Probably the most significant and world-changing breakthrough of the early 21st Century, the modern smartphone (thanks a lot, Steve Jobs) has modified the face of the widely held future forever, carrying along strength from the most significant and world-changing breakthrough up the late 20th Century, the internet. It is reasonable to evaluate the effects that these intertwined technologies have had on the social interactions of humanity, and the potential ramifications going forward.
Indeed, the field of communications has risen further along the bounds of what has been considered possible than even the most emphatic thinkers and creators of yesteryear could comprehend. Yet more so than in previous generations, the inventions that have come to define this one have been met with more controversy and vitriol than any other since the invention of the television. And yet, even as the controversial nature of the internet and the smart phone continues to be broadcast on every major cable news channel, the accessibility of said technology has kept pace, becoming more pervasive than ever previously throughout society as a whole.
What really got me thinking about this odd duality was a conversation I had with an older client not too long ago. Okay, not older older, but a bit more mature than the average undergraduate student. They said that they were worried, because we were replacing our interactions in the real world with interactions in a virtual one. It wasn’t, the client explained, anything to do with less interaction going on, it was that the interactions had simply moved to a different plane of existence. Far from believing in the eventuality of a networked hive mind, but intrigued nonetheless, I decided to look into the matter further.
My client was wrong.
I mean really, really wrong. According to the Daily Universe, a campus publication at Brigham Young University (I know, I know, never cite the Mormons), “bout 4.1 billion text messages are sent per day in the U.S.” (Eastman, 2013). Additionally, according to Gallup, polling data shows that 68% of Americans aged 18-29 respond with “a lot” when asked about their texting habits from the day previous (Newport, 2014). There are plenty of stats to verify and validate that a great deal of communication has been supplanted by technology. These are only a few. The real challenge of what this entails, however, is something else entirely.
Consider a situation like my own; I am employed by a company as a manager of a business branch in a location far from my (and consequently, my boss’s) home. I travel an average of 90 minutes one way every morning to get to work. My boss hasn’t been down to my branch in nearly six months, even though it’s part of his job. The ability to send emails, texts, and occasionally call (when email simply cannot be leveraged) supplants the need for his presence at my branch rather effectively. The downside of his leadership style and its copious reliance upon technology, tied to many of the other examples already mentioned, leads into our duality.
The problem is that I literally never see my boss. It’s impossible for him to catch me doing anything that he might consider inappropriate (such as allowing my branch employees to dress up for holidays, bake each other birthday cakes, etc), as there has yet to be a direct social interaction between the two of us (or anyone else who works for me and him) in the better part of a year. His behavior shows us a very clear risk of over-reliance upon technology in stark relief.
Considering it from another angle, let’s go back to the Daily Universe article. “Sending messages through social media sites, such as Facebook, is also taking the place of verbal communication. More than four billion messages are sent daily over Facebook, according to techcrunch.com. Although this is far behind the rate of emails being sent, it is almost equal to the number of texts sent per day in the U.S., making up a large portion of the way people communicate” (Eastman, 2013). The idea that we are sending text messages and social media (emails? messages? pokes?) at nearly the same rate speaks to the supplanting value to real human interaction that technology has begun to play in the modern era.
The risks inherent in too much reliance on technology have been discussed for nearly as long as the concept of technology itself. Really, the first time a monkey decided to use a stick rather than his own finger to pick at an anthill, one could argue that technology was born. We’ve heard arguments consistently throughout history from the proponents and the detractors of the “next big thing.” Yet progress always seems to turn out something that helps achieve more for humanity, and doesn’t cheapen the species or force us to be less than what we were before. I feel as though we have yet to find a balance with our modern connectivity. There is something to be said for going “unplugged.” The real issue though, is that we don’t really know where the connectivity and ease of access to information of the modern era will eventually lead. And that, as so many other tech scares of the past show, is terrifying, particularly to those who have come before the generation to absorb and accept all of the change.
Really, it’s important to recognize that mellowing out is usually the safest path. As nice as having constant information and communication with the rest of civilized humanity and one’s fingertips can be, there is serious value in being able to put it aside. As Jim Butcher once said, “sometimes it’s better to not know” (Jim-Butcher.com). Not in any real sense of purposeful ignorance, but in finding a connection with the part of the human story that doesn’t revolve around concrete towers and glowing screens. It is only my opinion, but I have felt the hectic sense of stress that comes with the proverbial delivery of “too much” information to the human mind. The only way to clear it, at least for me, is usually to put my phone down and go climb a mountain. Where there is clearly, quite benevolently, no service.
Eastman, H. (2013). Communication Changes With Technology, Social Media. The Daily Universe, July 2013. Retrieved from http://universe.byu.edu/2013/07/07/1communication-changes-with-technology-social-media/
Newport, F. (2014). The New Era of Communication Among Americans. Gallup, November 2014. Retrieve from http://www.gallup.com/poll/179288/new-era-communication-americans.aspx
Butcher, J. (n.d.). Jim’s Upcoming Works Page. Retrieved from http://www.jim-butcher.com/faq/upcoming-works