27 June 2013

Spock vs. John Muir: Reconnecting Our Humanity

My daily use of technological communication has been shaping me into someone more likely to forget others. . . . The more distracted we become, and the more emphasis we place on speed at the expense of depth, the less likely and able we are to care.
~ Jonathan Safran Foer, novelist, Middlebury College Commencement Address
 

This is the second in a series of posts exploring the current debate over technology and its effects, if any, on social behavior. ~ MD


D
oes our use of technology make it easier to connect? Or easier to remain isolated? 

As I mentioned last week, I recently  read three articles that sparked some thought on the tech vs. non-tech debate.  Or as I like to call it Spock vs. John Muir.  Last week’s post focused on the possible economic implications to technology ~ or more accurately, our dependence on it. 

This week, I want to look at the social implications. 

More Connected?
Author Jonathan Safran Foer’s commencement address to Middlebury College was excerpted in the New York Times on 9 June 2013 and he describes a personal encounter with an oft-cited result of our technological dependence. 

A couple of weeks ago, I saw a stranger crying in public….A girl, maybe 15 years old, was sitting on the bench opposite me, crying into her phone.
Such an encounter might not happen on a daily basis, but I know I’ve been in Foer’s situation before.  And I wondered ~ as he did ~ what I should do. 

I was faced with a choice: I could interject myself into her life, or I could respect the boundaries between us. Intervening might make her feel worse, or be inappropriate. But then, it might ease her pain, or be helpful in some straightforward logistical way.
And when faced with this choice, what do most of us modern men and women do?  We retreat into  a cocoon of apparent “busyness” with our tech gadgets which enable us  
to retreat into the scrolling names of one’s contact list, or whatever one’s favorite iDistraction happens to be. Technology celebrates connectedness, but encourages retreat. The phone didn’t make me avoid the human connection, but it did make ignoring her easier in that moment, and more likely, by comfortably encouraging me to forget my choice to do so.
The key here is that technology doesn’t make us do anything.  It’s inanimate.  What it does is enable isolation.  For instance, I have been known to take my smarty pants phone with me while standing in line at lunch or at the train station.  It functions as an insta-wall:  if my eyes are glued to the screen, reading emails, texts, or e-books, then I avoid eye contact with you.  And if I avoid eye contact with you, then I avoid making a connection with you.  If I avoid a connection with you, then I avoid the possibility of you rejecting me.  I know, sad but true.

I’m still a ninth grader inside.

Admit it.  You’ve done it too!  Maybe for different reasons.  Maybe not.  But if we’re honest, most of those reasons are rooted in fear, rash judgment, or plain old laziness.  As Foer says,  

Each step “forward” has made it easier, just a little, to avoid the emotional work of being present, to convey information rather than humanity.

But I wasn’t always like this.

When I Was Your Age. . .
Once upon a time, before wifi was invented…

No!

…and the internet was dial up

Ugh!

…there were telephones and snail mail.

Huh? 

Would you stop interrupting?  Can’t you just sit still and listen to me!?

Of cour…oh, wait, I just got a text…

You are either laughing or sighing.  Because you have all experienced this or done it yourselves.  I know  I’m guilty.  So guilty in fact, that when my girlfriends and I had our pictures taken professionally, they insisted on a shot of them glaring at me while I played on my phone.

Best. Picture. Ever.

But a couple of years ago, I would have been the one glaring.  I was a smarty pants phone hold out.  And to continue my story, when I was an underclassman, when I wanted to connect with my friends and loved ones, I either picked up the phone (a landline no less ~ I know ~ the horror!) or a pen.

And I have to say, I was better for it.

Not to toot my own horn, but bwaaamp! I was a good friend.  I stayed on the phone for hours (drove my mother nuts), and wrote sheets and sheets of letters with poetic prose that would make Emerson weep with joy (well maybe not Emerson.  More like, Anne Shirley?)  I was already well-read, and with the liberal arts education I was imbibing, I was becoming well-rounded in history, philosophy, and theology as well ~ and it showed in my letters and in my conversation.

Granted, nowadays, I don’t have the precious time I had back then to focus just on learning and relationships.  And although a full course load is nothing to sneeze at, it’s a lot different from making sure you have money to put food in your mouth, and keep a roof over your head.

 © Teerawut Masawat


Yet, when I unplug from technology, even if only for a day, I feel calmer.  I’m able to focus on the task at hand.  My thoughts don’t race like they’re in the Indy 500.  And if you ask those around me, they’ll tell you I’m not as short-tempered.  It’s not a magic formula of course ~ there are other factors at play in this temporary transformation.  But the silencing of technology is one of those factors.

Treating the Root Cause
Okay.  So unplugging for a while is a good thing.  But why do we plug in to begin with?  We need to stop treating this issue like we’re Western doctors (and I’m not completely knocking Western medicine here, so don’t start): healing the root cause and not just the symptom.

Let’s go back to something Foer said in his address: 

to avoid the emotional work of being present

And there it is.

Remember that one of my reasons for retreating into my cyber-shell is fear of rejection?  We all share it.  It’s part of what makes us human.  Relationships are difficult.  And messy.  And painful.  But they can also be affirming.  Healing.  Joyful. This isn’t a virtual world.  Things break, including hearts.  But that doesn’t mean the solution is to make your heart unbreakable.  

…most people are not crying in public, but everyone is always in need of something that another person can give, be it undivided attention, a kind word or deep empathy. There is no better use of a life than to be attentive to such needs.

And that means that sometimes we turn the phone off, we look our loved ones in the eye, and we give them our undivided attention. 

Oremus pro invicem,
~ Mikaela

Have you noticed a diminished attention span in either yourself or those around you?  Do you use technology as a defense?
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