Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Belshaw’s World – the incivility of modern technology

There is something fundamentally uncivil about modern communications technology. It isolates us while giving us the illusion of connection.

I am writing this sitting in a suburban train carriage. Around me, people are listening to music, phoning, texting, reading emails, watching their small screens.

Last week I looked at my own household. The TV was on. Youngest had isolated herself in her bedroom watching things on her laptop. My wife was watching TV while playing with her handheld device. Eldest was watching TV while looking at her laptop. I sat in silence.

I am a conversation type person. I like to talk and, more importantly, to listen. I am interested in people, curious about the things that happen around me. My family has always laughed at the way I get into conversation with strangers. I am just interested.

To someone like me, there is something deeply alienating about modern communications technology. Deprived of the conversation and direct human contact that I crave, I find that my spirit withers. Worse, I begin to lose the ability to actually talk to people when I have the chance.

This evil does not seem to affect the young, or at least not to the same extent. They, however, suffer from another problem, communications dependency.

To their parents and especially grandparents, if you were out of touch your were out of touch. You might ring in by landline, but this depended on a phone being available. Otherwise, you did your own thing.

Now we have all become dependent upon instant contact. Without it, we are all infected by worry. Has something happened? Is everything all right? What is going on?

In a way, it’s like a GPS in a car. Prior to GPS, you got a map and planned your trip. Now many rely on GPS to tell them what to do. Without it, they have no idea where they are, where they should drive. If the GPS stops, they are lost.

Don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t be without my mobile. It’s just that it should be a tool, a means to an end, not an ingrown piece of kit.

I was trying to work out the other day when I first began to lose my ability to talk to people. It sort of crept up on me!

I am not naturally gregarious, although I have learned to be. I am naturally curious, and that’s not a bad substitute at times.

The real crunch-point came when I chose to work from home in order to carry-out the main child care role. Now I found myself isolated for long periods, leading to desperation for conversation when people were around me.

To a degree the usual social routines associated with school provided a substitute, although I found that the very isolation of day to day life made this more difficult.

The Beatles’ song Eleanor Rigby was released in 1966. That’s well before the modern communications era. The chorus goes:

All the lonely people, where do they all come from?
All the lonely people, where do they all belong?

To my mind, that’s the story of modern communications technology, for the number of lonely people has actually exploded since the new technologies were introduced.

There are those who remain stuck in the past, unable to use the new communications technology but who are conscious of the loss. And then there are those who have used it, only to have the interaction withdrawn. They are far sadder, for without the technology crutch their lives are much diminished. They wait sadly for the SMS that never comes.

You can actually see this working itself out on Facebook too. The act of un-friending someone has become a weapon, something to be used consciously in the warfare that human relations can become.

While these things affect all ages, I feel especially sorry for the young and insecure.

No longer can you lick your personal wounds in private. The acts of friendship and the ending of friendship are played out across time and space in the pitiless glare created by our communications systems, recorded on our timelines for many to see.

Joy is replaced by sadness and even anger driven home by their very visibility. I find that sad!

Note to readers: This is the first Belshaw's World since the ending of my Armidale Express column. I am continuing the series because it gives me a chance for a different type of writing. You can see all the columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011, here for 2012.


Thomas said...

Hey Jim.

Wouldn't you agree that there is nothing inherently isolating in the technology itself, and that it's the way it's used that creates isolation?

And, from this, one could (if using technology in a particular way, actually make one's self more connected through its use?

Take a university student who is socially anxious and struggles with initial person-to-person interactions. They attend lectures, tutorials, etc., and engage in no face-to-face interaction. Upon going home, they use the online forums to interact with their peers, Facebook to speak to and interact with people who do not attend that university, make a phone call to some people overseas using Skype, and then text message some of the friends that do attend that university who have a break at around the same time to meet up for lunch.

I'm always hesitant to put the blame of social ills on the technology, because it is only a medium. A medium through which we can better control and project who we want to be and how we want to be. Technology, to me, gives a person more control over their life. If someone wants to withdraw themselves complete then they are likely to use technology less. If they wish to increase their sense of connectedness they would use it greatly.

Jim Belshaw said...

Welcome to this blog, Thomas! As a general statement, I agree with your point.

Social media can indeed create interaction. Look at the way I have used it. But I don't think that this detracts from my point.

I don't place the blame on the technology, but on the way we use the technology. My argument is that the technology has facilitated the creation of behavior patterns that have quite negative consequences.

Take facebook or mobile bullying. The technology has facilitated this.

To a degree, we are formed by the technology we use. That is not the fault of the technology, but it remains true.