If you woke tomorrow and didn't feel like dealing with another human being all day, no problem.
You could shop for clothes, cars and airline tickets, pay your bills, stock up on groceries, refuel your car, get medical advice - all without ever talking to another living soul.
Technologies such as pay-at-the-pump gas stations, automated K-Tag turnpike tolls, self-checkout grocery lanes, online banking and interactive Web sites make it possible to live with minimal human interaction. But at what cost?
"There are social consequences," says Eunice Ruttinger, director of adult services at Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center in Lawrence. "We know that generally for people to have positive interactions with others on a daily basis and have positive social exchanges helps them feel better and improves their mental health."
So is everyone with an ATM card, a K-Tag, an eBay password and a penchant for ordering goods online in danger of becoming a hermit or sinking into a deep depression?
Of course not, said Pam Botts, associate director of Counseling and Psychological Services at Kansas University. But technology can be a crutch for people already inclined to isolate themselves.
"I think it's not a simple issue in that what we're talking about is changes in the culture," Botts says. "Those of us who are used to the nontechnology culture, what we find fulfilling and satisfying and energizing and what we find helps us interact with others is different in some ways than the way some of the younger people who are more inclined to use technology function.
"For any of us, if we are too isolated, if we don't interact with people a fair amount, we can become very self-absorbed and lost in our own world. : The people who would want to (use technology to withdraw) are probably the same people who are very reclusive in the culture as we've known it."
Danette Michaels pays some of her bills online, charges her gasoline at the pump and uses K-Tag to hasten her daily commute to Kansas City, Kan., where she teaches at an alternative high school. For the 50-year-old Lawrence resident, it's all a matter of convenience.
"Any kind of time-saving technology that is easy to use, then I'm all for it," she said. "It doesn't have anything to do with my interactions with people that I might lose at the gas station or the turnpike terminal. I don't consider those to be quality interactions anyway."
That sentiment is fine for people with a strong network of friends, family and colleagues. But what seems like meaningless conversation to some might be crucial contact for others.
- Audio: Eunice Ruttinger, director of adult services at Bert Nash, on the value of social capital
- On the Street: Are automated services enabling a lack of human interaction? (07-29-05)
- APA.org: Isolation increases with Internet use
- Stanford.edu: Researchers link use of Internet, social isolation
- CNN.com: Obsessive Internet use poses risk of isolation, depression, researchers say
- CNN.com: Survey disputes notion that Internet encourages isolation
- Froogle.com: Smart Shopping through Google
- KSTurnpike.com: K-Tag
"It becomes increasingly or proportionately more valuable depending upon your additional human connections during a day," said Luke Thompson, a 20-year-old KU student. "If that's the full extent of your human connection, then it becomes very valuable."
"There are some folks who maybe their only connection for the day is going to the grocery store. If you live by yourself, to be able to say hi to that clerk might be the only contact you have for the day," she says.
"Our consciousness around technology is important - to understand that we still need to call people on the telephone even though we do have e-mail, that we do still need to see people in person and that nothing replaces that."
Thompson, who uses ATMs and self-checkout lanes and orders his textbooks from Amazon.com, said these time-saving technologies don't have nearly as much to do with alienation as leisure technologies, such as video games, television and those ubiquitous music-storage gadgets produced by Apple and others.
"To my mind, the most potent new force as far as isolation is concerned is the iPod," Thompson says. "If you walk around campus these days, you'll see a huge percentage of students have an iPod or similar device on all the time. There's no communication. It's sort of dead-set ahead and walk past one another. Between those and cell phones, it's pervasive."
Officials at Sydney, Australia's private International Grammar School earlier this year had similar concerns. They asked pupils to leave their iPods at home or lock them in a drawer during the school day because they enable students to "avoid communication with others" and may lead to "social isolation or escape from our community."
KU sociology professor Bob Antonio spent a recent Thanksgiving with a family friend whose teenage son spent almost the entire holiday playing a wrestling game on the computer.
"It just seems that there's so much more time spent on mediated time - time that you're operating some kind of media," he says. "The issue is, does that mean we're disconnected, or does it mean that we add another layer?"
Indeed, people make new friends and even meet future spouses online. But a 1998 study published in American Psychology found that although the Internet was used extensively for communication, greater use of the Internet was associated with declines in participants' communication with family members in the household, declines in the size of their social circle and increases in their depression and loneliness.
A December report by Stanford University researchers seems to back up those claims, finding that frequent Internet users - 31 percent of the U.S. population, according to the study - spend 70 fewer minutes daily interacting with family and 25 fewer minutes sleeping.
'Social capital' at risk
Although ATMs, self-pay devices and Internet technologies are relatively recent developments, the discussion of American individualism and self-interest is nothing new, Antonio says. The topic has been written about by everyone from 19th-century political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville to political scientist Benjamin Barber, author of 1996's "Jihad vs. McWorld."
Robert Putnam, the Harvard University public policy professor who visited Lawrence in 2000 for the Bert Nash Community Summit, confronted the issue in his best-selling book, "Bowling Alone" (2000). Putnam used data to show that Americans have become increasingly detached from family, friends, neighbors and democratic structures by signing fewer petitions, belonging to fewer civic organizations, knowing neighbors less and even socializing less often with their own families.
What's lost in the decline is "social capital," he says, the glue that holds communities together and makes them healthy, happy places to live.
Though the culprits he cited include changes in work, family structure, age and suburban life, he seemed to point the biggest finger at television and other electronic mass media. He encouraged the electronic entertainment and telecommunication industries to help reverse the disconnection trend of the past three decades.
"Let us find ways to ensure that by 2010 Americans will spend less leisure time sitting passively alone in front of glowing screens and more time in active connection with our fellow citizens," he wrote. "Let us foster new forms of electronic entertainment and communication that reinforce community engagement rather than forestalling it."
Ultimately, however, individuals make their own decisions about how to spend their time.
"I think the main thing is just to encourage people to know that volunteering and being involved with others and in your community is good for your health," Ruttinger of Bert Nash said. "Use technology to help you connect with others, not to cut yourself off from others."