This post is one of my social commentary logs. I’m compelled to write about how advancing technology, communication and social trends of the new millennium have reshaped how we relate to each other and ourselves. I’m calling this “Distractica” to draw attention to the distracting quality of how many of us lead our lives within the new paradigm of instantaneous gratification and expression. It’s a brave new world of communication and connectivity we live in, which is a natural evolution of our technological advancement. But our ability to “reach out and touch someone” has become so rapidly far-reaching, it comes with certain social pitfalls, complications and repercussions. I have to wonder, how will our advancement in technology and communication impact our sense of personal wellness?
In my opinion, the consequences of our lightning-speed capacity for sharing include increased distractedness, dependency on and overuse of technology, also its potential misuse, a disconnection from present time/space/people in the room and mismanaged time and energy. With the availability of ubiquitous mobile smart phones and tablets we have access to more information and more people than ever, at any given time. We hear more buzzes, beeps and bytes than ever before. We’ve become subject to various electronic alerts, updates and cyber-interruptions, 24/7. I think most people can agree this has lead to shortened attention spans, greater impatience, social ineptitude and generally more of a self-centered attitude in a world already plagued by media-ADD and an entitlement mentality. We have so many more ways of seeing and hearing each other than ever, yet does this trend promote more understanding or more confusion? Are our new toys making us more distanced, isolated, callused and cold – or do the old rules of how we deal with each other no longer apply? The miraculous if harried cycle of sound bites we endure while digesting daily media has no precedence. There are more memes and ringtones making us repost and turn our heads than ever. Commercial advertising has gone absurd just to catch our attention. The computer, TV or cell goes on and we tune out. And the peace that can be found by turning them off is rarely even considered.
The new tools of communication and information sharing we’ve acquired are so sparkly and fresh to the human experience; we haven’t had the chance to adopt effective rules of polite engagement and social etiquette to cope with its breakneck advancement. Is there any turning back or must we evolve a new set of manners and behaviors when it comes to using these new tools? Progress dictates that some older modes of operation are discarded and while new practices are implemented. But all changes, even positive ones, come with consequences. If our new technologies and corresponding behaviors represent the changes progress dictates, are we really improving life? Or are we simply adjusting to the new variables of a more closely knit world? Are the social ills of becoming more connected simply our society’s growing pains?
What’s the worth of our new technological and social progression and do its benefits outweigh its costs? Distracted workers, drivers, teachers and students trying to “multitask” (not a likely ability considering our selective binocular vision – probably made up by corporations to increase productivity) and trying to keep up with the pressure of responding to endless social media bonds, distracting games and on-the-go entertainment are making our work places less productive, our roads less safe and our education more disjointed than ever. We may be instant messaging someone in Rangoon but we’ve forgotten who’s in the room. Our need to be valued, to update so many aspects of our lives in real time and respond quickly to others may be masking a more profound need to earn love and respect from those we cherish and admire. I’m afraid our incredibly fantastic new tools are becoming fad toys, social status symbols, ego boosters and ways of avoiding direct communication, rejection and responsibility. They’re also becoming an unprecedented din that desensitizes us to our environments and each other.
I want to use the example of our society’s response to the first phonograph technology to illustrate my point. When preliminary phones went into use and people could suddenly communicate across great distances it was an amazing convenience and made possible whole new social connections and coordination. But it was just a tool, a way of making information flow faster and easier. Much like the incandescent bulb made life more convenient because we didn’t have to fuss with candles and kerosene anymore, telephones and later cellular phones made it easier to talk with loved ones, network and spread knowledge. A “car phone” was just that when it came out – a phone for the car, to be used in case of emergencies – a really great tool when needed. But it also became a toy, a distraction, and lots of people have died while using it, especially when it became a truly mobile device and keystrokes got involved. These examples are all tools, which humanity can use or misuse to their success or folly. But when we’re misusing technology, are we just “playing around” with it? When does it all become too much distraction? When do we kill the noise?
When I was a teenager we didn’t have call waiting or voice mail yet. If we called each other and the other phone line was busy, we had to call back later or leave an answering machine message. This seemed inconvenient even though it was the highest tech of the time and much better than what generations past had to deal with. I remember my friends and I would actually call the operator and ask him or her to perform an “emergency breakthrough” to communicate to our chatty pals that we were trying to reach them. It was almost like an operator assisted call waiting with the feel of a collect call. We did it all the time until the phone company figured out that our social calls were not real emergencies and discontinued the service. We abused the tool and it was taken away. I don’t see how our over-reliance on smart phones is going to get any better though or that we’ll have to give up our abused and taken-for-granted conveniences anytime soon. I wonder, what will the consequences of inflating Facebook and Twitter egos, dizzying text message communications and mindless Youtube entertainment finally be on our psyches, cultural development and social compact be? If we don’t take time off the veritable Merry-Go-Round of media distractions, where will we wind up going – in circles? If our world is becoming more complicated, aren’t we the ones who can make it simpler again? Do we need a mega EM pulse to accidentally (or purposely) shut everything off to show us we can all live without so many technological crutches and maybe make more real connections to actual live human beings? I doubt, however, that the sacrifice would make people LOL. BTW, isn’t there something a bit weird about saying “LOL” in spoken conversation, as opposed to actually laughing aloud? Hmmm…
Now, please, don’t get me wrong… I love technology. It’s a beautiful thing! When it’s well used with respect for others. It’s a phenomenal tool, hopefully to be used with the best intentions. However, I think we need some rules, some parameters for using technology with sense and dignity. Youtubing videos of one’s drunken escapades, texting pictures of one’s nether regions – while driving, arguing about a misunderstanding with someone through instant messages, irritating the world with obnoxious ringtones, keeping your eyes on your i-phone while walking down the street oblivious to traffic, “sexting” at work, Skyping video games all day (though at least its interactive), posting status updates of your hilarious cat (mine are just as cute) and tweeting your every other move may not be the most dignified social media behavior (or regular behavior) in my book. In fact, #RIDIC! Its also a wonder anyone under twenty years old can even spell with our newly (sadly) accepted, abbreviated, texting lingo. OMG!
Like every other tool, this new technology does need some rules to make the playing field fair and just for all and stigmas attached to breaking them. But, who sets them and how when the paradigm shift was never given any order? How do we leash and curb a pack of wild dogs? How do we make up etiquette for something that has been given no such regard and allowed to ramble aimlessly with wanton disregard for any sense of decorum? Or is this apparent misuse of technology just a sign of the times – that we’ve lost most other forms of social responsibility, too? That we’ve become essentially socially unaccountable – anonymous and untouchable – even though we see and hear from each other more than ever?
I don’t propose to have all the answers – I’m but a philosopher looking at the issues we all face and sharing my opinions with you. But I think its important to at least address the new trend and see it for what it is – misuse of one’s energy and attention, sometimes to the point of abuse. If we trend this way too long I foresee a bit of an attention deficit disaster on the horizon. What if we continue to disrespect this tool and keep defiling each others integrity, privacy and values? The rude person who talks loudly about the underwear they just bought on their cell during a movie or while out to dinner should understand that they are disturbing another person’s right to have a peaceful night out. I don’t need to know the intimate details of that person’s life, but they seem to feel it should be broadcast. It screams of self-importance and indignity. I wish they’d hang up on their distractions and find some higher purpose or consciousness. Not everything is meant to be entertaining or amusing, yes? I just don’t think we’re meant to have so much information and so many diversions available to us at all times, in all places, without some common sense of how and when to use it properly. When a member of our society ignores their screaming child to text or make a comment on Facebook or Youtube, what does that say about our society’s priorities? Its values? Its future?
The hand-held revolution is becoming an excuse for a bad behavior free-for-all and parents, teachers, civic leaders, the media and storytellers ought to take some responsibility and help young people realize the error of making life-long “e-choices” they may one day regret. Once you post it – its there for eternity! If we don’t wise up and use these tools with care and constraint, we’re going to have a confused and discombobulated generation who think amusement is more important than achievement and we’ll wind up with a society and economy like the movie Idiocracy. I make no apologies for my opinion – I think its all going way to fast, we haven’t caught up or adapted all that well and we aren’t really learning or teaching better ways to implement our technology to promote better social skills and information sharing that makes sense and isn’t just a colossal distraction from making this world a better place for all. Kids are already distracted enough just being kids and having access to instant everything only makes them more spoiled, entitled and confounded. The choices are only going to get tougher, too. But, what do we decide to do about it? Ignoring this or being distracted by its lure won’t make it go away. Through the cacophony, can you hear me now? LOL!
I have some advice for those who think technology has its place but that it shouldn’t dictate how we spend our time and energy. How we form relationships is vital to how well we live, so we must understand that it can be challenging not to get caught up in keeping up with the maelstrom of potential connectivity when you really do want to stay in touch. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be friends with the world or anything wrong with wanting to limit our exposure to a sometimes inundating onslaught of modern sociability. My best suggestion – every so often just unplug! Take an hour or two everyday or a couple times each week to just turn your mobile devices off. Set aside some down time to take a walk in nature, read an old fashioned book, meditate on your place in the universe or meet with friends for coffee – but without performing your habitual online check-ins. Ignore those pushy alerts by setting your phone to “alarm only” and keep a healthy distance from the frantic pace of friendly Facebook posts. If your kids are out of control with their online life, limit their time on their devices or at least check in with them now and then and ask how their “real” life is going. We all need down time – true rest and relaxation – but surfing the internet and scrolling through social media sites and even watching TV don’t constitute true down time. Such activities are actually too stimulating for the mind to rest and regenerate. Dare to go “off the grid” and notice if you rush a bit less or have less general anxiety or if you happen to notice oncoming traffic. And don’t feel guilty about tuning out! Your true friends will understand and your thumbs will thank you for the rest. And remember, a hand-held device can never replace holding someone’s hand.
“It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.” ~Albert Einstein
“Men have become the tools of their tools.” ~Henry David Thoreau
“Technological progress has merely provided us with more efficient means for going backwards.” ~Aldous Huxley
“Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense.” ~Gertrude Stein