species.

Texts as Contact Calls

The hallmark of a close social relationship is frequent contact. If frequency of contacts measures connection, then teenage peers enjoy an especially close relationship because friends may text each other as much as 20 times an hour or more (with the typical teen sending about 100 texts per day and 10 per hour according to surveys by Pew and Nielsen). Older generations are heavily involved as well and maintain a constant stream of messages with children and grandchildren.

Teens text each other for lots of different reasons but you could think about texts as a form of contact call (i. e., a communication that functions to keep social companions together). Most people are familiar with the clucking of a mother hen and the high-pitched cheeps that the chicks emit to inform her about their location, ensuring that they do not get left behind when the brood is on the move.

Clearly, contact calls are a life and death issue for the chick and they are given very often. Rather than twenty times an hour, they are given more than twenty times a minute. By that logic, chicks are sixty times closer to their mothers than teenagers are to their friends!

Teens use frequent electronic communication to maintain their social network and that phenomenon establishes their social identity with implications for status, friendships, and romance. So they are greatly put out if they find themselves vacationing in an electronic dead spot. The experience makes them feel socially diminished, not to mention feeling depressed and jittery.

Of course, teenagers are no different from everyone else in this respect except that their need for electronic contact is more intense mirroring the importance of their peer group.

Without Electronic Connection, a Person is no Longer Fully Human?

Social isolation has always impaired our capacity to be fully human. That is abundantly clear from what we know about feral children who survived without human companionship and subsequently find it very difficult to speak even a rudimentary language.

Isolation later in life produces analogous results and individuals who do not keep in practice by talking to themselves can lose the capacity to speak as illustrated by sailor Alexander Selkirk whose story formed the basis for the novel Robinson Crusoe.

So separation from the social network impairs our capacity to be fully human. Today, the social network is not just defined by oral language but by communication in electronic networks. A teenager who is denied the opportunity to text is cut off from their normal social network, as surely as if they had been placed on a remote deserted island. They are less than their normal selves and arguably less human.

 

Nigel Barber, Ph.D., is an evolutionary psychologist as well as the author of Why Parents Matter and The Science of Romance, among other books.

more...

Subscribe to The Human Beast

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.