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Connection and Connectedness

Last year, when I launched the 2016 Human Development Report on Human Development for Everyone in various capitals of the world, I made a distinction between connection and connectedness. I maintained in my interventions that connection among people has increased, thanks to the digital revolution and social media, but human connectedness has declined.
Needless to say, in a world of globalization and digital revolution, it raised lots of eyebrows, particularly among the media and younger generations. How could I say that – people asked? With the spread of information and communication technology and that of social media at breakneck speed, isn’t the world more connected than ever? Let us look at numbers, they argued.
Today, we have more than 7 billion mobile subscriptions, more than 2 billion smartphone users, and more than 3 billion people who are connected to the internet. On worldwide, there are over 2 billion monthly active Facebook users for June 2017 and more than 325 million active twitter users. Has the world seen such surge of people’s connection throughout the entirety human history? So what do I have to say?
I was flooded with questions from the media in different capitals, was asked to clarify in interviews on newspapers, television, radio and so on, requested to defend what I argued for. Even after the presentations of the Report, many participants asked questions on this issue and wanted to know what I meant by those words? Did I use the words rhetorically or did I imply any real difference? As I said earlier, and I would like to reiterate the point once again, that there are differences between connection and connectedness. And the differences are neither literary nor rhetorical; rather they are real.
There is no doubt that in the present world, the connection among people has increased significantly and that such progress is enviable. In today’s world, people can connect in seconds with other people on the other side of the world; they can write to them using different digital means, they can share news, information, photos, videos, etc. They can also exchange personal information as to what they are doing, where their friends are, is there something interesting happening. Just visit Facebook at any point in time, and you will see what I mean. Such a public domain has absolutely increased connection.


Similarly, people also interact on economic, social, political or cultural issues. You write something on some topics and immediately you will see that people have provided feedbacks on those, either agreeing with you or disagreeing and sometimes, bringing in new perspectives, information, and views. And with all these begin exciting and stimulating debates, dialogues, and discourses. Most importantly, social media has mobilized people, brought together their voices, have facilitated social movements. Just think of the Arab Spring a few years ago. Twitter has emerged as even a sorter and short-cut instrument for people’s interaction, and with tweets and retweets, the multiplier effects of social interaction have become phenomenal.
But the fundamental question is are these substitutes for, what I call, human connectedness. In my view, connectedness is not mere connection in terms of social media or digital instruments, but it is more than that. In connection, sometimes people remain distant, even anonymous, you may see his or her picture, but in real terms, you may not know the person. In earlier times, when we used to write letters, we used to know the hand-writing of a person, when you talk to a person over the phone, you recognize his or her voice. But now with Facebook and Twitter, these are becoming extinct.
Furthermore, such connections sometimes appear to be quite vague, mechanical, and regrettably unbelievable. Sometimes people connect with others with a ‘like’ or a ‘react’ without meaning anything or respond inappropriately. For example, I have seen people responding with a ‘like’ icon on a post where others have indicated that they have lost their parents. Such connections are no connections at all, and only represent insensitiveness of people.
But human connectedness is beyond all these. Connectedness requires the physical presence of someone else, face-to-face talks, making eye contact, having physical contact. Human touch is essential for human connectedness, and so is the physical presence. With all these, we reach the hearts of others, make bonds, and make real connections. It is one thing to send an e-mail to a colleague but is entirely different to go to his room, stand at his or her door and ask him or her whether he or she is free and would like to join for lunch. Is it more time-consuming? Maybe. But time is a critical element for human connectedness, because, in the ultimate analysis, it is time, which one can give to other and that builds human connectedness.
In the modern world, even living in the same room, people may have connections with the rest of the world, but they may not necessarily be connected with each other. Let us observe what a typical household and see what they do in the evening. The father may be watching the television and getting all the information from the rest of the world; the mother may be talking to one of her friends on a mobile phone; the son may be chatting with his friends on Facebook, and the daughter may be tweeting to her Twitter followers. Everyone in this family has a connection with the rest of the world, but they are not connected with each other. Having family dinners is slowly becoming a forgotten social exercise.
In the ultimate analysis, the connection is a necessary condition, but not a sufficient condition for human connectedness. The connection may facilitate connectedness, but it is not a substitute for connectedness. Furthermore, one has to distinguish between what is necessary and what is important. The connection is necessary, and connectedness is important. Let me conclude by using a metaphor. Connectedness is a house and connection is the door. It would be wrong to mistake the door to be the house. But it would be equally wrong to stop at the door and not to enter the house.

The writer is the Director of the Human Development Report Office at the United Nations Development Programme.

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