Reality beats technology
Thursday August 12, 2004
By Judy Hevrdejs, Chicago Tribune

Low-tech face-to-face interactions make the best connections.

We keep tabs on pals via cell phones and camera phones. We spend several hours a day e-mailing, blogging, instant messaging and chattering in chat rooms.

So we wondered, why does anyone need the kind of informal gathering places captured on the silver screen in "Barbershop" or on TV in the Central Perk of "Friends"?

Brad Keats has a few reasons. When we caught up with him, he was perched along with several other pals at the counter of Sarkis Grill, a tiny diner in Evanston, Ill. Between bites of a bacon-cheese sandwich, he told us why he frequents Sarkis when checking up on friends might be more easily accomplished via cell phone.

"We walk in, and it feels like people know us, and we know people. It's all smiles," said the 19-year-old. "Even when the food is done, you can still hang out for a while ... . It's just like a good place to be with people."

Ray Oldenburg, should he ever visit Sarkis, might give the diner his blessing. He's the sociologist who 15 years ago coined the term "third place" to describe such hang-outs, beyond first place (home) and second place (work).

Despite all the techno-gadgets that keep us in contact with others, he says that places where people can relax regularly and establish connections with others are essential to our well-being.

"What good are they (those gadgets) at a funeral?" Oldenburg said. "What good are they at a wedding? What good are they when you need a helping hand physically? What good are they when you want to borrow something?"

Virginia Gundlach might agree.

She works at Markland-Hubbard Gourmet Provisions, a scone's throw from Metra's Rock Island 95th Street station in Chicago, fueling morning commuters with coffee, tea and pastries.

"We have a group of men who come in every morning. Neighborhood locals," she said. "Some are retired; some are not. They sit and chat ... . My husband passed away last year, and men from the group came to his funeral.

"It's about the personal connections," Gundlach added. "You can't be that isolated ... . All of us need quiet time. But interacting with people? That's life."

Joe Fisher was one of those men who showed up at the funeral. He's part of the group of morning regulars who hang out at Markland-Hubbard for the sports talk, the coffee and the camaraderie.

"It gets me going in the morning," said Fisher, 55, a salesman who works out of his Beverly, Ill., home. "Half of us are Sox fans, and the other half are Cubs fans ... . We argue, and we laugh, and we joke, and we tease each other."

And occasionally, they get together for golf and their kids' ball games and gatherings beyond Markland-Hubbard.

"Phones, the Internet, instant messaging that, for some individuals, may increase connectedness," said John T. Cacioppo, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago who has spent more than a decade researching social isolation and loneliness. "For others, it can decrease it."

Technology uses
It all depends on how they're used.

"If you go home and you're using your cell phone to continue your productivity at work which many of us do that's helping you achieve what is valued as part of our culture," he said. "But also, there is a cost to it in terms of what you lose with contact with others."

Cacioppo is in the midst of a five-year study into the impact social isolation and social relationships have on health.

"We know that if people are socially isolated or feel socially isolated, they are more likely to suffer broad-based health problems," Cacioppo said.

Sarkis and dozens of other hangouts like it is the type of place Oldenburg described 15 years ago in his book "The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community."

A good third place, Oldenburg said, draws a mix of generations, unites neighborhoods and may be independently owned. People head there not for personal gain or civic duty but for fun.

Third places are "homes away from home where unrelated people relate," he wrote. "In third places, the entertainment is provided by the people themselves ... The sustaining activity is conversation."

That chat value is another reason Oldenburg, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of West Florida, continues to champion the value of the third place.

We may be overcommuted, time-crunched and ultra-connected we spend almost three more hours on our home computers than we did last year, say the Nielsen data-trackers, and our TV time is up 45 minutes from a decade ago.

But Oldenburg says we still need to make room for a third place in our life.

Not a sure fix
Putting oneself in a third place, though, does not automatically solve loneliness issues, get rid of the feelings of isolation or lead to connectedness, Cacioppo said.

It is important, he said, to recognize three valuable connections. There is intimate connectedness, "(with) someone you feel particularly close to, not necessarily romantic, but more than a best friend." And there's relational connectedness, with family and friends, for example, "someone in whom you can confide, with whom you can talk, on whom you can rely," he added.

And there's a "collective connectedness," that is, "to what extent do you feel you belong to a group that you value," Cacioppo said.