In late March I heard a story on CBC’s The Current about a scientist who studies a pod of sperm whales in the Caribbean. One of his main areas of focus is how sperm whales communicate. Through observation, the scientist noticed that the whales carve out time to reinforce social ties. This involves them playing, talking to each other, and having physical contact.
I thought about how we reinforce social connections both before and after the influence of e-communications. The first things that came to mind all involved being face to face with other people and spending time with them. Activities like talking, sharing, checking in, and doing something fun, or painful, together. Then I thought about ways I reinforce social ties with people I don’t live near, or whose schedules are different from mine making it difficult to meet up. With these people I tend to communicate through calls and messaging, occasionally a sweet care package might get sent via snail mail.
Then I thought about all the ways in which technology has both enhanced and diluted our social ties. On the one hand, I appreciate being able to stay in touch with people that live far away in ways that are reliable, easy, and free. On the other side, I feel like technology dilutes our social ties rather than reinforcing them.
Technology makes it easy to send messages or post updates, requiring little to no effort to hurriedly dash off a typo-filled message, or just “like” a whole bunch of somebody’s posts as a way to say “hi, I’ve noticed.” It’s also easy to reach out and find other like-minded people across the vast digital landscape, to “connect” with people in other time zones and countries. And there are so many options available about how we want to network with others. New apps and platforms are constantly being developed all with the goal of connecting in mind. This is in addition to thousands of online groups and forums already used by many to reach out to others.
But is this really reinforcing our social ties? Or is it only serving to diffuse our social ties across a wide variety of interests and platforms consuming so much of our time and energy that it becomes difficult to create something meaningful. Perhaps we can relearn from the whales to reinforce social ties the way we used to.