Real life interaction is a feature, not a bug

By Razib Khan | August 6, 2011 1:03 pm

The prince of neurobloggers Jonah Lehrer has a good if curious column up at the Wall Street Journal, Social Networks Can’t Replace Socializing. He concludes:

This doesn’t mean that we should stop socializing on the web. But it does suggest that we reconsider the purpose of our online networks. For too long, we’ve imagined technology as a potential substitute for our analog life, as if the phone or Google+ might let us avoid the hassle of getting together in person.

But that won’t happen anytime soon: There is simply too much value in face-to-face contact, in all the body language and implicit information that doesn’t translate to the Internet. (As Mr. Glaeser notes, “Millions of years of evolution have made us into machines for learning from the people next to us.”) Perhaps that’s why Google+ traffic is already declining and the number of American Facebook users has contracted in recent months.

These limitations suggest that the winner of the social network wars won’t be the network that feels the most realistic. Instead of being a substitute for old-fashioned socializing, this network will focus on becoming a better supplement, amplifying the advantages of talking in person.

For years now, we’ve been searching for a technological cure for the inefficiencies of offline interaction. It would be so convenient, after all, if we didn’t have to travel to conferences or commute to the office or meet up with friends. But those inefficiencies are necessary. We can’t fix them because they aren’t broken.


First, let me offer up that if I had to pick between my twitter, Facebook, or Google+, I’d pick the last. At this point twitter is better in my opinion at allowing me to “sample” from the stream of news/links than Google+, where people tend to be more verbose. In contrast if I want to see how cute the babies of my college friends are getting to be, Facebook all the way. But the conversations on Google+ are much better when it comes to people I may interact with today, rather than the past. Facebook keeps me up to date on my past, and twitter tells me what the wider world is concerned with, but Google+ is the best complement to my present social life (which, to be fair, is not typical because of my quasi-public existence).

All that being said, some of you might wonder why Jonah even would be allowed to write such a banal column. Doesn’t everyone know that social networking technologies are not going to change our need for physical contact? No, everyone doesn’t know. There are pundits who are asserting the revolutionary transformative nature of the social web. As Jonah observes this has come and gone many a time. Remember Second Life?

I do have friends in real life who contend that Facebook and company many actually allow us to shatter Dunbar’s number. I am skeptical. The reason is that our cognitive natures are not universally plastic.

We’ve got great general domain intelligence in comparison to other species. Even though it is slow and laborious in comparison to our innate cognitive toolkit, it is incredibly flexible and extensible. Technologies which amplify the power of domain general intelligence are game changers. Writing and digital computers are examples of such extenders. The decline of the art of memory and slide rule illustrates the power of this sort of technology to be progressive. What was indispensable in the past is quickly forgotten, and shown to be the utility it always was (I suspect many of you don’t know what a slide rule is, despite its ubiquity two generations ago!). In this there is a resemblance toward science.

In contrast, consider something like sexual technology. The verisimilitude of visual pornography is incredible (in fact, sometimes too good insofar as make-up artists on porn sets are having a harder and harder time covering up blemishes and imperfections). There is an enormous industry of sex toys, and sex dolls are getting better and better. Obviously there’s a huge demand for such products and services. But will these ever possibly replace real sex? Imagine a near future sex doll with artificially generated body temperatures and synthesized human skin. Even without this some people are claiming that porn is substituting for real sexual relationships.

Such a substitution will not happen in the near future. That’s because our pleasure, our utility, of experience derives not just from its pure sensory input, but also our model of its essential nature. We have not only beliefs, but also aliefs. The knowledge that you’re having sex with a human being counts for something in and of itself. The knowledge that you own the original painting counts for something. The knowledge that a book was once owned by someone famous counts for something. We have deeply ingrained preferences which are not simply dependent on the substance or style of something. There are part of a broader constellation of our understanding of the world.

Jonah correctly points out that communication via social technologies don’t transmit a lot of implicit and subtle cues which you can obtain through sensory input face to face. That’s a matter of substance. But ultimately people will put a premium on face to face interaction even when teleconferencing technology becomes much better at transmitting sensory information. That’s because humans are social beings, and to a great extend socialization in the proximate sense (as opposed to evolutionary) is not a means, but an ends. We enjoy spending time with flesh and blood humans beings. The only way this will change is through a deep re-write of low level cognitive code.

Addendum: The above generalizations are relevant for most, but not all, human beings.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cognitive Science, Technology
  • Darkseid

    if you love learning cool things but live in a smaller town like i do then the internet becomes your home. i can guarantee you i’d be the most social person i know if the average person out there wanted to discuss the newest ScienceDaily articles but, since they’re the polar opposite, instead i surf the net. go to the bar in a smaller town makes you feel dumber afterwards.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    if you love learning cool things

    most people don’t though.

  • http://www.delicious.com/RobertFord Darkseid

    story of my life. i’d take a quality pinboard/delicious feed over a night at the bar any time;)

  • John Emerson

    Between the internet, cable, and mail order, I think that a lot of the urban / rural intellectual gap has been eliminated. In my case (rural Minnesota) my county even has an excellent library system with Interlibrary Loan.

  • Spike Gomes

    I think you’ll find a subset of people who are into learning cool things no matter where you go in the world, so long as it’s not an utter shithole. I live in the middle of nowhere and have found people to play music with (which is the learning of a cool thing for me, since I’ve only taken up music a couple years back) and DIY stuff with cars, working out and woodworking.

    Yeah, they couldn’t give a shit about my interest in genetics or the details of world history, but I couldn’t give a shit about the statistical details of various sports teams or who’s sleeping with who which most of them have an interest in. You just have to be open to new things and not disqualify people just because they can’t keep up with the more high octane intellectual stuff. There’s more to life than the mind.

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Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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