Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Human/Technology Experiment

The incandescent light bulb changed our world.  Society embraced the new invention.  As we adapted, darkness no longer stopped the show.  Now people can work and play any time, day or night.  It is hard for us to imagine that the setting of the sun would significantly alter most activities.  The invention changed our habits and patterns of thinking.

As we embrace new technologies now, we find ourselves in the midst of a grand, though accidental, experiment.  The new technologies connect us with the world through the internet wherever we go.  We are only beginning to write the rules and reap the consequences of our constant connection.

In the days of the Waltons, the telephone was down the road at Ike Godsey’s store.  It was used only to convey important information, from people far away.  The only interruptions came in person.  The pace was slower, and people had time to focus on writing news stories, cooking meals, and sawing lumber.  Friends and families connected in meaningful relationships.

Now with Skype and email we connect immediately with people literally around the world—and we think nothing of it.  No one ever speaks of making a long distance phone call.  But we live on constant alert for a ringtone or vibration.  Just a few hours without checking email or phone messages can feel like an eternity.

I wonder what this constant connection does to our society and our souls.  Groups of  teens are often seen with heads bowed in reverence to their mobile devices.  Adults are quickly catching on and joining the “conversation.”  We now live with divided attention.  The rules of etiquette have not been defined.  Every conversation is subject to interruption.  We multitask while we drive, work, and visit.  No bit of information is more than a few screen touches away.  Or I can talk to Siri, and she will try to obey my every command.  

We cannot conceive that someone would be out of reach.  We just call his phone.  If he does not answer, we try again.  Or we will call the phone of someone else with him.

Our society is more disjointed in personal relationships, as we are constantly interrupted.  Some adults are slow to accept the new normal, and conflict arises with the rude behavior of teens.  Learning and remembering information is becoming passé—just Google it when you need it.  Handwriting is a dying art.  Life is now hyper-documented.  Sacred moments are captured.  Mundane moments are recorded.  Sometimes we miss the moment, because we want to post it or tweet it.  We miss out on life because we want to share it with the world.

It is easy to see much of the societal impact of technology.  Less obvious is the impact on our souls.  Being on constant alert for status updates and texts alters our state of rest.  Something may be more important than listening to you.  I will not know until I check.  Years ago, the home phone might ring a few times every day.  Otherwise, we lived without interruption until a neighbor came to visit.  Now we live on edge, with new information coming at us many times every hour or every minute.

The spiritual practice of rest becomes more difficult.  Dare we go for an entire day without checking our connections?  We pay for it later with a stack of emails in our inboxes, forced to dig out, reply, read and absorb.  We have to scroll through a whole day of Facebook posts, liking, commenting, sharing.  What is the cost of this connection?  It seems to produce a disconnection with God.  Yeah, but my Bible is on my phone.

This week I learned that I can watch TV on my phone.  All I needed was an app.  Now my phone is a TV, a GPS, a computer, a still camera, a video camera, a compass, a game console, a calculator, a voice recorder, a flashlight, a price scanner, a blog machine, a research tool, a message sender, and a photo album.   With such a powerful tool on my hip, it is no wonder I pay so much attention to it.

I heard about a college professor who lost his cool when he saw a cell phone sitting silently on a student’s desk.  Maybe he overreacted.  Maybe he senses a technology-borne disease. 

Our electronic connections are changing us.  We do not really know how.  Nearly all of us are subjects of the experiment.  We will have to see how it turns out.