Divided Consciousness

By | June 7, 2007

Modern society suffers from “divided consciousness,” according to Kenneth J. Gergen’s 2002 essay, “The Challenge of Absent Presence.”

Our attention spans have become increasingly diverted by new communication technologies, especially the mobile telephone. They make it easy for people to be physically present, yet “absorbed by a technologically mediated world of elsewhere.”

Gergen’s got a point. When I arrived home tonight, I walked into the room where my brother and sister-in-law were located, to say hello. Both of them were sitting in front of their computers. My brother turned away from his machine and greeted me with some old fashioned face-to-face communication.

Eye contact. Smile. “Hello.”

My sister-in-law, however, did not. She kept staring at her computer screen – absorbed in her online game of ‘World of Warcraft.’ Physically, she and I were in the same space, but she did not speak to me. She was already having a private conversation on her headset with a WOW player somewhere else in the world. (I wasn’t offended, happens all the time.)

Another example: Last night, I attended my daughter’s annual school concert. Lots of parents like me arrived early to get a good seat. While I was waiting for the show to start, I noticed a bunch of people passing the time by using their cell phones. These people did not strike up conversations with the folks sitting next to them. Rather, they isolated themselves from the “community” by conducting their own private cell phone conversations, and in the case of one parent, using his cell phone to play a video game.

Most people aren’t comfortable initiating face-to-face conversations with strangers in public places. Cell phones and other kinds of ICTs have given people another way to avoid and ignore co-present others.

“As the domain of the absent present is enlarged, so the importance of face-to-face relations is likely to be diminished,” Gergen argued.

I suppose ‘absent presence’ can be helpful if the guy sitting next to you in the auditorium is a nut job. But it certainly doesn’t lend itself to building a local community. “Absent presence” erodes public spaces – community spaces.

Yes, technology-enhanced social spaces are the norm today. I rarely go anywhere without my cell phone. But just because mobile communication devices allow us to be connected continuously with our virtual social group or distracted endlessly by ‘digital entertainment,’ they shouldn’t wholly isolate us from the people living, working and breathing right next to us.

Americans will soon live in a country in which the majority of people live alone, Gergen states. That’s OK, because we have our cell phones and email accounts, iPods and Tivo to keep us company.

And when we fall down in our homes and can’t get up, the next-door neighbors we don’t talk to won’t come help us.

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