Typically, as technologists, we like to point out the great things that technology is doing for us—making us more productive, facilitating more convenience, allowing us to perform feats that humans alone could not do, and enabling us to connect with others almost without regard to space and time. And truly, we are fortunate to live in a time in history with all these new unbelievable capabilities—our ancestors would be jealous in so many ways.
Yet, there is a flip side to technology—what some refer to as the 24x7 society—“always on”—that we are creating, in which life is a virtual non-stop deluge of emails, voicemails, videoconferencing, messaging, Friending, Linking-in, blogging, tweeting, YouTubing, and more.
We are becoming a society of people living in a Matrix-type virtual world, where we go around addicted to the online cyber world and yet in so many ways are unconscious to the real-world relationships that are suffering in neglect and silence.
A fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal, 22-23 August 2009 entitled, Not So Fast, by John Freeman states that “we need to protect the finite well of our attention if we care about our relationships.”
Certainly, online communications and connections are valuable, and in many ways are meaningful to us. They can create wonderful opportunities to bond with those near and far, including those who would be normally beyond our reach geographically and temporally. For me it’s been great reconnecting with old friends from schools, jobs, and communities. And yes, who would think that Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger would be but a FaceBook message away for me?
Yet while all the online interaction is fulfilling for us in so many ways—filling voids of all sorts in our lives—in reality the connections we make in the virtual world are but a tiny fraction of the real world human-to-human relationships we have in terms of their significance and impact.
The Journal article puts it this way: “This is not a sustainable way to live. This lifestyle of being constantly on causes emotional and physical burnout, workplace meltdowns, and unhappiness. How many of our most joyful memories have been created in front of a screen?”
One of the biggest fears that people have is not their own mortality, but that of being left alone in the corporeal world—for each of us, while a world unto ourselves, are small in the vastness of all that is around us. Perhaps to feel less alone, people amass and encircle themselves with great amounts of familiar, comforting, and loving people and things. And while people have these, they are connected, grounded, loved, and they are comforted that they are not alone.
But the harsh reality is that no matter how much we have in our lives, people are beings onto themselves, and over time, unfortunately and extremely painfully, all worldly things are ultimately lost.
The Journal states: “We may rely heavily on the Internet , but we cannot touch it, taste it, or experience the indescribable feeling of togetherness that one gleans from face-to-face interaction.”
Connections are great. Virtual relationships can be satisfying and genuine. All the technology communication mechanisms are fast, efficient, and powerful in their ability to reach people anytime and anywhere. Yet, we must balance all these with the people we care about the most. We cannot sacrifice our deepest and most intimate relationships by sitting in front of a computer screen morning, noon, and night and walking around with the BlackBerry taking phone calls and emails at our kids' school play, on their graduation day, and during their wedding recital. We are missing the boat on what is really important. We have forgotten how to balance. We have gone to extremes. We are hurting the ones we truly love the most.
“We need to uncouple our idea of progress from speed, separate the idea of speed from efficiency, pause and step back enough to realize that efficiency may be good for business and governments, but does not always lead to mindfulness and sustainable, rewarding relationships.”
Finally, with all the technology, we are in a sense becoming less human and more mechanical—like the Borg, in Star Trek—with BlackBerrys and Netbooks as our implants. Let’s find some time to pull the plug on these technologies and rediscover the real from the virtual.