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By request: Technology

January 21, 2011

As I’m sure you can see up in that fancy-schmacny title up there, this blog post was requested by a friend of mine. It probably won’t be the last request blog, and when the topic was requested I’ll let you know.

So, my good friend Jessica wants me to blog about technology. Specifically “on whether or not it’s helping us or taking over our lives.”

Honestly, it’s not an “or” situation. It’s both.

But you’re probably reading this post to get a little more than that, so I’ll expand upon that.

Technology is an amazing thing. It’s given us so much that we should be grateful for up to this point, and it will continue giving us such things. It’s given us computers, cell phones, the internet, television, pacemakers, the lights in the overhead fan above me plus the fan itself, buildings that are more than mud and sticks put together, cars, roads, modern medicine…

I could keep rambling with that list, but you could either think of your own examples or go look on the internet. Even if you’re against technology, you’re using it right now to read this blog post! Neener neener NEEner!

Just kidding.

In short, it’s given us a billion things that have increased the quality/length of our lives, it’s allowed us to become more interconnected with each other, and it’s allowed us to do things that we would never have done otherwise. If you want to argue about THAT, get out now. It’s futile, and I don’t care to spare the words on futile topics.

However, just as with anything else, there are downsides to all of this wonderful technology. Both in the fact that it’s taking over our lives, as Jessica suggested it may be, and in that it’s damning our relations with each other.

One of the great boons of technology is that it has saved us an immense amount of time in doing a number of different things. How much faster is it to thoroughly dry long hair with a hairdryer than with a towel, or by air-drying? The amount of time it takes to move from one place to another is significantly reduced when factoring in technological advancements such as cars, boats, airplanes, even bicycles.

In contrast, technology can just take up too damn much time, when it’s easier to do something another way. Remember, technology isn’t good for its own sake– it’s good for the benefit it can offer us. So, when it takes a minute or so to fire up a computer, another minute to get logged in and have the desktop finish loading, and a few seconds to open the computer’s calculator and ask what the answer is to the multiplication problem 22 x 13, it’s not always the best solution. It would be much faster to grab a pocket calculator, which would reduce a lot of the time, or just do mental math to figure out the answer as 286– especially if I can’t find where I put that calculator.

Another cost in terms of time is the maintenance of technology. Computers have to be taken care of in terms of protection from negative software, maintenance of file integrity (disc cleaning, defragmentation), and taking care of any physical parts; this as part of a regular maintenance schedule. None of this takes into account the time, and likely money, which will be spent when something isn’t working as it should. Computers may not be completely typical of other kinds of technology, but they very much exemplify what can be necessary in taking care of technology.

This is all rather shallow, though, in the face of what the technology of communication costs us societally. Although technology has a cost in terms of time and resources, in the end those costs are very much outweighed by the benefits afforded us. Think of the enormous resource I have in the internet. I can access nearly any piece of information ever dreamed of by humanity! There is more information than I could ever possibly devour, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. Even besides just the information I have access, the internet is one of the more pivotal pieces of technology that has interconnected us as people across the world. We have Facebook, E-mail, the constant updating of Twitter, the mostly-defunct MySpace, the old Instant Messaging services, and blogs. My goodness, everyone’s got a blog these days, now including me!

So we communicate. Endlessly, we communicate via the social networks, e-mail, our blogs, and our phones. Our constantly clicking cell phones, from which we call, text message, and even check our Twitter feeds.

Be honest. You probably I do it too. I know that I do it much less than I used to, but my cell phone keyboard still gets plenty of use from day-to-day text messaging.

We, as an interconnected industrial world, are in a swoon of communication. Sometimes the only way to communicate is to Skype with your family at night after your business meeting, right? And I have no problem with that. To substitute some electronic communication in place of no communication is infinitely preferable. Not talking at all is a dead-end choice that doesn’t lead anywhere good to be.

It’s when we are glutted on electronic communication in place of the easily available traditional communication that we have problems. It’s when someone constantly is texting, but hasn’t picked up a phone in weeks, let alone spoken to anyone in person.

There are two problems involved with the use of electronic communication. The first is the lack of most of the interpersonal information being conveyed from one person to another. The second is the stunted development of social skills.

For years I’d been told that communication was largely non-verbal, that interpersonal communication was more based on body language, facial cues, the tone of voice, rather than the words a person was actually saying. For years I was a silly little kid and thought the opposite. But I’ve been very convinced in the past few years by my interactions that what I’d been taught was indeed true. As much as I’d like to be heard and understood by what I say, I know that my voice and my body do count for quite a bit more, and all of the parts of me need to be in agreement if I want to convey something. The division of these different parts of speech, if you will, is vastly more evident when it comes to electronic communication. When we tweet, e-mail, or chat, we’re stripping out any information that would have been conveyed by our bodies and voices and leading solely with the words we’ve chosen.

This gives rise to the craziness of the internet. Anyone who’s been in an internet chatroom, played an online game, or read many blog comments can attest to some of the things that are said on the internet. Your mom jokes, racism, the gravest insults against name, religion, sexual preference… on and on. Things that would never have been said in person, things that people never meant, the worst insults imaginable, are all prevalent on the internet. Most people fall prey to what has come to be known as Internet Asperger’s Syndrome. Electronic communication distances people as they would be in the case that they were afflicted with Asperger’s Syndrom; they lose the ability to empathize with other humans, because seeing a name on a screen is not the same as interacting with another person. The only thing a person on the internet argues with is either a post, or another little name that keeps coming up with arguments. It isn’t a person. And besides, the internet is anonymous. Who cares what you say? It never comes back to you (this is, of course, less apt in the case of social networking sites like Facebook, but the distancing problem still haunts us). Both the distancing of a username and the anonymity create a barrier through which rationality is largely filtered out.

But the second problem is related, and possibly even more troubling.

Imagine that your social skills are a muscle. This is actually a good metaphor, because the area of your brain that governs social skills will grow and shrink depending on use– the brain will simply devote more or less resources to that certain activity. Anyway, when we communicate face-to-face, we’re making full use of those skills. We analyze vocal tones, body language, and the words that are coming at us. Now, talking on the phone is like doing weights that are pretty good, but maybe not as heavy as we should be lifting, say 60, 65% of what we need. The muscle isn’t working very hard, isn’t getting very much benefit. By contrast, online communication is barren of most of that benefit, too. By only interacting with the words that we send and receive, not only are we limiting the information that is being conveyed, we’re limiting the workout of our social “muscle”.

And you know what happens to a muscle when it isn’t exercised enough, don’t you? It shrinks. And so does the area of the brain dealing with interaction.

What literally happens is that people who spend all their time interacting electronically lose the ability to effectively communicate interpersonally– or, at least their abilities begin to decay and wear, from disuse. They just aren’t as good with people as they would be otherwise.

Darn. I started out talking about the pro’s and con’s of technology and trailed off to ranting about the dangers of overcommunicating through electronic means. I apologize! Not to be preachy, but those points actually hold true in the majority of cases, not just the fringe cases of people spending all their time online.

We could speak of other things, such as people living out second lives on World of Warcraft, due to the lack of fulfillment they feel in reality. Perhaps we should speak of industrial accidents, global warming, and overexposure to certain toxins that are by-products of technology.

But that’s enough on this topic for now, I think. Remember to comment with your thoughts and blog topic ideas below!

Have a great day, and thanks for reading.

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