It’s hard to count how many sci-fi thrillers have been made, where mankind’s machines become self-aware all of a sudden and begin to eradicate “imperfect” humanity to make way for some perfect, microchip-based world order (Terminator, I, Robot, The Matrix, it could go on for a while). There’s a fascination with the idea that mankind’s most complex creations will become its own destruction, that our slaves will become our masters, etc. But it highlights what we could describe as a love-hate relationship we have with digital technology. It’s almost impossible to find an American home without at least a couple televisions, but most of us end up complaining that we watch too much TV, that we need to go outside more, talk more, turn off the X-Box. It can all be boiled down to how too much of a good thing is a bad thing. Technology like cell phones, laptops, Apple products, are all “good” (you can’t help but be thankful for their usefulness), but when do we need to rein in our excitement a little?
Sherry Turkle wrote an interesting opinion piece for CNN, describing her experience as a panelist for a “cyberetiquette” conference in Boston (http://edition.cnn.com/2012/05/27/opinion/turkle-ted-technology/index.html?iref=allsearch). During the meeting, a woman asked the panelists whether it was a “right” of hers to ignore a cashier in a grocery store, trying to make conversation with her, while she was using her smart phone. Turkle was disturbed that most of the panelists sympathized with the woman over the friendly cashier. This cashier, Turkle argued, had a greater right for some “human exchange.” She notes that such a case shows how many people are beginning to “expect more from technology and less from each other.” Somewhat disturbingly, she also relates how several younger people have told her that “they hope that in the future, Siri [a digital assistant] will be even more like a best friend to them.” When I read that, I felt a little scared. It seems absolutely ridiculous that a machine will very soon become a “best friend” for some people. Unfortunately, it’s not as ridiculous as it sounds, and some of my own experiences have confirmed my fears.
When one of my roommates moved out of our apartment a few months ago to get married, he took along with him his flatscreen TV. At first, I was glad that the black box of wasted time was going away. Finally, the temptation was removed, and now I would be forced to focus on more productive tasks!
A few weeks later, and I was feeling some serious withdrawal effects.
Whenever I got “tired” of reading, writing, or ran out of errands, I found myself wanting to reach for that remote and turn on the Discovery channel to watch some lions killing a wildebeest, or . . . something like that.
I didn’t think that going cold Turkey on TV was going to be so difficult, but the experience showed just how much I had learned to depend on TV as a source of distraction and entertainment.
Now, most of us wouldn’t say that technology has begun to “replace” our friends. But then again, it has in a sense. When another roommate left for home this past weekend, I lost one of my main sources for “entertainment” and human interaction. Something that helped fill that “void” was watching movies on my laptop. I guess that isn’t an extreme case of “tech-pendency,” but it personally shows me how I often need some sort of technological input to get me through the day.
Going back to the question posed earlier (when is it time to rein in our tech use), maybe a good rule of thumb is that technology has become more of a problem than an asset when it begins to substitute for real, human interaction. If it becomes the case that families, friends, and coworkers cannot share good one-on-one conversation because they’re all busy deepening their relationships with Mr. iPad, and Mr. X-Box360, then something just isn’t right. If this is the rule of thumb, then it seems as though our society is already consistently breaking it. I once heard someone jokingly describe coffee shops as places where people go to be lonely . . . together. Paradoxically, we all want to be around one another, but we often don’t really want to interact much, unless that interaction is mitigated by a computer screen with the word ‘facebook’ in the upper left hand corner.
This is something I need to preach to myself more (as I write this out on my iPad!). We all need to take some time to “unplug” and have some good ‘ole face-to-face interaction with a fellow human being. Against all odds, maybe we will somehow be shaken out of our tech-induced stupor, and become a society that doesn’t need such advice.