Community, Technology and Health: A [potentially] lethal combination

Submitted by Derek Alton on April 6, 2014 - 10:14pm
A community conversation with some family and friends in Guelph

One of the ideas that has come up in a couple conversations already is how community used to be organic and spontaneous.  However, in today’s western society we are so busy that community has become regimented and structured.  It is something that you build into your schedule.  Anything else is seen as an inconvenience.

This weekend one of my best friends, Phil, came over and we decided to spontaneously visit another one of our friends, Josh, who we hadn’t seen in a while. When we arrived, we were welcomed with open arms not just by him but also by his whole family. They were genuinely excited to see us. They put down what they were doing to feed us and make us feel at home. We spent the next two hours just visiting with each other and catching up. Josh’s mom, Pinder, is a nurse at Guelph General Hospital and has been a big inspiration for Phil on his journey to becoming a doctor.

As I shared my work studying community with them, we got into a big conversation about what community means to each of them. Pinder talked about how growing up, her core community group had been her church and family. She talked about the importance of having a group that you connect with on a regular basis just to be social with each other, no strings attached.

We spent a lot of time talking about the role of technology.  There was a real feeling that technology gives an illusion of connection but that in the end, people are lonelier and that this is becoming an epidemic across the country.  Both Phil and Pinder shared how this social isolation and stress is putting huge strain on an already burdened healthcare system.

 At the same time, we talked about how building strong communities is one of the best forms of preventative medicine.  People who have strong social relationships are more likely to turn to them instead of the healthcare system for support.

Josh talked about how the internet takes the idea of “keeping up with the Jones’ “and extrapolates it. Now, the Jones’s are everywhere and you can’t keep up with them.  Everyone presents their ideal image (not reality) on social media and as a result people feel inadequate. People are left stressing out about how they can’t seem to keep up with everyone else, forgetting that they are actually trying to keep up with an illusion."

Another ramification of technology is that people are staying indoors more and connecting less. Since they do not get out as much, they do not have the random run-ins that form part of the glue that builds and strengthens a community.

We talked about how it used to be normal to simply show up at a friend’s house and these organic interactions were key to building and strengthening relationships. In today's world, though, we have become so busy- so full, that everything has become structured and regimented; anything else would be a huge inconvenience on people’s time. As a result, we do not have space and time for spontaneity. On the whole,the art of hosting others has been lost.

Pinder shared how when they first moved in, they worked to help build and strengthen what was a then, brand new community.  With time though, they found that it really just turned into a core 8-10 families and with time, they got burnt out and frustrated with the lack of engagement from others. I think part of this stems from this section of town being filled with commuters and students.

We also talked about how living this close together and not knowing your neighbours gave you a sense of spaciousness. In contrast, if you knew them, you could sometimes feel claustrophobic and what if they were weird?

I was blown away by the hospitality of the Leyte-Jammu’s. They opened their doors to us and fed us. They even let me make an hour-long conference call to the states on their phone. In today's world, we often do not see this kind of hospitality, but I believe it is a role model for how community can be grown and fostered. What is more, they emailed us after and thanked us for coming and welcomed us back any time. I feel a part of their community now.

How might we go deeper, more often?

I agree, Derek- it has gotten more infrequent and more planned for when we gather together.

That said, even in this situation- there are many stories a situations of people connecting. What worked well here was that the family you visited was flexible and generous, had enough food around to feed you guys, and seemed like they enjoyed having people over. The question is can we/is it realistic to ask... how we can do this sort of thing more often and/or create the conditions for connections to happen in a way that foster a deepened sense of belonging for more people?

Running at 80%

It reminds me of a conversation I had with my dad where he talked about how the old order mennonites often tried to frame their lives around working 80%.  This not only created a more relaxed lifestyle but it created the flexibility to respond to the challenges that life gives.  This could be something as simple as a friend randomly stopping by to something as serious as a neighbours barn burning down and needing to build a new one.  It created a spaciousness that allowed room for the spontanious and unexpected, something common to community I find.

This concept of working at 80% is so foreign to our current society that teaches us to run at 110% all the time, even though this is often to our detriment