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The Disconnectivity Paradox in the Modern Digital Age


Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from "Everyday Ambassador: Make a Difference by Connecting in a Disconnected World" by Kate Otto (Beyond Words/Atria, May 2015).

By Kate Otto

Bechawenyebela, bechawenyemotal.
(He who eats alone, dies alone.)
—Amharic Proverb

This simple yet thought-provoking thesis came as a gentle suggestion from my Ethiopian colleague Asfaw, as we strode the cracked sidewalks of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, one April afternoon. His scratchy, soft voice announced this ancient Amharic proverb as we walked toward a hidden canteen in the shadow of our enormous office complex, hurrying our pace as gray clouds began to open up above. His adage was a warning as subtle as the sky’s.

He who eats alone, dies alone.

Asfaw and I were conducting public-health research together for an international development organization — one of many institutions that design and fund multimillion-dollar programs in health, education, agriculture and other public services to improve the social and economic well-being of marginalized people. On that particular afternoon, we still had a budget to construct, data collectors to coordinate and Ministry of Health meetings to plan. His proverb was a polite, indirect criticism of a suggestion I’d made just minutes earlier to eat lunch at our desks. From my perspective, our overdue deliverables and long to-do lists necessitated mealtime multitasking. I was impatient, eager to finish our work, and as someone in the early stages of my career, I wanted to be perceived as efficient, hard-working and ambitious.

But Asfaw, with the authority and wisdom that came from being 20 years my senior and from a more communal culture than I, refused to take part in my game. He denied me with a polite chuckle and led the way out of our office toward the nearest restaurant.

We settled onto foldout chairs around a small table. He returned to his Amharic wisdom as we peeled off pieces of njera, a sour, spongy flatbread, from the platter’s edges and used them to grab up the savory beef chunks and sauces spread across the center.

“Do you understand what I mean by that proverb?” he asked me outright, his trilled r's rolling off his tongue as he gestured to the food with one hand and reached for a chunk of doro wot with his other.

I raised an eyebrow to signal that I had no idea and wanted to hear more; he caught my cue and carried on, snatching another bite. “It’s from a story about a man who visits hell.”

I leaned on my elbows, inching toward Asfaw to signal my full, un-multitasked attention.

“There in hell, this man finds a table full of starving, suffering souls, even though they sit around a table full of food. They are starving because the only spoons on the table are so, so long.” Asfaw exaggerated his words playfully, looking off as if this depressing scene were playing out on the canteen’s doorstep. “These spoons are so long they cannot feed themselves! These people are really suffering.” He glanced at me again, and I nodded for him to carry on.

“Now. This same man goes on to visit heaven, and he sees almost the same thing: all the people, all the food, all the very, very long spoons. But this crowd is joyful! No one is hungry, and everyone is rejoicing.”

I squished up another lump of njera but paused before bringing it to my mouth, picturing this juxtaposition of starving demons and full-bellied angels both with torturously long utensils. Asfaw’s point became clear to me as he delivered his final words.

“The people in heaven, they used the spoons to feed each other.”

Life in 21st century is not so unlike the scene behind Asfaw’s ancient proverb. While sharing a meal is a universal manifestation of the joy of interpersonal connection, socialization is a joy now commonly facilitated via digital devices—laptops, smartphones and phablets—and social networking applications like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and any method of instant messaging. We humans are becoming limitless in our capacity to connect, and digital communion is becoming as commonplace as daily bread.

But all too often, our tech tools become long-handled spoons, and with no one to help us, we’re rendered hell-tethered demons. Rather than technology manifesting social connectedness, it is common that technology ends up shaping our behaviors and habits toward greater isolation. Allowing digital life to interrupt human interaction is now a commonly noted vice: friends seated around a dinner table, each fully engaged in whatever’s happening on the glowing screen of his or her smartphone instead of the present, human company; your colleague only partially listening to your conversation because she’s sending a text at the same time; nearly colliding with another pedestrian on the street because you’re too engrossed in reading an email in the palm of your hand to concentrate on walking courteously.

The ubiquity of mobile and online connectivity and the subsequent diminishing of human connection have become truths of our time. Globally, there are nearly 7 billion mobile phone subscriptions (far surpassing the number of humans who have access to a toilet, for reference), and in the United States, over 91 percent of citizens own a mobile phone, a majority of which are smartphones. The Pew Research Center’s Internet Project documented that 74 percent of adult Internet users in America used social media sites in 2014, including a whopping 90 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds, skyrocketing from only 8 percent of all users and 9 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds in 2005.

This growth in digital connectivity has not come without consequences to our interpersonal skills. For example, a variety of studies suggest correlations between Facebook use and increased depression and anxiety, particularly among teenagers, prompting the American Academy of Pediatrics to write a full literature review of the topic and create clinical guidelines for physicians to use to factor in social media as a contributor to illness. The Pew Research’s Internet Project published a report in 2014 citing predictions about future impacts of disconnectivity, with one expert stating:

"The scale of the interactions possible over the Internet will tempt more and more people into more interactions than they are capable of sustaining, which on average will continue to lead each interaction to be more superficial. . . . The increasing proportion of human interactions mediated by the Internet will continue the trend toward less respect and less integrity in our relations."

These data and predictions force us to confront an eternal question at the forefront of all technological revolutions: Where do we draw the line between using technologies because they meaningfully improve our lives and using them simply because we can?

The convenience of GPS gets us to our offline destinations more efficiently but also eliminates face-to-face interaction when asking someone else for directions. Our addictive, streamlined workflow of linked applications helps us churn out deliverables faster, leaving us more time with family and friends, yet we are a generation marked by jarring ringtones and humming vibrations at the dinner table and on dates — to which we almost immediately respond, abandoning the faces right in front of us and diminishing our capacity simply to be present. Though instant messaging and unlimited updates keep us well-informed, we can become easily swept into the riptide of using technology as a platform for self-promotion instead of community engagement. We can end up feeling persistently impatient, inflexible and uncomfortable with any length of waiting. We can be conditioned to meet the ever-rising bar of potential for multitasking, engaging less and less with the present moment, and people, around us.

While these negative outcomes are well documented and innately understood, we still struggle to set and keep rules for ourselves, like putting our phones away, on silent or on airplane mode when in social situations. As a group we’ve lost (and as individuals maybe never even had) the capacity to give undivided attention and can rarely offer it to even our closest friends and family, never mind the strangers we interact with on a daily basis. Even as technology becomes visibly divisive, obnoxious and counterproductive, we knowingly continue to feed our digital addictions. Often, the more “connected” we become to millions of digital friends, followers and fellow social media users, the less in touch we are with our own inner voices and with the people immediately around us.

As referenced in Mark Kingwell’s “Beyond the Book” in Harper’s Magazine, a 2010 study by the University of Michigan found that:

"American college students are 48 percent less empathetic than they were in 1979, with a sharper dip — 61 percent — having occurred in the past decade. According to the U.S. National Institutes of Health, the prevalence of narcissistic-personality disorder is nearly three times as high for people in their twenties as for the generation that is now 65 or older. These trends strongly correlate to increasing online connectedness."

It’s clear that our online presence and relationships are causing us to lose — or simply never even develop — the sensitivity required to read body language and feel emotional cues — in short, the ability to have real and meaningful interactions with people in front of us. Our minds and hearts are not CPUs. They require time to digest conversations and exchanges that allow us to understand one another (and ourselves). Yet when considering the blurry line between existing online and offline, we tend to crowd out opportunities to log off, shut down, and reboot.

By no means do these dilemmas imply that technology and digital tools are to blame for our diminished interpersonal skills. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite. Most technological tools are designed precisely to help us realize the value of shared learning, community contribu- tions, and crowdsourced solutions. The simplest examples include the comfort of sending or receiving an encouraging text message during a difficult life moment or being able to sing “Happy Birthday” to a family member serving or traveling overseas. Beyond the personal, at professional levels, we can move crucial business decisions along at light speed, link any classroom to new worlds of learning, save lives with telemedicine tools, and share or sell our art and music with audiences across continents. Had Asfaw and I met even one decade earlier, we would have struggled to carry out our research together, in the absence of emails, low-cost international calls and video conferencing. Online interaction and mobile telephony allow us the privilege of engaging with another individual, even half a world apart.

There are even more exciting opportunities that thoughtful digital connectivity presents to people interested and involved in social impact work. Sites like Facebook’s Causes.com and Change.org were the first to transform our online landscape by allowing subscribers to raise awareness about issues that matter to them. Since then, many more crowdfunding sites have emerged to help finance social change work, like Kickstarter, GoFundMe and Indiegogo. The Apple and Google Play stores are now breeding grounds for innovative smartphone apps promoting health, education and human rights. Sites like Kiva allow us to send donations directly to poor farmers in rural corners of the globe, and sites like DonorsChoose.org allow us to browse the needs of local schoolteachers and directly fund their classrooms. Both types of sites enable us to continue following the progress of the people we serve, enabling meaningful relationships where there would otherwise be no connection.

Using tech tools to change the world is a remarkable effort, and when we use these tools in the right way — to feed each other — we truly see miracles unfold. Take Patrick Meier, who in 2010 was com- pleting his PhD at the Fletcher School when a devastating earthquake struck Haiti, toppling the country’s already crumbling infrastructure and killing hundreds of thousands of citizens. The emergency prompted the usual Red Cross call for donations. While this type of giving is certainly genuine and allows us to act on our compassion, Patrick decided to take the concept of authentic connection a full step further; he became a digital humanitarian.

Well before the earthquake hit Haiti, Patrick had already cofounded several organizations addressing humanitarian crises with technology solutions, but Haiti became the first major opportunity to employ his revolutionary concept. He organized hundreds of student and Haitian diaspora volunteers in Boston, and together they used text message and mapping tools to solicit 3,000 urgent and actionable text messages from Haiti. These messages located people in distress, in real time, and Patrick shared this data with first-line responders in Haiti to help save hundreds of lives. Above and beyond the idea of acting on compassion with a donation, Patrick pioneered a field in which we can use technology tools to, quite literally, save lives.

But for all the limitless potential we possess for creating real and lasting relationships — and change — with technology, there exists a subtle set of tech traps into which we too often fall, keeping us from using technology for its innately connective purpose.

The four tech traps

The four key tech traps that we may fall victim to on the way to becoming an everyday ambassador prompted the development of the four everyday ambassadorial values — focus, empathy, humility and patience — to disarm those traps.

A first commonly encountered trap is that of multitasking, the deceptive ability to manage a call, a Facebook post, a blog comment and a final paper all in a simultaneous array of browser and application windows. We think we’re being more efficient, killing multiple birds with a single, digital stone, yet leading social science research on the topic shows that multitasking actually makes us less efficient. What’s more, when it comes to human interaction, we slowly become conditioned to being less present for the people with whom we interact.

A second common trap is becoming narrow-minded, or polarized, in our opinions. While the endless exposure to information on the Internet suggests that digital addiction would be the best possible way to build empathy with others’ points of view, the application-based worlds that dictate our social lives — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram — ask us to “follow” specific viewpoints and people, and we often end up choosing those who represent, not challenge, our existing viewpoints. Additionally, search engine algorithms are geared to feed us results, and of course ads, that reflect things we’ve already searched for and talk about regularly, not different views or opinions. What happens when we then try to engage with people whose views we may oppose? If YouTube comments are any judge of our newly conditioned psyches, then the future of everyday diplomacy does not look so bright.

Third, we also need to be aware of the obstacle of self-centered, haughty thinking, which comes naturally in a world in which all of our apps revolve around our personal schedules, and we can become experts in any topic with some basic search engine skills. Having a host of applications perpetually at our service can subtly tempt us to believe that humans around us surely must cater to our needs as well. The tendency to think that we can, with search engines on our side, already know the answer to most any question in the world does not translate well to the terms of individual relationship management, where this omniscience is almost never attainable.

Fourth and last, impatience is a common tech trap, and seemingly unavoidable in a world where our weather forecasts, driving directions and song requests are seconds away and at our fingertips. If we’re not careful, we begin to expect such unrealistic immediacy from the people around us who, unlike machines, cannot give us information or answers at the click of a button. This can be destructive to maintaining the relationships that matter most to us in life and can also render it nearly impossible to get to know people whose lives are incredibly different from our own.

To avoid these four tech traps — distraction, polarization, self- centeredness and impatience — we have to work on cultivating our focus, empathy, humility and patience. We need to overcome the dis- connectivity that grows so easily when we’re focused on our devices and digital networks, instead of on each other as human beings.

An everyday ambassador is precisely the kind of person who has mastered these four skills, and uses them to transform good intentions into positive actions through strong relationships. Everyday ambassadors are not digitally detoxed — they actually use technology regularly and wisely in ways that bring distant people close together, rather than creating distances between people already close by.

This is no easy feat in a world in which human interaction is becoming increasingly more digitized with every passing moment. We’ll only move further in the direction of digital disconnectivity, as the prices of phones and tablets plummet and the variety of applications enabling quick connections skyrockets. This will appear to us, at first, as a revolutionary era of connectedness, in which we can access anyone at any time from any place. But when we look closer and examine the now mainstream cultures of multitasking, polarization, self-centeredness, and impatience that dictate life in our digital environments, we realize the ways in which we are drifting apart from one another, failing to make authentic connections.

Thus, everyday ambassadors are those who confront the disconnectivity paradox by honoring human connections in their everyday lives, no matter where in the world they operate. They do so by employing crucial connective skills — focus, empathy, humility and patience — in everyday interactions, and they tend to approach social problems with an open mind and active listening, instead of proclaiming themselves as saviors or silver bullets. Everyday ambas- sadors escape the disconnectivity paradox by serving as excellent relationship managers, whether connections are forged online or offline, with or without the support of digital connections. The roads they travel could be cross-continental journeys, racking up passport stamps and foreign phrases, or they could be explorations of the backstreets and Main Streets of their own communities.

The common tie between all everyday ambassadors, no matter how far they travel, is seeing human connection as a two-way street, in asking in every new interaction, What am I providing, and what do I need in return? Many times we may find ourselves giving in dol- lars and cents, buildings and equipment, medicines and materials, time and effort. And we will likely find ourselves receiving in the intangible currencies of strength and perseverance, ingenuity and innovation, wisdom and patience, inspiration and passion.

There’s certainly no foreign-exchange counter to commoditize these treasures. But there is the transformative concept of feeding each other that Asfaw so powerfully suggested. And this is the mark of an everyday ambassador: a person who can calculate the trade internally, listening intently to what is being requested, and staying awake to all that is received in return.

Kate Otto is the founder and director of Everyday Ambassador, a network for young individuals who are currently pursuing or have completed an international service opportunity, an overseas fellowship, and/or a travel experience. She is also a global health consultant who has worked in Indonesia, Ethiopia, Ghana, Tanzania, South Africa, Mozambique and Haiti for several development institutions including The World Bank, USAID, and various grassroots organizations. She designs, deploys, and researches innovative mobile phone-based technologies to improve health service delivery in areas of HIV/AIDS care, maternal and child health and nutrition. writes for Huffington Post and Christian Science Monitor. Kate graduated from New York University with a BA in International Relations and an MPA in Health Policy and Management. She is a proud Reynolds Scholar in Social Entrepreneurship, Starting Bloc Fellow, Truman Scholar, Luce Scholar, and member of the Academy of Achievement. She lives in New York, NY.

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