Imagine you are visiting a new city and get lost on your way to that famous must-see museum. In times of yore – actually just about 10 years ago – you might have had to consult a friendly local to direct you. Today, with all the friendly locals still very much around you on the street, you might find yourself reaching for the powerful fountain of information in your pocket – your smartphone. Directions to the museum, recommendations for the best places to have lunch and much more are literally at your fingertips, anytime and anywhere you go.
Such convenient access to information is no doubt useful. Our map apps might well be more reliable (and more likely to be in our native language) than the confusing directions of a stranger. And we run zero risk of getting into an unpleasant interpersonal interaction. But could there be costs to this technological convenience?
Contrary to people’s expectations, casual social interactions even with strangers can be surprisingly enjoyable, and a powerful tool in building a sense of connection, community and belonging. Economists sometimes refer to these impalpable links that hold society together as “social capital.” But as intangible as they may be, these bonds between members of a society have very real consequences. When trust between people in a country goes up, for example, so does economic growth. At the individual level, people who trust others more also tend to have better health and higher well-being.
Could our increasing reliance on information from devices, rather than from other people, be costing us opportunities to build social capital? To examine this question, my collaborator Jason Proulx and I looked at the relationship between how frequently people used their phones to obtain information and how much they trusted strangers.