Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Technology versus humanity


That one word strikes fear and worry into this parent's heart. I'm not against it. I like technology. It's a great tool. I like typing instead of writing long-hand, I like using Facebook to have conversations with far-away friends I wouldn't otherwise be able to re-connect with, I like the immediate satisfaction of taking pictures on my digital camera and editing photos in Photoshop. I like writing this blog and I like sending my husband emails at work that I know he can read when he has a break, instead of interrupting his work flow with a phone call. I like having a cell phone on car trips in case of emergency. Technology is a tool that can make life easier and more enjoyable. But like all tools, it needs to be used the right way for maximum benefit. Abusing a tool often leads to a break-down in functionality of that tool. What happens when technology is abused on a societal scale? What happens to that society?

I see what the abuse of technology is doing to the world around me and it's terrifying. I don't understand why there isn't a huge outcry about it, why more people aren't recognizing the dangers or why more parents aren't pro-active in preventing their kids from abusing technology. I don't understand why schools think it's ok to assume kids are so used to using it that they no longer need to be taught how to.

I'm not talking about the obvious dangers lurking on the internet. I think pretty much everyone is aware of those by now. I'm talking about the more subtle dangers that creep up on a society as a whole and nobody notices until it's too late to do anything about the shift that's already happened. What kind of dangers? Let me paint a few pictures.

Picture 1: Two young adults dining together at a restaurant. "Together" may be too strong a word. They are occupying space at the same table by sitting facing each other, but that's it. Both of their heads are down, concentrations firmly fixed on phones in their hands. Their fingers fly over miniscule keyboards as they text. When the waitress stops to take their order, they briefly look up, give their order and then promptly go back to their phones. They never once look at each other. The waitress places their food in front of them and they do not look up to thank her for her service, nor do they put down their phones to eat. Absentmindedly, they spend the entire meal feeding themselves with one hand and texting with the other. Not once do they look up from their phone to have a conversation with each other. The bill is paid in the same manner and they leave the restaurant, texting while walking out the door.

Picture 2: Imagine this same scenario, but this time it's a family at the restaurant: a mom, a dad, two grandparents and three kids. The parents and grandparents spend the meal talking and laughing with each other. Knowing each other. Finding joy in the presence of loved ones, in the present. Not once do the kids look up from their phones, tablets or hand-held video games to interact with each other or their parents or grandparents. They spend the entire meal plugged into their devices and eating with one hand. They missed the entire experience. They missed out on practicing the art of conversation, on a chance to know their parents and grandparents a little better and a chance for the parents and grandparents to know their children.

Picture 3: A multi-generational family is gathered to celebrate a holiday or birthday. Grandparents, uncles, aunts, parents, siblings and cousins gather together to connect and celebrate. Half of the adults under the age of 40 are looking at a phone or tablet to text, tweet, Facebook or surf the web. They aren't participating in the present, in what's going on around them. Relatives try to talk to them and they can't be bothered to look up long enough for a reply. They certainly don't make an effort to instigate a conversation with anyone. It's much easier to log out of the physical realm and log into the digital one at their fingertips, so that's what they do. In a room full of young adults, there is only silence.

Picture 4: Imagine yourself in your vehicle, on the highway coming home from a long road trip. The children are asleep in their seats and you are anxious to be home. Traffic is heavy; you are crowded on all sides. Then you see a car coming off the ramp, trying to merge into the lane next to you. One glance and you realize the driver is not paying attention. His gaze is focused on the phone in his hand. You think to yourself, "Surely he's going to look up before he actually merges." Another glance to the side and you realize not only did he NOT look up, but he didn't stop his side-ward steering after he cleared his lane. He is headed straight toward you, and he still isn't looking up. You honk your horn and swerve, and he still doesn't look up. He doesn't look up from his phone until you are on the side of the highway, one wheel in the ditch, constantly honking your horn and he is in your lane. Then he glances up, swerves back into his lane and continues on. He missed you by mere inches and only because you were alert enough, present enough, to avert disaster. You say a prayer of thanks that you didn't hit anything or anyone in trying to avoid him. You give thanks your entire family wasn't just killed by a cell phone and a partially-functioning human. You get back on the road and continue on. Only minutes later, you pass slow moving traffic on your right. As you pass the car holding up the lane, you glance over and see the driver is the same guy who ran you off the road. He's looking at his cell phone.

All four of these are entirely true. I witnessed the first two while dining at the same restaurant as the subjects. The third is a very real snapshot of what functions have begun to look like over the last five years in my extended family. Awkward silence now reigns where once the sounds of everyone playing board games or cards together used to be heard. The last story happened to me and my husband and children as we were returning home from a weekend away. We almost died that day.

Does anyone else see the danger in these scenarios? In each case, people were so plugged into their digital devices they were completely oblivious to the present. There was a total disconnect between what their brains were doing and what their bodies were doing. Their consciousness was in "the cloud," but their physical bodies were still here on Earth and neither half was communicating with the other. In other words, a partially-functioning human.

The danger in the last example is obvious, right? When driving a vehicle, the danger of an intentional disconnect between mental awareness and physical awareness is blatantly obvious. It's such an obviously stupid thing to do, I honestly can't figure out how any human can justify doing it. Yet it happens on a daily basis, every minute of every day all across our nation's highways and byways. Are we all really THAT STUPID?!?

But in the first three, do you see it? Really see it? Have you watched Disney's WALL-E? The movie's main theme was obviously about taking care of our planet Earth, because it's the only one we have. Take a closer look, though, at some of the subtexts running through it. When that movie was first released, I remember hearing people scoff at the idea that society would degenerate to the point where people would speak to each other through screens if they were sitting right next to one another. It seemed so silly. Why would you need to look at a screen and speak to someone if you could just turn your head and have a conversation face-to-face? The ridiculousness of the very idea added levity to a children's movie that otherwise could have been categorized as satire. People laughed and thought it was funny because it was so terribly unlikely.

Does our society even realize we've already gone several steps beyond that ridiculousness? Not only do people not even speak to each other face-to-face anymore, they don't even speak. Texting very often replaces verbal communication with a form of written communication that has been condensed into words that aren't even words: LOL, IKR, TTYL, PM me.

How far will it go? Are we seeing the creation of a modern version of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs (think of the emoticons added to many texts) or something even worse? The phonographic interpretation of hieroglyphic writing does not normally indicate vowels and has been labeled by some scholars to be an abjad alphabet - an alphabet without vowels. In our modern world, our kids aren't just ignoring the vowels, they are getting rid of the words entirely and only keeping the first letter of each word. They've gone past our own language that has it's fair share of acronyms and seem to be developing a whole new language based on initialisms, which can't even be pronounced as words but are spoken as a string of letters. I've heard stories from teachers about their dismay when students submit reports typed like a text and they can't decode it. When they give it back to the students to be redone, the students don't even see the problem. Whereas hieroglyphic writing was a standardized method of communication and considered an advance in ancient Egyptian society, I have a hard time believing an initialized language is. There are no rules or standards for using it. There is no key for decoding it.

That's just one concern about the deterioration of our written language caused by an abusive use of technology. What about our verbal communication skills?

I know toddlers who can't even speak yet, but they know how to use an iPad or access games on a smart phone. Are we really going to let technology teach our children how to communicate? Will our children grow into teens who don't know how to speak to each other face-to-face? Will our texting teenagers grow into adults who can't spell complete words or form complete sentences and thereby lose their ability to communicate with anyone not of their generation? What happens to families, communities, the work force, politics, scientific progress, international relations, the human race, if that happens? Will our society go the way of the ancient Egyptians? Their hieroglyphs took thousands of years to be decoded again. For those thousands of years, all of their knowledge was lost in translation. Is that where we are headed?

Part of our humanity is tied to our ability to effectively communicate with each other, which in turn allows us to create functioning communities that promote the survival of our species. We are the only race on the planet that has a verbal, written and physical language that is all tied together. What happens if technology replaces one or more of those methods and then society starts to unravel?

We are the adults, the parents, the teachers, the leaders, the ones who teach the next generation what it means to be human. Spend some time with your children having intentional conversations. Teach your children how to unplug and to sync their brains and bodies in the present. Teach them how important it is to be present, by being intentional in your presence with them.  Some may think I'm surely exaggerating. I challenge those who think I'm just a naysayer to go watch WALL-E again, then go eat out at a restaurant, visit a playground or a shopping mall and just sit and observe. Get in your car and drive. At every stoplight, take a glance at all the other drivers around you and count how many are looking at some piece of hand-held technology. Go anywhere public, and you'll see the same scenario, no matter where you go. More people are plugged in to the electronic cloud than into the present. Technology can't replace human-to-human interaction on such a large scale without having consequences. WALL-E is more real than anyone ever thought it could be. I challenge everyone to be present in the present. Be a fully-functioning human. Your children will thank you later.

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