This post is in response to a post written by Erin Scott, aka The SMiChick. Her post, titled “What would you do if…” explains her views on how technology has forever changed, oftentimes for the worst, interpersonal relationships. It also goes into our dependence on technology. While I agree with quite a bit of what she has to say, I disagree with some of the basic premises she puts forth.
Erin starts off by saying we are dependent on technology. That we have lost touch with the each other and with the world. Part of that dependence, however, is necessity. Technologies that Erin doesn’t mention (automobiles, trains, and planes) have moved us around. She mentions a simpler time when people basically lived off the land. What she fails to mention is that in those times people did not travel. People stayed as close to a home base as possible. Sure, they wandered off in search of supplies, but only as far as their feet or horse could carry them. Would I like to see more people paying more attention to their local environment rather than worrying about what’s going on in the rest of the world or venturing off to far away cities to have fun? Of course I would. In fact, I think everyone should be doing that. However, technologies have allowed us to travel and travel we did. People never lived an hour drive away from work. They didn’t live a 2 hour train ride from their office. Instead, they lived within walking distance of the trolley or bus or even their place of employment. They lived within the same city, sometimes in a streetcar suburb just outside the city. But with the travel came a need for more technology to keep in touch with family and friends that were far away.
Do you see payphones anymore? I don’t even know where I could find one now. I used to always know where there was a payphone when I was out and about by myself. Now, they’re hard to find. That explains the dependency on cell phones and why parents get them for their kids (I’m still of the opinion that I will never pay for a cell phone for my kid, if he wants one, he can pay for it himself). My car broke down back in 1999 on my way to RI to pick up my brother for Thanksgiving break. I had no cell phone. I walked down to the commuter lot at the end of the exit ramp and used the pay phone to call my parents. It didn’t work. I took a ride with a random dude to a gas station even further away and found one that worked. I stayed there until my father was able to pick me up. Having a cell phone in that situation would have been helpful. I may have been crazy for taking the ride, but he looked like a nice enough guy (actually, he looked like a Phishhead).
I have heard people say that we have become out of touch with the world and each other because of technology. I disagree with that. I have a few personal anecdotes to explain my reasoning. I have met lots of people on the internet. When I first moved to RI, I didn’t know anyone. I went on a few dates through Craigslist and ultimately met my wife through that site. I made some friends through online postings. I met people in Providence through local forums. Since joining Twitter, I have met a bunch of people interested in Phish. We met up at shows in June. In fact, I am going on a trip to California to see Festival 8, a 3 day Phish festival around Halloween. I’m flying to Las Vegas, meeting 6 other people from Twitter, and we’re all renting an RV together and driving the 4 hours to the festival together. The Internet has brought us together. Finally, one of my closest friends was met online. I have never met her, but we met about 12 years ago in a chat room on AOL. I know it sounds super sketchy, but we have stayed in touch ever since. We have gone through ups and downs in our lives together. We have helped each other through rough times. It’s a relationship like no other, but it would not exist if it weren’t for the Internet.
People have come together to become more in touch with the world because of technology. Look at the phenomenon of flash mobs. Look at all the people who joined together to support the problems with the Iranian election or those who came together for the people of Darfur. Sure, most of that was meaningless gestures, like changing your Twitter avatar green. But there are many people who have actually made a difference because of it. Look at what social media did in our own elections. Barack Obama would not have won such a decisive victory if it weren’t for his creative use of social media.
Technology has changed the world. Sure, some of that change is not good. It has caused people to become more isolated. However, I think that it has brought more people together. It has led to meaningless gestures to show support for some issue, but it has also brought “doers” together to actually make change. It has helped people (to be super cliché) to be the change they want to see in the world.
Do I think we should all join the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps and travel the world to help others? Not at all. In fact, I believe we should start right at home with our own communities. I believe that change must start locally. I believe in the “think globally, act locally” sentiment. If everyone did just that, the change we should see in the world would happen. In fact, one of the things I use the Internet for is local issues. Technology has helped this movement.
Perhaps I’ve missed the point of Erin’s post, but it said 2 things to me. The first is that we have become too dependent on information technology (I disagree with the spirit of that statement, but not with the statement itself) and the second is that we need to step away from these technologies to experience real life, to learn to be happy without them, to really have a personal relationship (again, I disagree for the reasons listed above). As for that first part, look at dependency on older forms of information technology (they were technological for their time) – newspaper, radio, television. The computer allows us to experience other things that we wouldn’t normally experience in our lives. Not everyone is given the chance to visit other countries and see other cultures. Heck, many of us can’t even visit other parts of our own country. The computer and Internet allows us to travel without leaving our home. I have never been one to believe that to be cultured, you have to travel. I believe there is plenty to discover in your own backyard. You just have to seek it out, and technology can help you find it.