Thursday, March 10, 2016

Communication Technology Can Aid or Invade the 'Good Life'

(From the March 10, 2016 Grand Haven Tribune)

I don’t often bring scholarly articles to the foreground in a family newspaper. But I read something recently in the Journal of Communication that I think will be of interest to almost everyone.

That’s because the subject is communication technology, which seems to be of interest to almost everyone.

The scholar, who teaches in both Germany and China, proposed that communication technology is so popular because it meets three basic human needs. For one, he said, technology gives us access to information of any kind, any time and anywhere. This is true, as you may have experienced yourself in everything from news and sports scores to restaurant reviews or finding the hours of a local mechanic.

A second need communication technology meets is a desire for stories and narratives. Here again, this could be the online stories provided by professional or “legacy” media, but they also come from friends, acquaintances and total strangers from across the globe via YouTube, Facebook, Vine, Snapchat and an array of other platforms. The stories range from the informative and moving to the entertaining and silly.

The third need that this author suggests technology meets is the need to be together, to not be alone, and to not be excluded. Certainly, he always on and mobile aspects of technology these days would seem to satisfy this.

In fact, the author says that the technology of today meets this needs exhaustively, so much so that one could think our technology infrastructure has offered a form of utopia or “the good life” in terms of meeting satisfying what humans innately desire. But the author gives caution also. The mediated world we live in brings us closer to a good life, he says, but in other ways technology leads us further from it.

He gives three examples of the negative aspects of communication technology. One is the anxiety that comes from the constant expectation of something big to happen, something that will distract us from our normal life, which used to be just fine but now has been rendered banal by comparison to the frantic news feeds on our phones.

Related to that is the problem of the desire for stories that has left us living in a fictional or fantasy world. We have been trained to construct alternate realities, in which we are popular, successful, humorous and smart all the time. We can’t allow ourselves to be ourselves in this hyper high-tech world.

Finally, the saturated aspect of never needing to being alone has rendered it impossible for some people to ever be alone. There are many benefits of solitude, and at the very least it is not a bad thing to be alone once in a while. But technology has not only aided us in this regard, it has invaded us.

Others have picked up on the cautionary tale with regard to communication technology. Other scholars have written books about the subject, including “Reclaiming Conversation” by MIT professor Sherry Turkle. There are also novels that tell a dystopian tale about the excess of technology, such as “The Circle” by David Eggers.

These negative consequences of communication technology are not a reason to abandon them altogether. Like almost anything else in life, we are responsible for exercising self-control, reason, and responsibility. Some joke that they are addicted to their phones or other technology. That may be literally or figuratively true. But it is also true that most people are capable, with conscious effort and discipline, to control the technology and not cede control to it.

As you read this column, I am doing that. I am in a place where I can not retrieve messages. Far from making me anxious, this gives me delight. I am be communicating using only my ears, eyes, and mouth. I am enjoying solitude with my wife.

That’s a good life too.

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