Anxiety is on track to becoming the industrialized world's leading mental health pandemic. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorder is the most common mental illness in the United States, plaguing an estimated 40 million adults.
Whether a mood or a disorder, one thing is for sure: Anxiety is affecting everything from our collective mental health to our foreign policy. In his recent New York Times editorial, "Where Obama Shines," David Brooks describes "a world characterized more by anxiety than overt conflict," delving further into an examination of Obama's foreign policy. In fact, the tried and true publication even has an entire series devoted exclusively to anxiety in the Opinionator section.
Why so anxious? Well, according to just about every anti-establishment personality, swimming against the mainstream, we're more anxious -- nay, even depressed! -- because of technology, generally and the media, specifically.
It is no news that we are more connected than ever before. Thanks to Facebook, Twitter, Google Chat, and FourSquare, we are privy to instantaneous updates about every infinitesimal political gaffe, which friend is eating what, or how much money is left in our bank account (yikes!).
The now-famous Atlantic cover story, Is Facebook Making Us Lonely, by Stephen Marche, claims social media is, in fact, making us much more self-conscious and detached: "In a world consumed by ever more novel modes of socializing, we have less and less actual society. We live in an accelerating contradiction: The more connected we become, the lonelier we are."
Actually, there is zero solid evidence proving that humans are more "detached." Sure, society has advanced beyond the good old days of the vibrant postal service or... the fax machine. But technological advancement does not preclude meaningful interaction.
The aforementioned nonconformist argues that we shouldn't let Facebook so deeply infiltrate our personal lives. Deep, real relationships don't exist on a screen, they say.
French philosopher and archetypal nonconformist, Guy DeBord, cautioned that in a modern society full of images on screens, "all that was once directly lived has become mere representation," putting humans on a "decline of being into having, and having into merely appearing."
Put simply, according to DeBord, we no longer value the actual relationship so much as we value that which enables us to appear that we are in the relationship: tagged photos, inside jokes displayed as wall posts, relationship statuses... all terms unrecognizable a mere decade ago.
But, eighteen years after DeBord's death, real and meaningful interaction does now exist on a screen.
Consider the universe of screens: TVs, computers, cell phones, tablets, car navigation systems, self-checkout cashiers at the grocery. The list goes on. According to the Council for Research Excellence, the average adult finds herself in front of a screen for about 8.5 hours on any given day. At this point, we have to choice but to begin conceiving of human interaction as at least partially substantiated by the non-physical.
With all the apps available for children under the age of five, iPads will soon replace crayons and flashcards as a creative, educational outlet. But what's so great about crayons and flashcards? The fact that you used them when you were little? Well, who says you turned out so great?
Ditto for the shift from pen and paper to telephone and, most recently, to the Internet. It is hardly an exaggeration to say I've had at least as many profound, enlightening conversations with friends, family, and professors over email as I have over bottles of wine.
The way individuals communicate ideas, interact with one another and conceive of reality is changing, as it always has and it always will. Where the Industrial Revolution replaced an agriculturally-centric society and assembly line economy with new technologies, our technological revolution is replacing industrial, hands-on jobs with positions requiring people to spend eight hours a day -- if not more -- in front of screen. Individuals meet boyfriends and girlfriends, husbands and wives, and long-lost relatives on the Internet. Kids fill up coloring "books" on iPads. I email to make plans for dinner... but I'm still making plans to see, talk -- maybe even hold a hand! -- at dinner.
Humans are social animals. We crave communication. Primal hunter-gatherer societies were both naturally and surprisingly cohesive. They're long gone now, but we're on the same social and technological trajectory of community and efficiency. Constantly reinventing. Constantly adapting.
To all the anti-establishment hipsters lamenting technological advancement and the resulting popularity of social media: nostalgia for a bygone era is hardly avant-garde. Drastically different social norms are not an indication of societal "decline," but simply an indication of human nature's astounding ability to both create and adapt to change.
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