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Column: Digital just isn’t the downfall of humanity

15/06/2011

There is plenty written about the encroachment of digital devices on our lives. They buzz and beep and vibrate, forever distracting you from the more important things like solitude, family, eating or having a real-time-real-person conversation. This is naturally considered to be a better means of communication – even for a digital communication fundi like myself. Virtual sex, for example, has never, ever, appealed to me. However, no matter how interrupted I am by the devices I have chosen to have in my life I am more weary of the endless stream of commentators moaning about how invasive these devices are.

I mean really, you choose for them to be there. The choice is always yours. Sure, these days the white collar workforce will all have phones, most will have computers, everyone has an email address. You can consider these necessities to be disruptive or productive. But I think you would be hard pressed to deliver an argument of how they hamper modern civilization.

The predicament people find themselves in around ringing and bleeping devices always makes me think of my father. Like most households in the 80s we had a phone – the kind you used to plug into the wall. More often than not it wasn’t portable. If lucky, there were two and if very lucky, you would have some level of privacy at one of them.

My father used to get so agitated and be so bound to the need to answer the phone that he would stop whatever he was doing, sometimes in a fit of rage over the interruption, and rush to answer the phone. The default action always puzzled me. The obligation was never necessary. A device gets a command and jumps, it’s what they are built to do, not humans.
My solution to buzzing devices is much simpler and less disruptive – don’t answer.

Today, some 20 years on, the devices demanding our attention go far beyond a ringing telephone. The internet for one and all its wonders has an infinite and endless stream of attention grabbing potential. But your attention is yours to control.

Some weeks back the former executive editor of the New York Times, Bill Keller sent one of his shortest tweets: “#TwitterMakesYouStupid. Discuss”. The background to that little experiment was that he felt Twitter may be dulling our humanity and possibly making us stupid. The larger premise is that the encroachment of technology is affecting us, and I quote, “But my inner worrywart wonders whether the new technologies overtaking us may be eroding characteristics that are essentially human: our ability to reflect, our pursuit of meaning, genuine empathy, a sense of community connected by something deeper than snark or political affinity.”

Rubbish, I say.

It’s just Twitter. It’s just Facebook. It’s just a phone. People still have real friends. These platforms are just another way to express, to communicate – there is no reason to think it is replacing anything or eroding the substance of our being.

Guardian columnist, Jonathan Freedland, made similar statements that same week. He applauds the usefulness of Twitter to topple governments but thinks immersing ourselves online is equally detrimental to our lives. He suggests that the internet has damaged our ability to concentrate for sustained periods. Being connected meant being constantly tempted to look away, to hop from the text in front of you to another, newer one. He goes so far as to suggest that such lack of reflective thinking may damage our civilization.

Essayist and technology commentator, Douglas Rushkoff, says that the internet has made him resentful and short-fused; stressed by the pressure to be available and respond to the now, now. He supports my own point – we need to reassert control and discover the off switch.

The expectations of others are ultimately only the expectations of others. You don’t have to be available all the time. That is a fallacy. If you want to stop and reflect – stop and reflect.

Was it really necessary to stop what you were doing and read this column?

Switch off. But don’t forget to switch it back on.

 

Scott Smith is the online editor at The New Age.
Email him at scotts@thenewage.co.za or catch him on Twitter @S_P_S

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