Widgets Magazine


Our sterile society

Society is advancing, asking just about everything technical and technological to be “better, faster, stronger.” Grow the economy and do it fast. Invest more in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) curricula. Encourage our youth to enter STEM fields for their academic and professional careers. Learn how to effectively work with computers. Code. Build apps. Create new tools. Use those tools. Leverage your social networks. Maximize the utility of your interpersonal interactions.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

But, this sort of attention and approach toward advancement creates a sort of social sterility that begins to translate into a parallel hyper-cleanliness of our physical world. The social sterility comes out of a dependence on, and even usage of, technology and ability to manicure our appearances on social media outlets.

Our obsession with devices and networks then begins to affect our interactions with the physical world, making things too clean and inauthentic. Not only is it the case that, typically, children in America will stay inside on the computer or watching television more often than playing outside, but nowadays, you even see a disappearance of the warm glow of a flashlight under the covers with a young person staying up past bedtime to read a book. Such an image is replaced with a less friendly image of sullen faces in dark rooms illuminated with the sickly light of a computer screen, which can have some serious impacts on the development of said child’s emotional intelligence.

What is really the problem with such a progression, though? There is of course the problem of biological desensitization; there really is something to the idiomatic advice to “rub some dirt in it.” As we are exposed to more environmental stimuli, including bacteria and other common pathogens, we build up a more natural resistance to them, generally improving overall health. This progression makes us more susceptible to contracting various diseases.

It is, though, the emotional sterility that, while less visibly apparent, packs an almost greater punch. We are less and less authentic and genuine with one another as we have an increasing dependence on technology, and it makes true connection rarer and more difficult to cultivate. This lack of authenticity often cannot be helped; we’re so used to being able to manage and control exactly what of us our friends and acquaintances can see that we end up isolating ourselves and making it impossible to actually support one another when the need to do so is greatest.

It’s difficult to support one another emotionally if we haven’t fully built rich, authentic relationships. It becomes even harder to do so when we have no ability to physically touch the person who we are trying to console. For instance, when dealing with Ebola patients and suspects, the medical protocol says that the person must be fully isolated and out of physical contact with anyone. Imagine how difficult that must be: an extended period of time with no handshakes, no reassuring touches and no hugs. Since the disease is passed through bodily fluid exchange, experts have discouraged physically touching people who have come into contact with the disease. If relationships with others aren’t strong and authentic, there is a strong possibility that the patient would feel lonely and stigmatized, lacking connection and support.

Such feelings compounded with the stress of an unknown state of health could incite mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety, that while maybe not quite as injurious as a positive Ebola diagnosis, would certainly not be helpful for the potential patient’s overall condition. Furthermore, feeling connected to other people provides an incentive for people suffering from all sorts of illnesses to recover. With people who care about us, there is something to get well to, people to worry about hurting and making sad.

While beginning to push back on the notion of sterility won’t accomplish something like curing a deadly disease and while there are certainly some caveats with the introduction of less sterile interactions, the potential positive ramifications of closer bonds and a greater understanding of one another are certainly worth such a sacrifice. The experience of true emotion and connection with our fellow human is how we start to break down the systemic issues. We need to shift away from this sterile world and remember our humanity.

Contact Mina Shah at minashah ‘at’ Stanford.edu.