People keep complaining about “loss of community” and feeling isolated from one another. Having witnessed people complaining about the systems to which they belong while simultaneously adding legitimacy to them, I had to wonder how we might be complicit in cutting ourselves off from the quality of relationships we claim to want. Here’s where age offers me some perspective.
I’m old enough to remember when parents got up every so often to check on their sleeping children rather than relying on baby monitors. I remember when you didn’t email the person at the next desk. You got up and walked over to them and sat down by their desk or invited them to the coffee machine to talk.
This was the era before we started relating to electronic gadgetry more than to each other.
Nowadays, we wouldn’t know what to do without our trusty remotes, cell phones, tablets or other gadgets. Think I’m exaggerating? What happens when you realize that you are missing your gadget? Notice how panicky people get when they can’t find their TV remote, or their cell phone? Recent research has shown that people have withdrawal symptoms when deprived of their gadgets.
What a remote world we’re living in! With email and texting all so readily available, rarely do we engage in face to face conversation. In fact, most human contact is through some or other piece of technology.
A friend of mine told me the other day that her teenage daughter has frequent instant messaging exchanges with other young people half way around the world, whom she thinks of as her best friends. Yet they have never met! From my perspective, kids today are confusing true human relationships with acquaintances mediated by some form of technology. It makes me wonder if they feel closer to the mediating technology than the person they’re supposedly communicating with.
Digital technology offers a preciseness and mechanical correctness that is very useful under many circumstances. But it offers no nuance, contextual cues or those other human qualities required for getting to know another person. Technology is great for delivering data such as facts, numbers and statistics but it isn’t much of a medium for any communication with emotional content. Digital technology works for the factual but not the relational.
Technology is good for sharing opinions, like blogs and chats. But human beings are far more than mere opinion makers.
Remember the slow-boiled frog parable (see newsletter Issue #12)? We may not even be aware that we’ve gradually become so reliant on technical go-betweens for human interaction. Why are we so puzzled that there is so much disconnection going on in the world today? We seem so separate from one another even though many of us, at an intellectual level, understand that we are all interconnected in terms of collective consciousness. We may wonder why there is so much objectification, conflict and polarization in the world when so many of us claim we want community, peace and relationship. Perhaps, just perhaps, it is due to the way we choose to communicate through technological “middlemen” who strip away the nuance and emotion that are so critical to building relationships between human beings.
Machines don’t require these relational attributes but people do! Remotes can interact with other remotes and turn things off and on, make changes in volume and anything else that requires a plus or minus, on or off. But human beings require nuance, subtlety, and emotional context that comes only from direct contact with other real human beings.
Don’t get me wrong – technology can be extremely useful. Used as it was intended, it can serve us well. The danger to our humanity lies not in the technology itself, but in our growing reliance on it to the point where it diminishes our relationships or creates distance between us.
Here are a couple of ways we might find ourselves crossing that line:
- Instead of using the baby monitor as a means of alerting us to any emergencies, we begin to use it as a babysitter (as did earlier generations courtesy of the television set). The downside to our humanity is that the child loses much needed human contact in favor of simply being “wired for emergencies” or “entertained” with TV.
- We choose to email a friend, as I did recently, addressing a very personal issue between us. In my case I chose email because it was convenient and the form of communication I use most. In other words, it was “easier’ to email him than call him. He got really upset.
We’ve all heard that only seven percent of what a person gets from a communication is the content, or what is actually stated. The remainder of what is communicated comes from the speaker’s body language, facial expressions, tone of voice and other subtle nuances that we frequently don’t pick up. So approximately 93 percent of the message my friend might have received wasn’t available to him. He got only the content, the seven percent, and therefore misunderstood what I was actually saying. Making amends and clarifying everything was far more work than if I had simply called him in the first place. This was a major lesson for me in the limitations of email. My new rule: don’t attempt to communicate anything at a personal level, which includes emotional content or anything which may have emotional impact, using digital technology. When I cannot have a face-to-face meeting, the phone will be my next choice. But not email.
One day I entered a local Starbucks and the first thing I noticed was the place was full. The second thing I noticed was that all but two people were engaging with something other than a real human being. They were either talking on cell phones, working on their iPads or laptops, or reading a newspaper. Out of twenty-five to thirty people in the place, only two people were engaging in face to face conversation.
Even in war we are seeking ways to kill each other “remotely” so we don’t see the impact of the kill directly. It is more like a video game, where the “pilot” sits miles away controlling the strike from afar, such as the current and very controversial use by the U.S. of drones in the Middle East. While killing in this remote way certainly eliminates risk for the pilots, it also relieves them of the human emotions that would normally accompany such a deed.
Relying on technology as a replacement for human relationship furthers the objectification of others. It perpetuates the myth of separateness, blinding us to our connectivity, to each other and All That Is. The servant thus becomes the master, and we become slaves to the technology.
The technology era is creating a whole new experience for us. But, once we recognize the limitations of our devices and the downsides of misusing them, we owe it to ourselves, and the generations who know nothing of the world before electronic gadgetry, to let our relationships take priority over convenience and ease of use. Otherwise, the sense of separation so many of us are experiencing will only increase and our quality of life will continue to diminish.