“We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men…” – Henry Melvill
Not to get too touchy-feely, but how connected are you?
Most likely, you’ve got every techno gadget available – a laptop, tablet, cellphone, and maybe even a business-personal split between an Android and an iPhone. And I’d guess your friends and family scour the “For the Tech Lover in Your Life” gift guides, so your drawers are full of Fitbits, Bluetooth devices, and other odds and ends.
In short, I’m assuming your answer is: I’m very connected.
But I don’t mean technologically connected. Despite the many ways humans can connect digitally, the percentage of Americans who report feeling lonely has increased greatly, growing from 11% to 20% in the 1970s and 80s, to 35% in 2010, according to AARP.
In other words, we’ve never been more lonely and disconnected, even as the internet has enhanced the way we discover and use information; find jobs, retirement communities, vacation destinations, and colleges; locate homes, recreational activities, and love; and create activist networks with a passion that rivals that of the Vietnam War era.
I’d argue, however, that in many realms of our lives – including work, family, and romantic love – the latest advances in digital technologies are helping to alleviate this disconnection while adding value to our lives.
Together While Apart at Work
A colleague recently posted a picture of a birthday cake on social media, with the caption: “From my work family.” Not only did the chocolate ganache make her feel appreciated and connected to her co-workers, but she also got to share, or celebrate, that feeling of inclusion and love on her Facebook newsfeed.
This type of online social connectivity can also benefit those workers who, like myself, have an itinerant lifestyle. I logged almost 300,000 miles last year globetrotting, so my “office” is cross-cultural, versatile, and virtual. However, despite my reliance on seemingly every interconnected business tool on the market, I’m also very “workplace social” – in fact, 75% of my time is dedicated to some form of interpersonal meeting. Services like Vidyo and Slack, meanwhile,have made tools like email look like they belong to the Morse code era. I recently heard a colleague use “Slack” as a verb – a sure sign that the service is poised for worldwide success (think Google).
Yet, despite the “work families” and the ability to Slack, Harvard Business Review reports that a sense of workplace alienation still prevails. The bottom line is that just as companies need to continuously watchdog their B2B and B2C communications, they also need to keep an eye on business-to-employee (B2E) connections. Tools like Cisco Spark Board can serve as “digital transformation” tools for silo-affliction, as can Google Jamboard and Microsoft Surface Hub, which strive to foster workplace connectivity by bundling services and streamlining the virtual meeting experience.
Strengthening Family Ties
In the late 1960s, 70s, and 80s, a now familiar televised public service announcement played each night: “It’s 10:00 pm: Do you know where your children are?”
If parents had forgotten to check in with their kids, or perhaps were having such a good time that they forgot they even had children, they had a sobering nightly reminder. Today, with all manner of news sources available, fewer parents are tuned in to the same channel at the same time every night. However, thanks to smartphones and even GPS trackers, they’re actually more likely to be in touch with their kids and aware of their whereabouts.
In this way and others, digital technologies are also bringing families closer together. For example, digital tools are enhancing family vacation experiences and making it simpler for families to find entertainment venues. Taking a page from the Disney playbook, Carnival Cruise Lines unveiled a wristband solution that eases the water-locked itch of a family-fun cruise. And though it’s been around since 2009, Yelp’s Augmented Reality Monocle, with its early implementation of an augmented reality overlay, is still the app I’m betting on to eclipse some of the more technically limited restaurant-sourcing tools.
While recreational services can serve as an antidote to familial isolation, social networks can provide a supportive community to family members with specialized needs, such as parents with a chronic illness, veterans with PTSD, or adolescents with cancer. These virtual, online groups are a muscular, modern take on the chat rooms of years past. Combined with other digital capabilities, such as smart pill bottles that provide medication reminders, online social networks can give people a greater sense of independence.
Finding Love in Remote Places
With the plethora of dating and hookup sites, who can remember how we found love in the dinosaur age of blind dates, parties and, dare I say, the bar?
Match, eHarmony, and OkCupid have been joined by Bumble and Tinder, among others, and each brand seems to offer a unique point of view on how to strike up a romantic connection. OkCupid introduced an app revamp on Valentine’s Day to provide a more detailed portrait of a potential mate. Information, as always, is king. There’s also Skype, FaceTime, and now Skype Translator, which can make the heart grow fonder no matter the geographic distance between people – or even the language a romantic interest may speak.
In the near future, AI and IoT-enabled smart products will introduce more objects that encourage and enable people to be more empathetic. A bot that remotely triggers a hug to a connected pillow will not necessarily replace skin-to-skin contact, but it could act as a concrete placeholder until a real embrace is available.
Over half (57%) of teens are beginning friendships and extra-familial connections in the digital space. This makes a key finding of a 2015 report published by the Pew Research Center even more compelling: The stronger our technology becomes, the stronger – and closer – our bonds will be.