Ah, technology. The giver of light. The bringer of information. The creator of worlds both Orwellian and Farmvillian. In the sunrise of the digital age, in the shadow of Silicon Valley, I can sit and marvel at the technology that surrounds and permeates life, and I can see how it has changed our world for the better.
Skype connects loved ones across time and space. Facebook and Twitter helped spark the Arab Spring. And Wikipedia lets me discover if Home Alone really did make more money than Home Alone 2. (It did.)
But for all the praise heaped upon technology, Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together, believes it influences our behavior and values in very potent and not always positive ways. In her book, Turkle expounds upon her study of how robots and social networks isolate us from each other. Instead of making lives easier, it can make life confusing and cold.
We need look no further than our own dining commons for evidence. Only most of the diners there prefer to stare at phone screens instead of their friends’ faces. Games like Doodle Jump become more important than relationships. This even surprises Kevin Durant, who expresses his disapproval eloquently: “Doodle Jump? Man, that’s messed up.”
Champions of social media claim that it democratizes speech. And to an extent, it does. But this democratization also debases quality writing and original thought by throwing them among the riff-raff of the internet. Should your friend who thinks The Avengers was a cinematic masterpiece really be considered alongside a New York Times journalist? I’m not so sure.
Furthermore, Facebook allows you to “like” things such as colon cancer. Like colon cancer? Who in their right mind likes colon cancer? It’s a disease that can make you carry around a bag of your own excrement — not a hot, 20-something grad student you met at your friend’s party.
Technology masquerades hollow, empty gestures — for example, sharing a picture of a soldier — as genuine and legitimate action. Admittedly, sharing is caring. Still, walking up to a service member and shaking his or her hand seems to be a more appropriate Memorial Day activity than clicking a link. They may have fought and died for our freedom to shop in our pajamas, but we should at least try to get out of the house — and houseboats — to thank them for their service.
But for all the distance injected into our lives by technology, Turkle sees a glimmer of hope in a frail, imperfect place: us. We can change, she argues. We can reexamine our relationship with technology, and more importantly, with each other. And all it takes is conscious effort and purposeful acts.
I saw this action taken by a friend of mine who I’ll call “Chris.” Chris invited me and two other friends to dinner at his house because he feels he doesn’t see enough of us. People lose touch when the daily grind takes over. Chicken, rice and asparagus were his way of saying “I treasure your friendship, in a platonic fashion of course.” Cooking them all said, “I don’t want you to die from salmonella.”
Chris inspired me, although I only gave his restaurant a three-star rating on Yelp (A long wait to get in and only tap water? I’m not an animal). He made me want to connect with my friends and family in a more intimate, real manner. So I picked up my pen and wrote a few postcards, complete with Disney movie stamps.
Technology can bring us together. Still, we shouldn’t forget to look up sometimes from the interfaces that launch a thousand apps. For all you know, you might see a face that could launch a thousand ships, much to my Greek homie Homer’s delight. Or exasperation. I’m not quite sure which, since he’s dead and I can’t ask him. But I think he’d agree with me when I say that we can choose to invest in each other, in life, in love. And that mentality, that investment, is something truly worth sharing.
BEN BIGELOW thanks UC Davis veterans and active duty personnel for their sacrifice, and Chris for his perpetual inspiration. He can be reached at email@example.com.