The pixels between you and me
I like technology. I do. I’m writing this on a laptop and you may be reading it on one, or certainly on some bigger or smaller version of one.
Technology affords us all sorts of conveniences, not the least of which is the ability to record our thoughts and file them away on virtual pages like this one.
It helps us report emergencies. It helps us research and learn new things. It helps us find jobs. It helps us do those jobs once we find them. It pipes music—soaring anthems and driving rhythms and orchestral masterpieces—into our homes. It helps us pay our taxes and send money to charity. It helps us buy books, paperback and otherwise (for which I am particularly grateful).
But if you’ve used modern technology for any amount of time, you probably know that all is not perfect in our silicon paradise.
And one of the biggest problems is the space technology creates between us.
Where did all my friends go?
Long, long ago, in a galaxy far far away, I had oodles of friends. We’d hang out, talk, go see movies together, grab a bite to eat at Panera Bread. You know how it goes. Or how it went, rather.
Somewhere in the dawning years of the 21st century I can remember one friend acquiring his first cell phone. “That’s cool,” I thought. Little did I know.
It wasn’t long before we lost touch and I haven’t seen him since. Was it the cell phone that ended our friendship? Not really. But it is an odd coincidence that I slowly lost friend after friend over the next few years, just as the cell phone boom was sweeping the nation.
Even when friends and I did get together things were different. I remember once being at a movie theater with a friend and he got a call. He peeled off to the side and stood there talking to whoever it was for a few minutes, while I just…stared at the “coming soon” wall.
If this was an isolated event I probably wouldn’t have thought much of it. But it kept happening. Over and over and over again for the next decade and a half.
Smart phones. Dumb idea
Wasn’t the point of getting together to enjoy the meal or the show or the walk together? If so, then why were so many of my friends pulling away to send that text, take that call, or check that social media feed?
All technology has the potential to lure us away from opening up the gift of the present. To make us less in tune with the blessed now. But smart phones, perhaps because they are always with us, seem particularly adept at this.
They don’t just sit passively by until we’re in the mood to use them. They beep and text and message and tweet and ring at us all day long. They’re invasive in a way that perhaps long usage and social convention have numbed us to. We don’t give a thought to how many hours we spend staring at the things or with them glued to our ear.
Think back, if you can, about how many conversations you’ve interrupted because “I’ve got to take this call.” Yes, you’re being social with the person on the other end of the line, but you’re not living where you are. You’re living on “me planet”. What matters is my schedule, my priorities, my time.
You’re there, but not there. Not really present. Checked out. Oblivious to what’s around you. Transfixed. Staring into the mesmerizing abyss of your device.
A few years ago Coca-Cola made a short “ad” that made light of this phenomenon. It’s worth watching.
There’s something distancing about technology. Something numbing.
And it’s not just the fact that we’re fixating on a slab of metal and plastic and that one-eyed screen glowing at us in the dark.
There is very little true beauty to modern technology, very little wonder or awe. Beyond the rush of having everything fast and instantaneous, or of upgrading to the latest gizmo, most technology tends not to satisfy for any appreciable duration.
Worse, it drains our time, our energy, and our imagination, like a sort of cultural wasting disease, making us conform to the same carbon copy consumer who simply must be talking about what’s trending or what’s viral or the cause du jour.
We are what we tech
Of course anything can be a distraction. Needlepoint, nail polish, housework, yes, even reading books. All perfectly fine in and of themselves, but when done at the wrong place or to the wrong degree, they can drive a wedge between us and those we are supposed to love.
I’m not saying “all technology is evil” and that we should never use it. As I said before, I’m writing this on a laptop. I’ve used technology to write and publish all my novels. I’m an avid Photoshop user. We even own two Kindles in my family and multiple other tablets. What I am saying is that the cumulative effect of technology is killing us. It’s killing us socially. It’s killing the arts. It’s killing literature.
And we know it. But we go on like we’re blind to this fact. We buy the latest gadget, rush to download the next great app, oggle over our friend’s media feed, all at the expense of living life in the here and now.
As T.S. Eliot once wrote, long before the internet age:
Where is the life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
A victim of the monster he created
The popularity of personal forms of computing has been on the rise for many years. But with the twin advent of social media and smart phones over the last decade or so, I would argue that it has never been more ubiquitous. Or more dangerous.
Ironically, the former high priest of our present technocracy, and the man perhaps more responsible than anyone else for its popularity, was unable to avoid becoming consumed by the technological beast he created.
Steve Jobs died of cancer in 2011, four years after his company, Apple, released the first iPhone. The digital revolution was in full swing and Jobs’ career, notoriety, wealth, and fame had never been greater. Yet, with his health failing and death looming, he did a very uncharacteristic thing.
Jobs had been a jealous defender of his private life throughout all of his career. But as his days drew to a close he enlisted the help of Walter Isaacson to write his biography. In a bit of irony, the obsessive tech giant wanted someone to do one of the most low tech things possible: write a book.
When Isaacson asked him one day why he was opening up after all these years, Job’s answer was as telling as it was heart-breaking.
“I wanted my kids to know me,” Jobs told Isaacson. The man who had poured all of his life into building and marketing technology realized at the end that he had missed something fundamentally important. At some level his own kids didn’t know who he was.
Am I saying he was a horrible father? No, I have no way of knowing that. I’ve read that he engaged his kids in discussing all sorts of topics at the dinner table and in another irony, strictly limited their own use of technology. But those words of lament had to come from somewhere.
“I wanted my kids to know me,” Jobs told Isaacson.
And in the final and greatest irony, what legacy did jobs leave? It certainly wasn’t his biography. No, it was too late for that. Jobs’ legacy was creating technology that was so good and so attractive that it turned all of those who used it, to one degree or another, into people like him. It made us all a little less human, a little less connected to those around us.
Like Jobs, we are what we tech.
Nothing beats the bandwidth of face to face
That is perhaps an extreme example. Most of us are not as wrapped up in the world of technology as Jobs was. But I think his life affords a cautionary tale.
Consider how much of a role technology plays in your life. Step back, if you can, and ask yourself. “Are there things that are pulling me away from others around me?” “Am I using technology or is it using me?”
I’d hazard a guess that most of us don’t need half the technology we use, or at least could use it half as much as we do. And it’s not just the obvious things like time on the internet or with your smart phone. Technology wears many faces.
We probably don’t need to watch every episode of that new Netflix series, or beat every level of that epic video game we just bought, or have every smart home device and personal digital assistant to help us order toothpaste and groceries. In fact, we might not need any of this at all.
How would our lives be different if we spent more time in the present? Talking to the people in the same room as us? Playing a board game with our kids or younger siblings? Getting to know our neighbors a little better? Visiting our parents?
Nothing beats the bandwidth of face to face.
Or here’s a radical idea. How about picking up that all-powerful piece of technology in your pocket and calling an old friend you haven’t talked to in years? Because there are good uses for all of this technology despite the drawbacks. Just make sure you’re not ignoring the person right next to you.
Pardon me now. I really need to go. I have a life I’ve been neglecting.