Sunday, June 19, 2011

Emotional Dependence to Technology

I've been thinking a lot about our dependence to technology in today's society. In general as humans, all of our cultures in any place or time have been fairly similar. We place a strong emphasis on community, family, and relationships in general. But in the past generation, this has changed dramatically. Our reach as humans has extended for the first time, across the globe. There is no place in the world that is too far away, no human that we cannot find some way of communicating with. But what happens to a society's view on community when our reach has gone from a few thousand, to the entire population?

I believe that the cost for digital communication has been high. As a rule, human's are very dependent towards things that bring us convenience. We are hard workers, and it's hardwired into our brains to desire shelter, food, and companionship. For thousands of years, it has been a struggle to have all of these basic necessities. Don't get me wrong, there are still enough people in the world who go without. But for modern society, most are going to live and die without having to worry about any of these too much.

Another societal norm, has been those who speak out and protest innovation. People get comfortable where they are at, and desire little if any change in their lifestyles. When something happens that dramatically changes that, it upsets us. Wars are fought, laws are made, and then we go back to our normal lives once we've either rejected the change, or adapted.

There are those who come out and speak against Facebook, and other forms of digital communication and media. I used to think these were people who needed to get with the times, and give up their antiquated ways. And while my opinion of these people is still the same, I've begun to wonder at what Facebook, texting, and other forms of digital communication are doing to our society.

My realizations of what this could be doing began when I noticed something in my own life. The first thing you have to know about me, is I love to write, and although I don't think of myself as a particularly eloquent author, or a proficient, I believe I am good at it. Any of you who know me personally know that I often struggle to put words together. When I speak, it is blundering, and I often can't think of words that get across my desired meaning. As a result of this, for quite some time, I preferred texting or emailing people as opposed to calling them on the phone, or even sometimes speaking to them in person. In fact, I had an entire relationship with a girl that was entirely text based, whenever we were together face to face, we barely spoke. For we had nothing to say.

What I get out of this, and what I have realized, is that I feel like a different person when I'm communicating over a digital medium. I've noticed I'm much more likely to compliment a girl on something over a text (how lame is that?), than face to face, for fear of embarrassing myself, or the girl. When talking to people over texting, I will often be much bolder when it comes to emotions, or secrets, than if I were speaking to the person face to face. I'm experiencing that even now, as I'm typing this blog, as these are hefty confessions of my own fears and shortcomings of emotionally connecting with people.

The reason why Facebook, and texting can become so dangerous, is because of the physical detachment. Many are getting divorced because their spouses are having emotional affairs with people they've never met on World of Warcraft, or because they cannot emotionally connect with their spouse because of this digital barrier we've created. These people often don't feel any guilt, because it was all digital.  How can we expect ourselves to form real, healthy relationships with people if we base such a huge part of it in a physically and emotionally detached medium?

As I've pondered this topic, I've noticed that all of the emotions we experience as humans, have a physical response. Tears to sadness and pain, smiles to happiness, laughter to humor. What strikes me as so dangerous, is that digital communication takes away from a lot of the physical nuances we experience when communicating with people face to face. When we are speaking with someone in a hurry, we are able to see the body language signals this person is sending, and our conversation and inter-actual experience with this person is a response to that. When I'm flirting with a girl, I know almost within seconds based on her body language if I'm going to be able to get anywhere with her. When speaking to a friend who is sad, and needs to talk about something that is bothering them, we are able to emotionally empathize with the person, and experience all of the nuances and signs that we subconsciously use to judge how to help them. None of this can be done with the same emotional depth in a digital medium.

Our physical interactions with people really are a work of art, and a beautiful one at that. But when we emotionally detach ourselves though a digital medium, we sacrifice so much beauty for convenience. And at what expense for our society? What happens when the power goes out?

Now because I'm a nerd, and because this is the only way I can think of getting this point across, is I want you to imagine that you are a captain of a starship, exploring worlds and cultures. In your travels you come across a world that is deserted, the computer reads no signs of life. When you begin walking through this planet, exploring its cities. You're met with these empty shells of cookie cutter buildings. Dirt, and rust on countless buildings that might have been considered beautiful once, but without the people, they seem pointless. There is no art, no writings, only white plaster, and sheets of metal. With the vastness and the sheer size of the cities, you know that this planet was filled with people once. But now, there is no sign of any culture, no footprint left behind, no legacy to show future visitors that this was a people who "lived well." Sure, there were countless computer looking devices, and glass screens where art might have been displayed in the buildings, there are even devices that could be little hard drives. But your space ship doesn't have the right equipment to run their devices, to access the information. What kind of culture did they have? Were they similar to us? What did they look like? What were their families like? Did they ever exist?

To give another example, I'll talk about books. Lots of people love reading books, I sure do. I love writing them as well. I love a good novel, where you begin to care deeply for the characters, even to the point where when they hurt, you hurt. When they shed tears, you shed tears. And when the love interest finally kisses the person they've worked to fall in love with, you smile. We've all experience this, but it's important to remember, that books are just text on a page. It is mind blowing at times when we really think about it, and we realize that we are having an emotional response from text, on a white sheet of paper, that someone we probably have never met, wrote down for money. The fact that we have this response implies two things. First, is that as humans, we desire to emotionally connect with just about anything. It can be animals, people, plants, or characters somebody made up. The second thing, is that we were able to take an empty thing, such as text, and make it real in our minds. We were able to make whatever happened in that story, real to us. I love what Ian Mckellan said about the Lord of the Rings, is that it did happen, somewhere in our hearts.

This is an important realization. Because as much as I love reading books, if I were to do nothing but become emotionally attached to characters in a book, I am still emotionally detaching myself from others. I'm removing myself from our society, and not allowing myself to experience real human emotions with their accompanying physical reaction. I believe that facebook and texting are much like books. We can feel real emotions through them, maybe even develop a love for the people interact with, but how real is it? Does our subconscious view our facebook interactions in the same category as a character in a book?

This tells a lot, as we can see that it is experience, something that can only be done physically, that helps us to truly create healthy relationships and emotional responses that make up our personalities. It isn't empty text on a page, an empty building on a made up planet, or a text message that says "I love you" that changes us. It is the experiences that we have, in the physical world, interacting with other people that shapes us, changes us, and refines us as a society and culture.

Remember, hard drives will not keep their information forever, they will deteriorate. This technology that we've become so dependent on, may be filled with endless information, and endless possibilities, but it's temporary. Don't we want our identities, our emotions, our experiences, and culture to last forever?

It is virtually impossible for us to let go of what our society has become. Facebook is a reality now, texting is a reality now. Sure, we will come out with something better and cooler that will make it so that our grandchildren will laugh when we mention facebook. Having a desktop computer as we have them now may be like owning a turntable in twenty years, pointless, but still cool. Technology is part of our society, but my warning, is do not let yourself become emotionally dependent to this medium that prevents us from being ourselves. And my advice, is do something that will be remembered. Even if it's planting a tree. Planting a tree is a great way to leave a legacy, people years from now could be emotionally bonding while enjoying the shade that you provided. To leave a legacy or a footprint doesn't have to mean you were remembered, or placed in history books, it can me just effecting someone's life years after you're gone, because of something you did. Something beyond facebook.