The Asocial Network

I have an all-in-one PC, two laptops, an e-reader, and a flashy smartphone. I marvel at its technology. But it’s not smarter than I am. In fact, it’s not smart at all. It’s merely a shortcut to information.

Tarzan of the Apps.

I subscribe to an online professional network. And I’m a member of several groups that exchange information, opinions, research (and sometimes, arguments), about leadership and learning, my two favorite topics. I don’t consider this a social interaction. I gain business connections, visibility, and new ideas. In exchange, I surrender any illusion that I am personally connecting with the people whose names appear on my computer screen.

When we connect through electronic platforms, we’re not communicating with people. We’re communicating with a keyboard, a CPU, a network, other CPUs, and strangers’ keystrokes. This process is no more social than throwing pebbles at passing cars. It’s a form of communication, but it’s asocial. It bears the same relationship to human interaction as phone sex does to intimacy.

Connecting electronically is convenient. And convenience is not a hallmark of human relationships, it’s a replacement. It’s for data, not real connection. You’re connecting with your computer, not with people. I recognize the attraction―and that it is addictive. It’s easy and fast: the opposite of human, and humane, interaction.

It’s like putting on latex gloves before shaking hands.

In my work, I provide distance-learning sessions where the participants are connected electronically. As the buzz phrase suggests, we learn. Distantly.

I sit in a studio. They can see me and what’s on my computer. I hear their voices and sit in on their chats when they break into teams to work on concepts and insights. Some actually participate more fully than they might in person. Probably it is less intimidating, particularly for the shy or introverted. While it’s a useful platform, it’s asocial. At the end of each session, we agree that we’d love to meet each other in person.

Technology, whether chalkboard or computer, aids learning conceptually. For visual learners, seeing information helps capture concepts. Our brains can compute, but they’re not computers. A calendar is not the events it tracks, and our machines are not us. Great teachers don’t achieve greatness through adroit use of technology but through connecting with their students. The partial connection of distance learning is better than none, but it’s asocial.

Over time, mistaking the Internet for a society may reduce our ability to connect deeply and with vulnerability. And without those qualities, we leaders and learners inhabit cubicle lives of disconnection.

Use the technology. But do not confuse the impulsivity of texting for the warmth of conversation, or the list of electronic “friends” for the trust and depth of a human relationship. As a leader and a learner, I need to be skeptical of shortcuts that suggest relationships can be carried on from a distance.

We can talk through the Internet. We can’t listen.


Mac Bogert
Mac Bogert
I fell in love with learning, language, and leadership through the intervention of two professors—I had actually achieved a negative GPA—who kicked my butt for drifting through my first couple of semesters at Washington and Lee University. After graduate school at U. Va., I started teaching English at a large high school in northern Virginia. A terrific principal lit my fire, a terrible one extinguished it. I left after five years (the national average, as it turns out, maybe the only time I did something normal) and started an original folk/blues/rock band. That went well for a time until the record company sponsoring us folded. I toured for some years as an acoustic blues musician, primarily as an opening act for bands like the Muddy Waters Band, Doc, and Merle Watson and such remarkable talent. As that market dried up (disco), I earned my Coast Guard Masters License and worked for the next decade as a charter and delivery captain and sailing instructor. At the same time, I was working part-time as an actor and voice-over artist, selling inflatable boats and encyclopedias, and working as a puppeteer. Itchy feet, I suppose. I came back into the system in 1987 as a teacher specialist in health and drug education in my county school system, also part-time as Education Coordinator (and faculty member) for Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts. I ‘departed’ both jobs in 1994 (therein lie more stories than 350 words could hold) and started my own business. AzaLearning is the career I’d been dodging for decades. I serve 200 clients around the country, helping with all kinds of coaching, planning, transforming conflict, creative problem-solving, communication, and mediation (I also trained and worked as a community mediator somewhere during sailing and teaching): learning, language, and leadership. In 2016 I published Learning Chaos: How Disorder Can Save Education and actively contribute to a couple of online education magazines as well as publish a newsletter, a blog, and the learning chaos podcast.

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  1. Hey, everyone.
    As always, I appreciate our mutual respect for the learning community. We don’t have to agree. My god! As Oscar Wilde suggested, “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.”
    One of the ways love shows up is through the unconditional positive regard we build when we work together to care for insight.

  2. Hey, Mac — Like Jim, Charlotte and Carol, I agree to a point. Mostly likely, without social media and technology, I never would have met any of them or you. But “met” isn’t to know — it’s not building relationships — which was your point. That said, the more I interact with you and those three individuals, the stronger my life lines; the more I get to broaden my thinking in new ways. (Just think of “knowing vs understanding,” thank you, Mac!)

    The converse is also true. I have “met” certain individuals here on So Me and had some deep conversations, but those conversations haven’t enriched me. They’ve left me confused and scratching my head about people and our country. For my own mental stability, I have cut those tethers.

    My wife and I are thinking of moving, and so I contacted an old high school friend – actually my best high school friend – who lives in what could be our new area. He was great about providing details of the area, but he never suggested that we stay with them or go out to dinner if we come down to explore the new area. (He and I used to sit in his basement and listen to Jose Feliciano belt out “Come on Baby Light My Fire.” Endlessly. We used to talk about girls. Endlessly. We double dated everywhere. We play sports together. We stood up at each other’s weddings.) We’ve remained in contact all these years, and there’s not a drop of any bad blood between us, so I was surprised by the transactional nature of his response. Frankly, I could have Googled and found the same information. It might have taken me longer, but I wouldn’t have wondered why the algorithm didn’t offer to join me for dinner.

  3. A friend said that when you know people, much can be done electronically with no loss. Sometimes it is even a gain because you don’t meet when one party is jet lagged. But when you don’t know people yet, you can’t expect them to trust you just because they have seen you on a screen, talked on a phone, or read your texts/slack notes/emails.

    Having moved continents where it is really inconvenient to be “live” with people due to time differences, I have invested years of my life in keeping connections alive by some form of writing.
    The reward has been that when we have been visiting the old country, most of our friends were still there for us and we could almost pick up where we left off. (Almost, because things also happens in their lives that may cause change that has nothing to do with us but can impact the relationship, anyway.) Although our children were quite small when we left, they have relationships independently of us with their family and friends back there.

    I think Zoom is a gift that is over-utilized for empty meetings and under-utilized for building connection. But that is because we don’t really know how to do that – online or in real life – because when we put effort into it, it can be done regardless of the distance. The kind of connections where you hope you will also meet and share a meal, but looking forward to next time regardless how it is conducted.

    So I partly agree with you, Mac, and partly not.

    What I think we can agree on is that if we waste time on superficial connection electronically at the price of spending quality time with the people we really care about, that is a real loss.

  4. Like Carol, I agree to a point. I have a network of people who I know very well and we communicate through the written word. But they are all writers and comfortable with doing things that way. I can feel the nuance in their words because I know them. So for me that works just fine. But Your points are well taken. I just don’t think of my relationship with the computer as any more than my relationship with the typewriter was back in the day , or any different than my relationship was with a pen even farther back. They are simply tools that carry thoughts.

  5. Thanks, Carol.
    It’s a mixed bag, right? I test as introverted. I’m also shy, an overlap but not the same thing. As The Band sang (actually, Levon Helm at that point in the song), “Take what you need and leave the rest.” The web is a medium, just like dating is a way to socialize. I guess we may simply need to pay attention (as you are here) and be mindful about matters of intimacy.

    • And I think I remember you’re not an MBTI fan, but when I say introvert, I’m using a broader term. Shy does not describe the outside me, while the inside me wanted to do what you were doing – music – but I didn’t have the nerve. That conflict has molded my life. Writing and exchanging ideas means the world to me. With the pandemic, I’m finding the need for more. Yep, it’s a mixed bag.

  6. I agree to a point, Mac. I am an introvert. For most of my life, I have been intensely allergic to the telephone, socially awkward and I didn’t have the confidence to talk with people, unless I knew and trusted them. But I have grown less anxious and more open to talking with people. I believe that it is because the a-social-ness of online communication gave me an opportunity to gain confidence that I could, actually, connect in person.