One of my favorite columnists, Roger Cohen of The New York Times, recently wrote a rant of lamentations regarding the velocity of change where he questioned if we are really better off with all that has occurred in the last fifty years; in other words, is progress really progress? He argues,
Before identity theft, when nobody could steal you, before global positioning systems, when we were [often happily] lost, before 24/7 monitoring and alerts by text and email, when there was idleness, before spin doctors, when there was character, before e-readers, when pages turned, we did get by just the same.
Personally, I love my digital conveniences, at least when they work. However, I must also admit a growing concern I have for, among other things, our capacity for self-sufficiency when batteries fail or networks collapse. Will we even be able to find our way across town, complete a transaction, or write a real letter in cursive? Is our new digital economy sustainable on bits and bytes? Should we be concerned that toddlers’ favorite toys are often an iPhone, or that Google is developing a car that drives itself? In 1995, techno-futurist Don Tapscott wrote about the dawn of networked intelligence and its impact on a “new world (dis)order” and settled optimistically on the conclusion that while perils exist, technology will likely end up “freeing us, stimulating us, and relaxing us” as long as we join the emerging digerati elite. Fifteen years later, I am willing to endorse his claim of stimulation, but freedom and relaxation are debatable, and the perils may be more insidious than expected.
The perils collectively contribute to a chronic condition I’ll call technium delititis: the slow but certain degradation of our capacity for self-sufficiency and, moreover, our sense of self. The fundamental question is, as life gets better through advances in technology, are we better at life? There are (at least) five deleterious effects of technium delititis I have observed in others and myself. (I do not claim immunity.)
- Lack of presence. The digitally enthralled are seldom mentally where they are physically. While it’s unfair to call it digital daydreaming when our minds are elsewhere—we may be collaborating via a Google tool on the generation of new alternative fuels—we are nonetheless absent. Those who are in our midst can count on us for nothing, whether companionship or warning us that our hair is on fire. This can damage relationships upon which we rely for our own general well being. Perhaps those of us who are digitally engaged should hang a sign around our neck that reads “Not Here.”
- Inability to self-edit. This problem began with the fax machine. As the speed of communication increased the requirement for getting our words right the first time decreased. When it took days to get a letter across the country, we spent much more time with our words and sentences, editing and polishing them to perfection. Today, we write in incomplete sentences and even incomplete words, and most of us think syntax is a government tax on cigarette and liquor purchases. The result of speedy transmission is too often lousy communication.
- Rising narcissism. There may be value in social networking, I just haven’t figured out what it is yet. I really don’t care what hundreds of so-called friends had for dinner, or how a store clerk treated them. Astonishingly, Facebook and Twitter operate on the assumption that we do care, and they are clearly winning the argument given the millions who participate. The ether in their proposition is narcissism; we are led to believe by those who claim us as friends that such trivial mundane activities are indeed important to others—that we do matter. Social networks, at least in their current form and use, are (at best) ego-smoothing pacifiers that foster self-delusion. Worse, they take time away from developing real relationships that have depth and durability. As sociologist Malcolm Gladwell recently claimed in The New Yorker, “social media are built around weak ties.” It is unlikely that the next revolution or innovation will claim Twitter as its inspiration, notwithstanding the millions who are addicted to 140-character discourse.
- Decline in critical thinking. Critical thinking begins with research—original research. Google and Wiki don’t count. They function as filters and organizers that may exclude better answers to important questions. They are clearly easier to use, but easier is not always better. If we are going to deal effectively with the problems we face today—and they are enormous—we better get back to real research including the kind of basic research we did in the 1950s and 1960s (before all-things-digital). Otherwise, we’re just re-stirring the same soup, even though it does arrive on our devices in .8 seconds.
- Speed isn’t always good. We are a society hooked on speed. We believe that faster is better, and it often is. But, in many cases, using more time creates higher value. Thinking a while longer—perhaps even overnight—can be better than clicking send. Taking one’s time allows improvement in quality of thought as well as precious moments for self-editing. On this point, I reflect on a lesson I learned as a student at the National Outdoor Leadership School in Lander, Wyoming. The first lesson in wilderness first aid—when faced with a crisis—is to wait. Obviously, this seems counterintuitive until you learn that decisions made in the first few minutes are the most important ones and, therefore, must be made with careful analysis of all the variables. This lesson from the wilderness applies to the digital world too. After all, variables—whether digital, analog, physical, economic, environmental, scientific, political, etc.—are still just variables. We don’t need to always go as fast as technology allows.
Our first challenge is to at least think about these effects. Surely, the cavemen who started the first fires and later rolled the first wheels learned quickly about singed beards and the virtue of speed control. The next challenge is to take control of our gadgets and their usage to assess if a life improved by technology makes us better at living life. We have daunting challenges ahead of us in America and the world. We must maintain our capacity for self-sufficiency, self-restraint, and thoughtful deliberation. We need to keep the effects of technium delititis in-check.