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How Technology is Compromising the Human Condition


alone with our phones

I see dead people. No, I see zombies. They walk aimlessly down the street and swerve into my lane on the highway. They’re not under the spell of a witch or voodoo overlord; they’re controlled by their smartphones.

I See Zombies Everywhere

Zombies have taken over planet Earth. As I walk past a gym, zombies (in workout clothes) exit. Arm extended, phone in palm, shoulders hunched forward. Forget about making eye contact. These zombies are focused on the latest text, tweet or email. They can’t be bothered by humans.

texting-while-drivingWhen a car swerves briefly into my lane, or when a driver is going 35 MPH in a 70 MPH zone, it’s invariably driven by a zombie: one hand on the wheel, the other holding a phone.

Eyes pointed straight down. Talented zombies use two phones, while steering the car with the backs of their hands.

Visit a restaurant these days and you’ll see zombies seated at the bar, eating a meal by themselves. Fork in one hand, phone in the other. It’s difficult to tell which they enjoy more (food or phone). Forget about talking to the bartender or to other patrons. The phone rules.

Oh, and have you seen the deranged zombies? Their Bluetooth earpiece is neatly hidden. As you approach them, they’re talking really loud. It’s just the two of you on the street, so you say, “What?” The zombie pays you no attention, walks on by and continues his conversation.

Technology and The Human Condition

Call me an old timer, but I’m concerned about technology’s impact on the human condition. I remember the B.C. era (“Before Cellphone”). We made eye contact, we made conversation. We talked to strangers. We talked to friends.

Today? We make more eye contact with our phone’s camera lens (selfies!), while human-to-human conversation is at historic lows. We’re so concerned about the email that arrived two minutes ago that we may not see the car that’s swerving onto the sidewalk.

Let’s consider how we got here.

Why We’re Victims of Technology

Hyperconnectedness

blackberry smartphone

It all started with the BlackBerry. Early generations of the device looked like extra-large pagers.

But these pagers were electronic handcuffs. Now, your inbox followed you wherever you went.

To the gym, to the beach or to sleep, the BlackBerry would buzz on each new email.

And the world would never be the same.

Now, you could email the VP Sales for a pricing request and she’d reply one minute later. You could invite a friend for dinner and know that he’d reply in an hour or less. You could lie on the beach for the afternoon, but still keep tabs on your inbox.

It’s Our Primary Channel of Communication

The phone was a fabulous piece of technology. We could speak to one another across large distances. Today, smartphone users under 20 may not know about the “phone” in their smartphone. Adults have followed suit.

Related Post: 10 Reasons Texting Has Taken Over the World

We speak to each other far less than before. Instead, we text, email and chat. For important life moments, we no longer call family members. Instead, we’ll post to Instagram or Facebook and let them learn about it there.

FOMO becomes FOMU

Our “fear of missing out” has become a “fear of missing (the most recent) update.” I’m guilty of this for sure: I’m quick to check for the latest email and the most recent Twitter mention or Facebook Like.

Technology has created this constant anxiety of “staying on top of things,” as if there’s value in seeing an email minutes after it arrives. That’s why some people sleep with their phone by their side, and invite it to buzz on each new message. When you disrupt sleep, you disrupt the human condition.

Why I’m Concerned

Health and Safety

Scientists have studied links between cell phone use and cancer risk (see this fact sheet from the National Cancer Institute and this CNN article about a World Health Organization study). My gut tells me that prolonged use of cell phones can have harmful, long term effects on the body.

There are more direct hazards, too. One afternoon, I left my office to grab lunch. I was checking email as I walked to my car. Because I wasn’t fully aware of my surrounding environment, I nearly walked into an oncoming car.

A Forbes article notes that “texting distractions may have been a contributing factor in the 4,280 pedestrian traffic fatalities recorded during 2010,” according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Technology Will Continue to Develop and Evolve

together yet alone

Consider Google Glass.

On the one hand, technology gets more seamlessly integrated (e.g. check email via Glass).

On the other hand, it makes it even easier to disengage from more meaningful human connection (e.g. check email on Glass while your friend is trying to talk to you).

When they visit my house, I say hi to the friendly delivery staff from FedEx, UPS and the US Postal Service. Those conversations will take a different form when those deliveries are performed by drones.

I’m concerned about the evolution of the human species. With continued advances in technology, will we lose the ability to talk to one another?

What We Can Do About It

Let the Phone Wait

I used to have a rule where I’d come home from work and put away the phone. It would sit in a drawer until after dinner’s been eaten and the dishes washed. Later that evening, I’d open the phone to check for calls, texts and emails. Sadly, that rule fell by the wayside.

But I ought to return to it.

We need to seize control back from the phones who rule us. Aside from emergencies, let the phone wait! The email you received a minute ago can wait an hour. Heck, it’s not the end of the world if you reply to that email tomorrow.

The key is to condition yourself. Maybe you need a habit like mine (though I hope you do a better job sticking to it). We’ll live healthier lives if we arrange for periods where we “make the phone wait.”

Alternatively, you could go to a summer camp like the one described in this New York Times article.

Go Out and Meet New People

go out and meet people

Technology has a way of hardening our shell or keeping us within a bubble.

When you’re immersed in your email, checking your Twitter stream or responding to a text, you’re not “available” to those around you.

Technology makes it too easy to be in a room full of people, but really be alone to ourselves. So make it a point to meet five new people each week. Beyond getting their names, get to know their stories, their interests and their passions.

If you’ve developed online relationships (e.g. via Twitter), arrange to meet in person. The human connection is unique and special.

Learn to Enjoy and Appreciate Your Surroundings

In the Bay Area, my average weather day is 70 degrees and sun. Depending on where I am, I can get views of the Bay, giant Sequoia trees or the Golden Gate Bridge. But I can be blind to it all if my face is planted in my phone.

When we immerse ourselves in technology, it makes us take things for granted. We must find occasions to leave the world of our inbox and explore the larger world around us. This is a behavior that must be learned and reinforced.

Now when I grab lunch at work, I’ll leave the phone in my pocket and enjoy the afternoon weather. But I can feel the phone calling out to me and I’ll sometimes suffer a relapse. I’ll pull out the phone and check email. Meanwhile, another car is pulling out of its parking spot.

Share Your Thoughts

What do you think? Are you comfortable with where technology is heading? Are you concerned about the future of human-to-human connection and interaction?

Let’s continue the conversation below. And if I ever bump into you on the street, please call me out if my face is stuck in my phone. I may have been zombie-fied!

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