Posted October 31, 2009on:
“We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas,” wrote Henry Thoreau (1817-1862), “but it may be that Maine and Texas have nothing to communicate.”
What would Thoreau have felt about our world of “instant messaging” and constant “networking”? I am bombarded by invitations- which I routinely ignore- from friends and strangers to join Facebook and similar sites. I have also been advised that I should be blogging at least once a day, not twice or (at most) thrice a month. I am not using the full potential of the medium. My standard response to such well-intentioned invitations and advice is simple: I have a life to live.
We are increasingly enmeshed in what has come to be called the “cult of interactivity”. Instant and online interaction brings pleasure and convenience to millions, including myself. I am grateful for the advances in communications technology. But when communication becomes an end in itself, when having the biggest bandwidth is more important than what we have to say to one another, then the technology and the marketing have become our masters, not our servants. A wise use of technology may well be to refuse to use its “full potential”. When it comes to Powerpoint presentations, for example, my slides are deliberately few and unsophisticated. For if the content of my lecture is not more attractive than the slides themselves, then I should not be lecturing.
Paradoxically, with the new cellular and Internet technologies linking us to one another, we can now become self-enclosed, self-sufficient, controlling centres. There are even news-gathering services on the Internet offering to download only news that is tailor-made to our individual interests and needs. Moreover, for all the advertising hype about mobile phones “bringing the world together”, we have all endured the experience of a stranger in a crowded train or restaurant uttering sheer banalities (or even obscenities) at the top of his voice into his mobile phone, blissfully insensitive to the feelings of those around him.
Therefore, we need to ask not only what we do with our technologies, but what we are becoming through our technologies. Technology alters our perceptions of ourselves, of others and of the world. There is a dialectical relationship between the tools we use, our conception of the world and our self-consciousness. As Neil Postman puts it pungently, “To the man with a hammer, everything is a nail.”
Technological change is thus ecological change. It changes the culture, altering the structure of our interests, the character of our symbols, and the things we think about and think with. It fosters certain habits of mind and discourages others.
Ponder the mobile-phone concept of communication. This has pushed aside the old-fashioned idea of “conversation” which was slow, messy and sometimes painful. The new communication is identified with “exchanging information”, and this exchange is crisp, clear and instant. You say as little as possible to make sure you get what you want as fast as you can. To be “in 24-hour communication” has come to mean sending and receiving a tidal wave of “messages” every day. And, in the new language of the mobile world, it is the device, not the human user, that does the “communicating” via global networks.
The growth of these technologies demonstrates the human ability to manufacture powerful methods of collecting, storing and disseminating vast quantities of information. But the technologies themselves do not provide the necessary frameworks and contexts of interpretation to sift, evaluate and assess the informational deluge that inundates us. Gossip, rumour, and half-truths are immediately transmitted as the latest facts. It is increasingly difficult in cyberspace to know who is speaking, what he or she really means by what they say, and whose self-interests are shaping the online rhetoric.
We could spend our whole lives texting, but there will always be part of us that we do not- and should not- want to share with anyone other than our family and closest friends. And we do not need to comment on every news article, answer every online questionnaire, or subscribe to every networking site. Privacy needs protecting in an age of cyber vandalism. And imposing a regular “Sabbath” rest from our feverish networking and texting is good for our spiritual health. Contemplation and solitude are the soil in which deep and authentic relationships flourish.