Technology and the Social Animal

I recently crossed a personal threshold: I acquired a “smart” phone. I know this probably doesn’t impress most, but those who know me well, understand that I’ve been adamant about limiting my use of communication technology for quite some time. In the “developed” world, my actions might even be perceived as extreme: I only used (and continue to use) a cell phone to make social arrangements via text or to call someone (remember talking on the phone?); on weekends, I often forget to turn my phone on; and I scarcely used my “remedial” phone as an appendage of my hand.

Friends and family both old and new would flash quizzical looks at my curious distaste for the latest model of idevice.  They found delight in playfully calling me a cynic or a Luddite (though I’ve never expressed worry about technology replacing my day job). These responses and reactions only validated my techno-righteousness as a “non-adopter” or “laggard”. Nonetheless, on an otherwise pleasant day this past week, my  sputtering “remedial” phone finally delivered its last text message. To remain a player in this shifting game of capitalism, I allowed rationality to steer my hand toward an older iPhone model, rather than a more recent “remedial” phone.

So there I was, the techno-skeptic finally making the leap. I had joined the digitized herd at long last. The fundamental reason I committed will probably remain a mystery to me, but I did sense a palpable inner conflict: that which involved pitting my unstable value system – with its disinclination toward planned obsolescence and the ecological and cultural devastations of rare earth metal mining – against my need for social affiliation and belonging. What is a curmudgeon to do?

The past few years, I noticed that I was beginning to operate on the margins of social life. The vast majority of folks with whom I affiliate and love use social media to share, broadcast, and organize their social lives. By opting out of this digital empire, I found myself becoming a reluctant spectator. Not more than a year ago, a good friend of mine spoke on the phone nearly every week. After his acquisition of an iPhone, our correspondences have dwindled to curt, monthly text sessions. I know this is just an anecdote, yet this social transition appears to be fairly common, potentially eroding trust among people and therefore, their general well-being.

Human to human connection aside, technologies also short-circuit our interactions with our non-human brethren. If I’m navigating my way around a place using iPhone maps, my fixated attention is on the pulsating dot on my screen, not the creative expressions of a pair of shimmering eastern blue birds, whose graceful wings reflect effervescent indigo and violet. I become disconnected from place.

Facebook, Twitter, and the cadre of others belonging to the genus “social media” are typically championed as connecting us in progressively rich and complex ways. Yet, what I sense upon entering the social media vortex is a sudden disconnection and disembodiment from my encompassing surround. Live, human conversation recedes into the urban din; the community of flora and fauna who share this place with me become a static background to my virtual human predicament. And in a wave of self-conscious irony, I’m aware that I write these thoughts for an inconsequential blog.

Short of widespread economic and ecological collapse, technology, together with the myth of progresswill continue steamrolling social life. However, as virtual means of communicating proliferate and diffuse throughout our consumer culture, perhaps we can carve out meaningful time for authentic engagement.

Maybe we can employ social media and other communication technologies gently to arrange and create space for face-to-face dialogue. Perhaps we can harness damaging technology to discern those places in our locale most teeming with biodiversity, restorative potential, and beauty. Maybe then, when in the physical presence of others (both human and non-human), we can divert our scarce attention away from documenting life, and toward experiencing life itself.


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