SHIFT: Do gadgets make you lonely?

A coworker of mine recently sent an e-mail asking, "Why does technology seem inevitably to pull apart communities and isolate individuals?" His argument based on the assumption of Bowling Alone, that Americans are more isolated than ever. But my co-worker placed the blame for this trend squarely on the iPod and the accompanying trend of noise-isolating earbuds.

This didn't seem fair to me. On one hand, the advent of the Internet and smartphones has changed how we communicate — we e-mail, text, video chat, IM and call more than we meet in person. This new kind of socializing could leave you lonely, or it could be a welcome extension of your varied interpersonal activities. But what about the gadgets themselves? Are they really contributing to the general isolation of the populous? I tend to think not. Read why, after the jump.

iPods Are for Sharing

Smartphones aside, are people so engrossed with their personal electronics that they tune out of social situations? I suppose that depends on how social you think activities like going for a jog or riding the subway should be. In general, the iPod is a far more social device than its predecessors, the Walkman and Discman, ever were. When you bring a tape or CD over to a friend's house, you may be able to share a couple of cool songs. But when you bring your iPod, you can DJ a whole party or introduce friends to dozens of new artists. The potential for the iPod (or any other MP3 player) to be a social device, rather than an isolating one, is far greater than previous personal audio devices ever allowed.

Digital Cameras Save Christmas!

The guy with the camera at the party used to be the creepy one who you always avoided. Just what was he talking pictures of, anyway, and what did he plan to do with them? Today's pocket digital cameras allow you to share pictures on the spot by showing the results to friends. And Wi-Fi (or Eye-Fi) equipped cameras can upload new pictures to Flickr before the evening's over.

Little video cameras like the Flip and its rivals let videographers record events without having to miss out on the fun, like they used to when cameras were more unwieldy. To this argument, my friend responded, "Reality as seen through a flip video camera is like breathing through a straw." Maybe so. But to extend that metaphor, recording with a ten-pound VHS Camcorder was like breathing through a straw that's attached to a SCUBA tank. The point is, little cameras let you capture memories without taking time away from the experience (or freaking out your children).

No iPhones at the Table

Those who rail against gadgets are frequently mistaking bad manners for bad technology. While using a BlackBerry during a business meeting may be newly acceptable in some circumstances, texting on your iPhone during dinner is just plain rude.

But it's not rude in any newfangled sort of way. No, you should not play with your iPhone at the dinner table (or during any face-to-face social interaction). By the same token, you shouldn't play your DS Lite or PSP there either. And no matter how engrossing book seven of Harry Potter is, it also shouldn't join you at dinner — it doesn't matter if you're reading it on your iPhone, Kindle or in old-fashioned library book form. Do gadgets like iPhones make this sort of antisocial behavior easier? Perhaps. But people have snuck magazines and crossword puzzles into inappropriate situations long before touchscreen phones seemed like a good idea.

Of recent technologies, perhaps the least isolating are video games that encourage in-person group interaction, like Rock Band, or pretty much any game designed for Nintendo's Wii. Whereas old-fashioned video games took hours alone in the dark to master, these games are more fun to play with friends. If you find yourself Wii bowling alone, you may want to blame societal trends over the last 100 years, not the tech that brings the game to life.