Technology Distractions in Relationships

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In Jonathan Safran Foer's article in The New York Times entitled "How Not To Be Alone," he gives a poignant critique on one aspect of technology's detrimental influence on how we communicate, and by extension, how we relate to one another. He even goes so far as to label certain technologies as "iDistraction[s]" (Foer, 2013), which if one surveys any mode of transportation in the early mornings before class, it is an apt description. He also employs a famous quote by Simone Wiel: "Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity" (Foer, 2013). Applying this idea to the way in which people relate to one another in an increasingly technologically advanced world, it seems that our interpersonal relationships may not be as generous as they once were.

The crux of Foer's argument is that although most of our communication technologies began as diminished substitutes for an impossible activity (e.g. the telephone made it possible to keep in touch at a distance, the answering machine made it possible to "interact" even when someone was not home, etc.), over time we began to prefer those diminished substitutes over face-to-face communication, and therefore, due in part to convenience, often attempt to avoid the emotional work of actually being present in our relationships. For example, it is custom now (particularly in my generation, having grown up with such technologies from an early age) to communicate via text message on a mobile phone over all other forms of communication as it is the least invasive as well as the quickest way to keep in touch with our friends.

Foer documents the devolution of conveying information rather than conveying our humanity as follows: Leaving a message on someone's machine became easier than having an actual phone conversation, especially when discussing hard news, so we began calling when we knew no one would pick up. Shooting off an email became even easier because we could hide behind the absence of vocal inflection and there is also less of a chance of accidentally "catching" the person at home. Texting is easier still because we have a reduced expectation of articulateness, which offers us another shell to hide behind. The problem is that by not only accepting but also preferring these diminished substitutes, we ourselves have become diminished substitutes, saying little because we feel little. Ultimately, he succinctly states, "The closer the world gets to our fingertips, the further it gets from our hearts" (Foer, 2013).

In comparison to Galvin, Bylund, and Brommel's book "Family Communication: Cohesion and Change," Foer's article echoes many of the concepts explored in the book, particularly regarding communication. The book defines communication as a symbolic, transactional process of creating shared meaning (Galvin et al., 2012), similar to how Foer puts it as how we share our humanity. Foer focuses more on how we interact with the world in general, i.e. those surrounding us, our colleagues, etc. and less on the family unit—the main focus of the book. However, many of the same concepts apply, furthering Galvin's idea that the family is simply how we define it.

Furthermore, it seems that Foer's idea of "diminished substitutes" is particularly relevant in the familial context, similar to Galvin, Bylund, and Brommel's discussion of the cohesion model. Cohesion is the emotional bonding that family members have with one another (Galvin et. al., 2012). If families communicate less and less, especially via diminished substitutes, the disengaged form of no communication will be more and more common. In other words, Foer's discussion of the devolution of/preference for diminished forms of communication is comparable to Galvin's discussion of the disengaged family, both warning similar undesirable consequences. In conclusion, the overall idea in both the article and the book have a similar theme: how we communicate affects how we relate.


Foer, J.S. (2013, June 8). How Not To Be Alone. The New York Times, SR12.

Galvin, K.M., et al. (2012) Family Communication: Cohesion and Change (8th Ed.). Glenview, IL: Pearson Education.