Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Technology vs Civilization

I recently read a rather obscure science fiction novel, The Lani People, in which an impassioned character makes a speech about the dangers of equating technology with civilization. The question seems especially relevant today, as our society makes ever-greater strides in technological advances, particularly in the area of communications. The terrible irony, of course, lies in the fact that so many people use communication devices to avoid face time with their fellow man. I read about a survey done by the Pew Internet & American Life Project which focused on how people use their cell phones. According to this survey, 13% of all mobile phone users in the United States admit to pretending to talk on the cell phone to avoid talking to the people around them. In the group of 18-29 year-olds, 30% of people use cell phones for this purpose. There is also the story of Simone Back, who announced on FaceBook that she was going to kill herself. No one did anything to help her, and several messages on her page were of a taunting nature.

It all begs the question-how far have we advanced if our idea of interaction is typing at a keyboard or talking to a disembodied voice (or in 13-30% of cases no voice at all) instead of spending time with a real person? I've heard the phrase "the lost art of conversation" but is it really that bad? Maybe it is. Maybe without the living presence, it's impossible to make a real connection. We feel so close to those who reach out and touch us through our technology, yet when it's so difficult to know the people we actually live with, how can we think we know someone we've never even met?

There's the other side to the coin, of course. The Internet is a marvelous tool for finding people who share your interests. I find people from all over the world, people who would never know I exist were it not for the Internet, who enjoy the same movies and books I do. I can trade tips on how to use herbs with people I could never have found in the real world. I even met my husband by email, and after our marriage we waited six years for his visa to come through. There he was in Russia, and here I was in America. He didn't even have a telephone-just access to the Internet once a week. Without email, we wouldn't have had much contact for those six years. The Internet made our separation a little more bearable.

So I'm not a technophobe who yearns for a simpler time before all these wonderful advances were made. I have health problems that are more manageable with modern medicine. I'm a writer who is able to share my work thanks to the Internet. I don't use my cell phone very much, but having it makes me feel more secure, especially when I'm out alone in my car and know that a call for help is never any farther than my pocket. And paperless billing and banking on the Internet make life easier.

Yet there is the nagging feeling underneath it all that a basic part of our humanity is lost when we look at skyscrapers and cell phones and say, "Look at what a wonderful civilization we have!" when what we really mean is, "Look at how technologically advanced we are." There is a sense of something precious being lost in the shuffle when people use the latest device to avoid eye contact with others, and a cry for help is met with taunts by strangers who label themselves "Friends." I have a longing, not for that simpler time before modern medicine and easy communications, but that simpler attitude towards others, before background checks and credit checks and every other kind of check made it possible to find out so much about another person before trying to get to know them. No doubt some terrible things occured when it was not possible to find out about a person. Were they any worse than some of the things that have happened today, when a few checks on the Internet can create a false sense of security about a person who is still essentially a stranger?

I think I first became aware of this issue when reading The Adventure of the Creeping Man by Arthur Conan Doyle. It's a Sherlock Holmes story in which the great detective solves a mystery created by a technological advance, one used by the titular character to try and make himself young again. Holmes says to Watson, "When one tries to rise above Nature one is liable to fall below it. The highest type of man may revert to the animal if he leaves the straight road of destiny....There is danger there -- a very real danger to humanity....the material, the sensual, the worldly would all prolong their worthless lives. The spiritual would not avoid the call to something higher. It would be the survival of the least fit. What sort of cesspool may not our poor world become?" Indeed, what sort of world will we create if our only idea of progress is technological advances, rather than human connections?