Loneliness has been a strong feeling during 2020 and the first part of 2021. Blame it on a new, highly contagious virus that has forced millions of people to remain confined to their homes. So, aside from with other household members, real social connections were largely absent from their lives during this time.
A reality that is difficult to tolerate since we are first and foremost gregarious creatures. So, to mitigate the situation, many turned to digital tools. These tools have indeed allowed us to maintain a link, admittedly virtual, but existing with friends, family, etc. Except, can digital really help build a strong relationship with others? The debate is still present.
Links that have been crumbling for years
In fact, experts still debate the effect of technology on human relationships. While no one questions the facilitation of means of communication with networks and messaging of all kinds, can we really talk about strong social ties?
For some, yes. Already, it has allowed the connection of very distant people who would not have been able to continue a relationship without digital tools. They provide an opportunity for people from different backgrounds to come together on topics that interest them. However, for opponents, these groups are generally very ethno and sociocentric, with little openness to diversity of opinion and a distrust of other groups. Moreover, the social image disseminated online seems mostly egocentric, betting on obtaining positive opinions to reinforce one's vision of oneself.
It would then be easy to demonize the digital by accusing it of being responsible for this degradation of interpersonal ties. Yet sociologist Nathan Stern reminds us in a lecture given at the University of Geneva that these have been going downhill for a while, even before the appearance of networks.
Local socializing environments are experiencing a decline in attendance, unions are lasting much less time, and in France, one-third of people live alone. We therefore find ourselves in a social context where relationships are viewed more from a utilitarian perspective. The networks have been thought of as a function of entertainment rather than a real link. Not that it does not exist but it is little encouraged. As another speaker at the conference reminded us, documentaries have shown that they are designed to induce addiction through algorithms and facilitate polarization since this leads to more interactions and thus potential consumers.
Strictly speaking, digital does not promote social connection from the start. For Stern, it will take app creators who really bank on support, empathy and human connection. This is still in the minority in the uses of digital tools.
A divide that excludes people
However, in the context of covid-19, these technological approaches have been necessary, even salutary in many cases. Short of being able to organize meetings, people have been able to take advantage of existing platforms and apps. This is all over the world, from Canada to Australia to Africa. In fact, some have called it a "survival digital." As such, it has allowed many people to endure confinement at home and to keep in touch.
Yet, access is still required. The health crisis has shown, unfortunately, that the open and supportive digital world is often closed for many people. The two-tiered digital divide has struck.
- Inequality in connections hurt many in the regions, among other things.
- Then there are all those who have not been trained in technological uses.
In fact, while this is part of the curriculum for the younger generations, the older ones, already living with loneliness before the pandemic, found themselves more alone than ever. Fortunately, initiatives existed to offer, for example, specialized tablets for seniors. Some cities also offered learning sessions for people who wanted to learn more about the uses of digital devices.
These initiatives are a reminder that digital may not be the social enabler as originally imagined, but neither is it the savage degrader. In fact, like any tool, it can be used wisely or unwisely.
Certainly, GAFAMs have failed to offer solutions that encourage sensitive social relationships. However, as the Hyperlinks webseries shows, at a local level, it is possible to use the tools and turn them into something unifying and supportive.
Illustration: Alexandra_Koch from Pixabay
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