Posted by: nickgerlich | April 22, 2008

Space In Between Us

At the turn of the century (which sounds so long ago, but is actually less than 10 years), Robert Putnam wrote what I consider to be one of the most important books in many years. Bowling Alone chronicles a very significant sociological change in the US, as we have become increasingly disconnected from everything and everyone. We are less likely to vote, sign petitions, and engage with family, friends and neighbors.

Until I read that book, I couldn’t really put my finger on it, but I knew something was different. Very different. I found myself not really caring to even know my neighbors, much less do something with them. While I knew hundreds of people, I really only did things with a scant few. And family on both sides of us were all 1100 miles or farther away, so that was out of the question aside from maybe once a year road trips.

CommunityIt was about the same time, though, I noticed a rising tide in online communities. And I belonged to numerous, so I was helping usher in this change. In fact, I was busy creating them myself, except they were called “online learning communities.” Like in all of my classes.

Putnam hit the bullseye with a perfect shot. We have replaced personal interaction with digital interaction in large part, opting to eschew conversation with email, texting, blogging, social networking.

And I am sure that Putnam would ask the bartender to pour another round as he commiserated with his cronies around the bar, for thus far in the 21C we have driafted even farther from the social ideal of face-to-face interaction.

But is that necessarily a bad thing? Or have we instead merely found a different way to communicate, and the very fact that we are communicating is better than not communicating at all?

I will be honest. Thanks to all this technology and the many venues for typing, I have far more contact with people than I ever did when we were unplugged. That’s not to say it’s better than the handshakes, hugs and kisses that go with seeing the people important to us, or watching their eyes and facial expressions. But I no longer have to wait for the mailman to bring letters from farflung friends and family.

And what about the online classroom? There is no doubt it is far different from the BAM one. We’re comparing apples and zucchinis here, so it’s tough to even begin to treat them as equals. In a traditional class, we would meet twice a week for 75 minutes each. And then we would go our merry ways, not to continue the conversation until the next time we met. But in the asynchonous online classroom, the conversation never ends.

Of course, there are debatable aspects to all of this, as I alluded to in a recent blog. With the time and distance between us engendered by technology, some will feel empowered to act in ways they never would behave in a face-to-face encounter. In some instances this could be bad, but in others, though, it could actually be good. I have witnessed shy people open up in aways I never imagined possible. And I have seen my international students suddenly flower when the fear of public speaking is removed. The opportunity to check a dictionary before posting or sending can be a life saver if you are not certain of your skills.

But I will also confess that, in spite of all the advantages of my highly mobile and portable job, I sometimes get a little lonely sitting in my office. Every once in a while a student pops in to introduce him/herself. And not too long ago I made it a point while in Houston on business to meet one of my online students. And I would do it again in other locales if the opportunity arose.

As humans, it is in our DNA to be social animals. It is actually quite abnormal to be anti-social (think: Unabomber). Yet I cannot help but picture in my mind the fact that as you read and respond to this, you are probably sitting somewhere. Alone. Bowling on your keyboard. Just don’t get a 7-10 split.

Dr “Better Bowler Than Obama” Gerlich



  1. Personally, I’m grateful for the opportunity to learn, work, and socialize remotely. I definitely find myself more connected in many ways, in this 21C world of technology. And I’ve made tons of friends from all corners of the world – each sharing some random thing in common with me, who I never would have met otherwise.

    I have to admit, though, that a big reason for my love all things remote is the fact that it allows me to avoid face-to-face interactions that would make me uncomfortable. I’m able to say things over email that I would probably never utter out loud. Sometimes I say really offensive things on my blog that I would never say in real life. I ask stupid questions without worrying about how they might make me look, and engage in political or religious arguments with people that I would never confront in person.

    Is that a good thing? I don’t know. It’s certainly made me more outspoken, even if it’s anonymously!

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