Thursday, August 12, 2010

Being Too Connected Can Make Us Less Connected

(From the August 12, 2010 Grand Haven Tribune)

I was in line at Butch’s Beach Burritos earlier this week and saw a sign on the cash register: “No Cell Phones.”

I had to ask why. Do they flummox the mechanical workings of the cash register? Add radiation to the burritos?

No, I was told. It’s because people take calls while in line, and then make everyone wait for their conversation to end before they place their order. Or they talk loud and the cashier can’t hear other people who are ordering.

In other words, it was a problem of human nature, not a technical issue. Too many people still haven’t caught on to cell phone etiquette. It also is but one example of the paradox of our modern communication era: everyone is so connected that they lose connection with the people immediately around them. This has been demonstrated, hilariously and sadly, numerous times on the pier, as my wife and I witnessed two people walking hand in hand only to use their free hands to send text messages to other people.

The problem goes beyond just cell phone use though. Our modern technology has made us all so frenetic. Our wireless devices have made us too “wired”, as if on caffeine overdose. At the same time, our ability to be connected to almost everyone almost all the time has resulted in us losing precious contact with the people right next to us. “Social media,” for all its communication advantages to compress time and space, have at the same time made us anti-social in our immediate context. People seem more inclined to get attention than to pay attention. This is affecting safety and driving laws, as well as interpersonal relationships.

Since the telephone—the original one tethered by a wire to the wall—first became ubiquitous, there has been praise and caution with advances in technology. There’s no doubt that new technology adds convenience and efficiency for professional and personal use. I use the technology myself. But there has to be balance.

During the past few months I’ve been doing projects around the house that involve manual labor. My hands have been busy with “old fashioned” tools, the kind that prevent me from checking email, social media sites, updating my status, or texting. It was interesting to me that at first I felt anxiety about being out of touch. But I soon learned that it is extremely liberating to NOT feel a compulsion to send bursts of personal information about myself to legions of “friends” or “followers” every few hours. Nor did I feel the urgency to respond immediately to everyone who contacted me. My pulse relaxed, my spirit lifted, and even the chemistry in my brain seemed to work more fluidly.

Instead of having multiple, quick, computer-mediated messages with people scattered across the globe, I had long, thoughtful, face-to-face conversations with real friends and my wife. These friends became so without requiring me to click on some button on a computer. My wife has a nice voice, and beautiful eyes. Nothing Apple or Facebook comes up with can top that.

So while new media technology helps us conduct business, develop and maintain relationships, and communicate efficiently, it also has its downsides. It can encourage us to value the quantity of our “friends” as opposed to the quality of our relationships. Technology also seems to put a premium on speed and brevity, depriving us of the pleasure of deep and complex thought. More profoundly, for all the advances in connecting to other people, I fear many people are losing contact with themselves. They use technology to advance a desired image of themselves, rather than knowing and acting as their genuine selves.

In the end, the issue comes down to balance. Just because you have access to donuts, it is not wise to eat them all the time. The same goes for technology. I think we’d all be better off if people would follow two simple rules for communicating in our modern high-tech environment:

1. Give preference to the human being next to you vs the device in your pocket or hand. Those devices have voicemail and other features that allow you to respond later if you are busy. For example, don’t respond to your phone if you are walking the pier, talking to someone in your office, or ordering a burrito at Butch’s.

2. Make a distinction about what’s really urgent and important. You don’t have to text, email, tweet or execute any other newborn verb constantly. Instead of acting like Pavlov’s dogs responding to a bell whenever your new message indicator lights up your Blackberry or iPhone, show that you have evolved some human self-restraint.

Who knows, if you’re not staring at a palm-sized screen, you might exchange glances with a stranger next time you’re in line at Butch’s. You could have a conversation, using nothing but your mouth, eyes, and ears. You could even become friends.

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