11/11/2013 08:52 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Static State of Philanthropy (Part 4)

In our fourth post of this series examining the forces that are affecting the traditions of philanthropy, we asked nonprofit expert Carol Rhine to share her thoughts on technology and how it's both empowering us while distancing us from other people.

It's no surprise that technology quickly changes the way people interact. We've seen it many times before, with the advent of email, for example, and are facing it now as more than 1.11 billion users (and counting) turn to Facebook to share up-to-date news with their hundreds of "closest" friends. We've also seen how access to the Internet and cellular technology, have brought opportunity, information, education and empowerment to places that didn't have it before. Remember those jokes about correspondence courses or getting your degree from a place advertised on the back of a match book? Today, enrollment in online universities and courses is skyrocketing. More than 6.1 million students enrolled in at least one online class in the fall 2010 semester, according to a study by the Babson Survey Research Group. One thing is clear. Earning a college diploma is no longer reserved for those who can attend in person.

Although technology has enabled so much that's positive, it has also fostered more breadth than depth of interaction, and Carol thinks we're paying the price for staying on the surface. Although millions of people around the world are sharing an unprecedented amount of information (according to Twitter, more than 58 million tweets are currently being sent each day) they are doing so in channels that are distanced from actual human interaction. Texting, tweeting, and posting on Facebook have replaced the face-to-face (or voice-to-voice) interactions we had by meeting in person or talking on the phone. The nuance of verbal expression is quickly being replaced by emoticons.

We are reachable 24/7, but we aren't connected the way we used to be - communication between two people actually talking with each other. Having a device in our hands gives us a method of escape when we're in public, an acceptable way to detach, disappearing into a private conversation and ignoring those around us. We have been given a license to be rude. And we have eliminated the concept of true down time, where reflection leads to deeper thought.

"What's ironic is it's all this technology that is allowing us to keep people away. We end up with a social community that's superficial," Carol says. "What you miss when you have surface relationships with people is empathy. It's harder to get to that kind of connection, and it's much easier to be nasty. My long-term observation is that we're losing something important and, at the same time, encouraging behavior that's less positive in society."

MIT professor and TED2012 speaker Sherry Turkle agrees. In her pivotal book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, she talks about how technology is taking "us places we don't want to go," removing the human element, and sanitizing the true "messy" relationships between people. She describes a two-faced coin - the human need to be with people on one side combined with a mobile device that allows us to remain distant. We have all see this in our lives - at work, at home, on the subway, at events, across the table at dinner - a person who might be there, but not actually "present."

This kind of behavior doesn't just affect how we go about our daily lives. It also affects if and how we respond to philanthropic appeals. How we give. If we give. And that makes the challenge of growing philanthropy even tougher.

Our next and final post in this series will explore some ways to turn the tide.