Has computer and communication technology allowed us to connect more deeply with life? Or, as we become more connected with this technology, are we becoming more disconnected from life?
As someone who has made his life's work the study of human behavior and who is fascinated by the nexus of humanity and computer and communication technology, my interest lies in how the lives of ordinary people (defined as those not involved in these technology industries) are impacted by this technology.
When teenagers tell me that they have friends all over the world whom they've "met" on the Internet, I pause. When NBC's David Gregory has to tweet that he's having a bagel before he goes on the air, I wonder. When I see people walking down the street with headphones on, I question. When research has shown that young people spend nearly six hours a day in front of a screen outside of school, I worry. I ask myself, is that life they're engaging in? I guess it depends on how you define "life."
I see life as connecting with the world directly rather than through a conduit of computer and communication technology. Life is moving something other than my fingers, and experiencing the world with all of my senses, not just with my eyes and ears. It is about connecting with others in a substantial way. Life is about caring deeply about things that directly impact my world. What makes life life for me is its inherent imperfection and untidiness, its intermittent chaos and uncertainty, its occasional blood, sweat, and tears. Can we find that with this kind of technology? I'm not so sure.
Computer and communication technology just feels too safe, too clean, to me. Whether the anonymity of blog comments, the false intimacy of online relationships, or the ease of hitting Delete or Exit at will, we're able to hold life (as I define it) at arm's length with this technology. There's little messiness, little disorder (except when I get disconnected!), only the linear perfection (well, maybe not perfection) of circuitry, wiring, and radio waves.
Don't get me wrong, computer and communication technology has been a boon to the work world, increasing productivity and efficiency dramatically. I certainly couldn't do what I do without this technology. The Web and email have enabled me to reach an audience that wouldn't have been possible 20 years ago. I spend hours each day on my computer writing, communicating with colleagues and clients, and maintaining my practice. I was even the lead editor on the publication of a textbook with a colleague whom I have never met nor even spoken with by telephone -- the entire book was written and edited on line.
I also use this technology for entertainment. I follow the news, read movie reviews, and follow my favorite sports on line. I email friends, send photos to family, and use Skype to connect my daughters with one of their grandfathers who lives on the East Coast. And, yes, I'm on Facebook.
Yet when I'm immersed in computer and communication technology, I feel somehow disconnected from life. I feel like I'm in a purgatory, not outside of life, but not living life fully either. I'm being productive and I'm being entertained, but not fully wrapped in the fabric of life. When I check my email or surf the Web, I feel like I'm cheating on life. I really should be with my family or exercising or doing chores around the house or doing something ... substantial.
Maybe that's the problem. Computer and communication technology functions two dimensionally while life is three dimensional. Yet because of the splendid technology, there is the appearance of three dimensions. I like to use the expression, "getting hip deep in life." Well, as an end user, I can't get that mucky with this technology because, though it has length and width, it lacks depth.
My concern is that too many people, particularly young people who haven't known life without mobile phones, the Internet, or iPods, equate computer and communication technology with life. They spend hours listening to music, watching YouTube, texting, tweeting, and playing games on line. This technology certainly gives us an easy distraction from the pressures or just plain mundanity of daily life. That's not inherently bad; we all need a break from life periodically. Who am I to judge whether playing World of Warcraft or hanging out on some technology Web site is worse than reading, running, or meditating. But when ordinary people are spending much of their leisure time absorbed in this technology, then it may not be just a respite from life, it may become an escape from life. Yes, life is messy and difficult and painful sometimes, but without such untidiness, there can also not be inspiration, joy, and contentment. Better that than the antiseptic numbness of a virtual life, in my view.
Even worse than escaping from life, computer and communication technology may, in the process, become life itself. Computer and communication technology gives us "virtual" reality which means "almost like or very similar to, but not quite the same as." This technology can give us something like life, but not exactly life (e.g., virtual relationships). It is missing those essential ingredients that I described above that I define as life. I guess more than anything, what is missing is engagement in something of personal meaning and value, and a deep connection with others.
But, hey, I guess I'm old school (I grew up in a time when we had three black-and-white television channels and eight-track tapes were the future of audio recordings). Maybe I need to get with the times. Perhaps life needs to be redefined to include computer and communication technology. I don't have a problem with that. With every advance of civilization, humanity has had to adjust to fit the new world order. And we will certainly make that paradigm shift as well.
Computer and communication technology does and will continue to play a powerful and mostly positive role in our lives. The key for me is that it should provide brief diversions from life and, most importantly, be a tool to enhance our lives, but it should not be the most important part of life or, dare I say, become life itself. Because, for all that this amazing technology has to offer us, it will never, in my view, be a substitute for the life that I remember as a child, however old school and quaint that may seem.
A final thought. I wanted to share with you part of a comment from "the undude" that was posted on my Web site's blog: "Face to face interaction creates more than communication. It creates memories. How many discernable and memorable instant messaging sessions can you talk with your friends ...?"
I used 1000 words to express my ideas and he summed it up in two words: life "creates memories." 'Nuff said.