“We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men …” ― Herman Melville

Not to get too touchy-feely, but how connected are you?

Most likely, you’ve got every techno-gadget available – laptop, tablet, mobile, maybe even a business-personal split between a Galaxy, droid and iPhone. And I’d guess your friends and family may scour the “For the Tech Lover in Your Life” gift-giving guides, so your drawers are full of Fitbits and Bluetooth this-and-that’s.

In short, I’m assuming your answer is: I’m very connected.   

But I don’t mean technologically connected.

Despite the many ways humans can connect digitally, the percentage of Americans who report feeling lonely has increased from 11%-20% in the 1970s and 1980s to 35% in 2010, according to AARP, Inc.

In other words, we’ve never been more lonely and disconnected, even as the Internet enhances the way we discover and use information; find jobs, retirement communities, vacation destinations and colleges; locate homes, recreational activities and love; and create activist networks whose current passion rivals that of the Vietnam era.

I’d argue, however, that in many realms of our lives – work, family and romantic love – the latest advances in digital technologies are helping to alleviate this feeling of disconnection while adding value to our lives.

Work: Apart but Together

A colleague of mine recently posted a picture of a birthday cake with the caption: “From my work family.” Not only did the chocolate ganache make her feel appreciated and connected to her co-workers, but she also got to share, or celebrate, that feeling of inclusion and love on her Facebook newsfeed.

Personally, when it comes to work, I’m more itinerant than stationary.  I logged almost 300,000 miles last year globetrotting, so my “office” is cross-cultural, versatile and virtual.  However, despite my reliance on seemingly every interconnectivity business tool on the market, I’m also very “workplace-social” – in fact, 75% of my time is dedicated to some form of an interpersonal meeting.

Services like Vidyo and Slack, meanwhile, have relegated tools like e-mail to the Morse Code era.  I recently heard a colleague use “Slack” as a verb – a sure sign that a service is poised for worldwide success (think Google).

Yet, despite the “work families” and the ability to Slack, the Harvard Business Review reports that a sense of workplace alienation is still prevalent.  Bottom-line: Just as companies need to continuously watchdog their B2B and B2C communications, they also need to keep an eye on B2E, or business to employee, connections as well. Tools like Cisco’s Spark Board, launched earlier this month, can serve as a “digital transformation” palliative for silo-affliction, as can Google’s Jam Board and Microsoft’s Surface Hub, which strive to foster workplace connectivity by bundling services and streamlining the virtual meeting experience.

Family: Strengthening Ties

I may be dating myself here, but how many of you remember the televised public service announcement from the late 1960’s, ‘70s and ‘80s: “It’s 10:00 (or 11:00) PM; do you know where your children are?” If parents had forgotten to check in with their kids, or maybe were having such a good time they forgot they had children, they had a nightly sobering reminder.

Today, with all manner of news sources, fewer parents are tuned into the same channel at the same time every night; however, they’re also more likely to be in touch with their kids’ whereabouts, thanks to smartphones and even GPS trackers.

So while we criticize young people for spoiling family time – and worse – by texting during dinner, digital technologies are also bringing families closer. Digital tools are enhancing family vacation experiences and making it simpler for them to find entertainment venues. Taking a page from the Disney playbook, Carnival Cruise Lines unveiled a wristband solution that eases the water-locked itch of a family-fun cruise. And though it’s been around since 2009, Yelp’s Monocle is still the app I’m betting on to eclipse some of the more technically provincial restaurant sourcing tools, with its early implementation of an augmented reality overlay.

While recreational services can serve as an antidote to familial isolation, social networks can provide a supportive community to family members with specialized needs, such as parents with a chronic illness, veterans with PTSD or adolescents with cancer. These virtual, online groups are a muscular, modern take on the old chat rooms and – combined with other digital capabilities such as smart pill bottles that provide medication reminders – can give patients a greater sense of independence.

Love: Finding Connection in Remote Places

With the plethora of dating and hookup sites, who can remember how we found love in the dinosaur age of blind dates, parties and, dare I say, the bar?

Match, eHarmony and OkCupid have been joined by Bumble and Tinder, among others, and each brand seems to offer a unique point of view on how to strike up a romantic connection. OkCupid introduced an app revamp on Valentine’s Day (full rollout is promised in March) to provide a more substantive portrait of a potential mate. Information, as always, is king.

Skype, FaceTime and now Skype Translator can make the heart grow fonder no matter what the geographic distance is or what language a romantic interest may speak.

Artificial intelligence- and Internet of Things-enabled smart products will introduce more objects that encourage, enforce and provide empathy. A bot that remotely triggers a hug to a connected pillow will not necessarily replace skin-on-skin contact, but it could act as a concrete placeholder until a real embrace or a real ear is available.

One statistic to close with: Over half (57%) of teens begin friendships and extra-familial connections in the digital space. Which goes to show how portentous American writer Herman Melville was when he wrote of the “thousand fibers” connecting us all. And, I’d add, the stronger the technology, the stronger, and deeper, our bonds will be.

Theo Forbath

Theo Forbath

Theo Forbath is Global Vice President of Digital Transformation at Cognizant. With more than fifteen years’ experience as an innovator in global... Read more

  • Duke Vukadinovic

    A number of question that you answered in this article bothered me for quite some time because I felt that we live in a culture that prizes independence and self-reliance as markers of success. It’s sad that people stay single longer and live alone more than ever. And our technological tools promise to make keeping in touch with friends — or setting up a date — as easy as swiping a screen.

  • Theo Forbath

    Hi @dukevukadinovic:disqus –

    Thanks for your note.

    I agree that when used to their advantage, digital connections unite us more than we
    ever could imagine before we had them. As always, it’s a
    human-technology collaboration, with humans steering the value of the
    technology not vice-versa. As for self reliance, that’s a noble goal,
    but we can’t overlook or try to get past the basic need for human
    connection.

    Best, Theo