A while back when I read Jonny’s article about his adventures in Thailand, I reflected on the fact that while I had been staring at a computer screen for the last three months, he was playing with elephants, AK-47’s, hiking in jungles, bathing in waterfalls, meeting new people, and so on.
Jonathan once ask this question on his blog:
“Isn’t technology supposed to make life easier, more affordable, and less complicated? Theoretically, life should be getting easier, not more difficult. Has that been your experience, or is the exact opposite true?”
I answered it this way:
“Technology is making meeting the needs of our daily existence easier, but it certainly isn’t making life overall easier. I think technology is creating such an unnatural environment for human beings to exist in that our minds and bodies can’t take it. We are not made to be connected 24/7, socializing through a computer, living in a concrete jungle, and up all night in the artificial lights. Our brains are exhausted from over stimulation of the unnatural kind.”
It’s not just computers. We have to include TV and all kinds of handheld devices as well. Did you know that 60% of smart phone users admit they check email in the bathroom? The BlackBerry is called the CrackBerry for a good reason. It’s like a crack addict taking a hit – dopamine floods the addict’s brain. When you get a text or an email or an IM your brain gets a shot of dopamine. It’s like pulling the lever on the slot machine and seeing all 7’s. When I first had a BlackBerry, I thought it was an incredible freeing experience. I felt like I was unchained from my laptop. In reality I had just added more links to the ever-growing chain that was slowly enslaving me.
The other day I had lunch with four good friends of mine. Like all of our lunch dates, it was wonderful. I found myself wondering why on earth I ever eat lunch staring at the computer screen. Is technology connecting us or disconnecting us? Are we losing our ability to truly know one another the in the physical sense required by our brains and bodies?
When I read a personal email from a friend, it is great. But it is not as personal as a handwritten letter or a phone call. It’s not as personal as talking to them face-to-face. It comes in the same medium and looking basically the same as hundreds of other emails I get every day. Does my email-numbed brain really separate out that personal email from all the others in a fundamental way? I don’t think so. I also think it was written in the same mindset. When you receive and send so many emails, you can’t help but be affected by the mind-numbing context in which they travel.
When I was a kid there were only three TV stations and it was black and white until I was in middle-school. Video games, movie videos, personal computers, cell phones, etc. were simply unheard of back then. I barely knew what a computer was except that it helped us land on the moon. If you didn’t want to be bored, you went outside and played with other kids. You did what humans evolved to do – interact socially. When the weather was bad or at night a lot of us read books or played games with our families.
Scientists have discovered something called mirror neurons in our brains. These neurons fire both when we act and when we watch somebody else act. We empathize and in a certain respect actually feel the behavior of others because the same neurons are firing in our own heads. When you see someone get punched, you recoil and grimace because your mirror neurons are firing. My mirror neurons are not firing when I read or write an email or a tweet. My body is not in synch with my virtual conversation partner. It is not dancing the non-verbal dance that nature intended.
Why go somewhere to be with people when it is so easy to entertain yourself staring at a screen. Why go to the store to buy something when you can order it online and have it delivered. When you go to common places, you hear less conversation and more clicking. People aren’t talking with real people, they are typing on machines; sometimes tiny little phone machines.
We thought that when people stopped reading and socializing with each other and instead spent hours staring absently at a TV screen that something important was being lost. We thought people were giving up a real world in favor of a virtual world. We really had no idea back then of what was yet to come. We are rapidly retreating into virtual common places with no end in sight. We are exchanging our physical interaction for virtual interaction.
When I go into a public library now, the place is packed. But it isn’t packed with people browsing for books. It is packed with people staring quietly into computer screens. I hope my grandchildren, if I ever have any, hang out with their friends instead of laying on their beds texting each other. I hope when they go into a library it is to find a book and not type on a computer.
I think we can do great things with all this technology, but we have to use it wisely and with full awareness of our physical social needs, or it may turn us into something we don’t really want to be. Maybe it already has.
What do you think? Leave a comment and join the conversation.
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