It was an all too familiar scene. I looked around the table at my lunch companions and realized that I was actually eating alone. Every one of them was enthralled by whatever was happening on their cell phone screens, ignoring the people at the table. Was the online world of Tweets and posts that fascinating, or was present company so uninteresting that they felt the need to escape to the virtual world?

I began to think about how we got to this point. How did we become a society of people alone in a crowded room — perhaps even alone in a crowded world? Where would it lead us? Where had it already led us?

The online community loves to champion itself as engaged and connected, but I wondered if living online was actually contributing to our increasingly frayed society. It is after all, easier to divide and demonize people when those “people” are nothing more than avatars on a screen. As I sat there alone, unable to see the faces of my friends behind the backs of their iPhones and Androids, I knew I had to find the answer.

Evolution, Relationships, and Happiness

It wasn’t always this way of course. For hundreds of thousands of years, face to face interaction was all we had. Strong relationships were so important to our lives — to our very survival — that our brains evolved to crave them. We became hyper-social, living in cooperative tribes and villages. Psychological research has shown that the two things that make us happy on a long term basis are real personal relationships and meaningful work.

In terms of happiness, wealth and fame have proven to be fleeting. First we want a million, then 10, then 100 then as fictional Sean Parker said “a billion dollars.” But each time we reach it, we level up and want for the next step. The bonds of family and close friends (along with work we love) are the only things that stay with us.

For most of history, this paradigm held true. Our villages were small enough for us to know our neighbors, and there was a social fabric that held communities together. It’s hard to hate the family down the street, when you’ve watched their children grow up. It’s hard to steal from your neighbors, when you have to look them in the face everyday. And it’s hard to think of the world in terms of “us” and “them,” when everyone around you is a person made of flesh and blood: a mother, a child, a brother who could be your own.

Television, Suburbs, and the End of Community

A few months ago, I needed an estimate on the value of my home, in addition to what Zillow was showing me. It should have been an easy matter to knock on my neighbor’s door, but I was hesitant, because I didn’t know her name. When she opened the door, a bit surprised but still with a warm greeting, I asked her if she remembered what she paid  for her house when she moved in a few months back. To my chagrin, she told me she’d been living there for two years. I was as guilty as anyone of living an isolated life, disconnected from the people around me.

In the 1950s, two developments would change human interaction forever, television and the rise of the suburbs. The move to the suburbs allowed people to isolate themselves in bedroom communities. Life no longer required walking the local streets but instead took place cocooned in a car and hidden away in homogenous enclaves, far away from people different than us.

For many, even the distance of the suburbs wasn’t enough. The metaphorical in-crowd and out-crowd became literal, as many chose to isolate themselves further behind walls of affluence in gated communities. The physical interactions of close-knit villages that humans had known and needed for hundreds of thousands of years was stretched thinly across a chasm of geography in only a few short decades. Today our communities are more likely to be discussed nostalgically as long lost representations of the Dunbar number than they are to be experienced in real life.

At the same time we were fleeing to the suburbs, the rise of television gave us a window to the world without requiring us to actually engage with it. Within a decade, TV shifted the center of society from the town square to our living rooms, where the world ceased being a place comprised of people and experiences but instead became little more than representations on a screen.

The world outside our walls became a show that appeared almost imaginary rather than a place that we all inhabited. TV let us learn of life not by living it, but by passively watching it be delivered to us. And as our view of the world became increasingly shaped by this 19 inch window to fantasy, it became more and more difficult to distinguish reality from illusion.

Over the past 60 years, we as a society have become increasingly isolated. Research has shown a correlation between the number of hours of TV watched and decreased civic engagement. Surveys have shown that we have fewer and fewer close friends. Separated from human interaction and fed a steady diet of media that serves not to educate but to push us further apart, we’ve become an increasingly divided society defined not as people, but as easy to digest labels: red state, blue state, liberals, conservatives, Americans, foreigners, welfare moms, corporate crooks, oppressive religious nuts, and immoral gays.

This is where we stood at the dawn of the Internet age. The magical Internet, a platform that would allow us to interact, to reengage, to meet new people, and to choose our own path to knowledge, instead of sitting passively in front of a screen. This was the promise of the Internet. Thus far, the promise has been broken.

[NEXT TUESDAY: The (dis)Connected World Pt. 2 -- The Broken Promise of The Internet]

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]