In this chapter, a number of the benefits and downsides of superconnectedness are explored: our constant availability to one another, the convenience of the tech, fun and play and entertainment, multitasking and the attention span, stress and information overload (including FOMO), emergencies, dependency and addiction, and health and moods. In the end, I conclude that one of the subtlest influences of living in a tech-rich society is, simply, the feeling of being “plugged in” — not just to one another, but to society.
Human beings need to feel at home in the world. We need to feel that the world will not change too dramatically, too suddenly, too unexpectedly. Even the most solitary among us need to feel “plugged in” to the world around us. For humans are social animals and cannot develop mentally, emotionally, or physically if they do not have regular sources of interaction and a sense of connection to and understanding of the world around them.
Being “plugged in” can be a satisfying, rewarding feeling. It can also an ongoing challenge, as contexts collapse and multiple audiences must be attended to and selves are constructed in these complex visible spaces. But most importantly, being “plugged in” can provide us on a very deep level with the comforting feeling that we are not alone. Some people assume that internet and digital media use “makes” us feel more alone. But the research does not bear this out. The research, including much that I conducted myself, overwhelmingly indicates that internet and digital media use help people feel and be more connected with others. This includes connections that strong and those that are weak – and those that eventually migrate offline, along with those that do not.
But even in a more general and diffused sense, people feel that they are part of a larger whole when they go online. Spending time in online “hangouts,” playing games or visiting social media sites, or simply emailing in a friend or colleague, we are reminded of the huge net of people that surround us all. “Just as the individual’s deprivation of relationship with his significant others will plunge him into anomie,” sociologists Peter Berger and Hansfried Kellner explain, “so their continued presence will sustain for him that nomos by which he can feel at home in the world” (1964:7, emphasis added). To sense, even vaguely, the continued presence of others in the world and one’s connectedness with them helps people feel more securely rooted in the world around them and provides a deep and real feeling of societal continuity.
All of us desire what sociological theorist Anthony Giddens called ontological security – “the confidence or trust that the natural and social worlds are as they appear to be” (1984:375). A world that were to experience constant disruption, its sands shifting constantly beneath our feet, would be too difficult to bear. We require some kind of continuity and sameness from day to day. Taking part in techno-social life online can provide this kind of constancy, for it (and at least some others with whom we are connected) is always, dependably, there. It is a kind of gift that a tightly connected society gives to its members — the means to feel plugged in, superconnected, part of a whole.
This sense of continuity and security persists even when we are offline. We do not need to check our phones constantly to know that friends and family are out there and that our connections and networks and communities, for the most part, persist. To be sure, it is highly satisfying to check in with friends and family nonetheless; to feel their presence and the sense of security that, ideally, they confer. This is something people want to experience and verify regularly. But in a very real way, we carry these others with us wherever we go, making ontological security in the modern technological age truly a portable, mobile phenomenon. As Kate Fox said in the quote on the first page of this chapter, “Carrying your social support network in your pocket, you’ll never walk alone” (2001).
“Carrying” others with us, mentally, when we are not physically together, predates online connectedness. We have always been able to think about and retain memories of other people in our minds (see Chayko 2002 for many examples of this). We do not need to be literally plugged in, connected by technology, to feel connected. But technology – and remember, technology can be understood broadly to indicate a wide range of tools and techniques and means of connecting people – allows us to facilitate and reinforce these feelings at any time. It connects us to one another and to the networks and communities in which we are a part. It allows us to become superconnected.