Though I have adopted assorted electronic gadgets over the years as digital technology became essential for doing commerce, my citizenship in the culture the internet and broadband revolutions have generated is naturalized at best. I am several gadgets behind the curve and only marginally literate at the ones I do have. Nonetheless, I am convinced that all of us need to participate in the reconciliation of this technology with our ongoing humanity—who we will be is up for grabs—so the other evening I set out to explore the subject.
The birthday party was almost all twenty-somethings. It was in a bar, where five tables had been strung together end to end, and I was sitting where I could see the whole crowd. Everyone had their smart phones open on the table in front of them and several had laptops in readiness nearby. For two hours they talked with great animation and volume, regularly sent and received text messages as the conversation continued unabated, fielded incoming phone calls, checked e-mails, took pictures, posted them on the internet, ordered more drinks, texted friends at the other end of the table, worked their way through dozens of Facebook walls, and sang Happy Birthday when the time came. After a while, I turned on my five year old cell phone just to feel a little less self conscious.
The next day I called Kelly, the birthday girl. She’s a documentary film maker. I’ve known her since she was a foot tall, so I felt comfortable raising stupid questions about the scene around the table at her party.
“So what is that incessant technological scramble all about?” I asked.
My question was stupid enough that she laughed.
“We don’t want to miss anything,” she explained when she reached the end of her chuckle. “There’s always running conversations going on and if you don’t stay current with them, you’re left behind. Mostly it’s pretty passive—just tracking stuff and people—but, sometimes, it tips over into a kind of posturing and control thing. It’s hard to disconnect because I think about the things I won’t be in on if I’m off line. I try not to start multi tasking on the net too early in the day. If I do, I find it hard to handle extended single tasks that require concentration. It is, however, my social platform. I get most of my invitations via Facebook. It amounts to an enormous community and makes me feel recognized. It’s not such a big deal, there’s just a lot more of it and it’s a lot faster than what people your age are used to.”
Two such generational differences were obvious to me right away. The first is one of framework: I grew up in a world with a paucity of options, so the issue for me has been how to fill in a largely blank and vacant space. Kelly and her friends have grown up in a world with a surplus of options, so their issue is how to clear some space for themselves amid the clutter. Those two mental frameworks, separated by forty years, amount to significantly divergent angles of impact. The second difference I noticed is in starting points. I begin disconnected and have to make a choice to connect to the larger communication system. Kelly’s default position is already connected and she has to choose to opt out rather than choose to opt in, a difference that completely reverses the momentum in our two approaches.
Once those differences are accounted for, however, we are on largely common ground. And the question we both need to answer is not about reversing this flow into a broadband, megabit culture, but rather how to make sure we generate enough wisdom with it to carry us through whatever is mustering in our deep future.
On that front, I have a few worries:
Is public display becoming the template for the presentation of self? When the pivotal source of identity and interaction with others is an electronic bulletin board—an essentially public medium biased toward the voyeuristic and exhibitionist—it seems to produce a kind of celebrity dynamic in which self images morph into marketable commodities. I fear that identities will be manufactured to play well on broadband rather than in direct interaction with conditions and circumstances. Always in control or seeking it, we then end up formatting legends of ourselves rather than directly engaging life and its often unmanageable flux. And human community becomes little more than an exercise in public relations.
Is speed distorting our sense of perspective? This culture is instant, and prolonged exposure to such instantaneousness can breed a potentially crippling sense of entitlement if we’re not careful. We expect everything now and when we don’t get it now, we feel violated and helpless. We lose track of the miracle of invention that allows us to function in such an immediate time frame; we treat our instant life and its truncated attention span as a birthright we cannot live without. And that unbalanced expectation leaves us enormously vulnerable at a time when disruption and delay will surely be a major condition of our future. Even the most instant and well wired among us need to nurture patience and cultivate our capacity to slow down and be still, as well as to speed up. Otherwise, our fastness will limit rather than enable.
Does being in constant contact interfere with cultivating our humanness? The currency of this new culture is chatter, texts, tweets, and streaming video, all 24/7. I am left wondering what happens when the solitary and the quiet become at best minor ingredients in our human recipe. Much of humankind’s most compelling insight has grown out of the latter and the former is the touchstone of the human experience. We start alone and end alone, and the root of our mutual compassion has always been in our attempts to digest that inescapable separateness. We cannot be comfortable with who we are and with each other until we are comfortable by ourselves. I fear the boon of rampant communication might leave us mired in herds, hoping to relieve our paramount fear of being on our own.
I shared my worries with Kelly.
She laughed again.
“Lighten up,” she chided me. “We’ll get to all that.”