This Lent, as I have been eschewing screens in the evenings, I have been thinking about the uses to which we put technology — those that bring us closer, and those that serve to distance us.
I cut out screen-time in the evening in part because I noticed myself using my screen primarily for distraction at that time of day — I would mindlessly refresh social media, and then complain, “there’s nothing new on the internet!” And yet, when I cut it out entirely, I started to notice the times when screen-use might bring me closer to others — for instance, showing Mike the projects I’ve been working on, or Skyping with Mike’s parents. There are times when screen-use enables me to better connect with others offline, as well — for instance, looking up the address of somewhere I’m supposed to meet friends, or getting Google Directions to a concert.
Technology has enabled us to connect with other people in all sorts of novel ways — we can now see and speak with those who are continents away, see pictures of a new baby born in another country mere hours after the birth, and traverse large distances quickly. Last week at Coffee Club, we discussed whether we would rather give up use of all telecommunications devices (computers, phones, etc), all motorized vehicles, or the use of one of our hands — the unanimous conclusion, after some discussion, was that we would rather give up the use of one of our hands, since that wouldn’t reduce our ability to connect with others as the other options would. And so, technology can certainly bring us together.
And yet, technology can also keep us apart, whether we are close together or far apart. We can maintain superficial connections very easily through social networks such as Facebook, and if we allow those to take the place of deeper interactions, we can become exceedingly lonely. Sometimes, the distance provided by technology is very nice; there are times when it is simply easier to put my thoughts down in an email than to try to talk in person or on the phone, and sometimes the lack of nonverbal cues, along with the ability to walk away and come back once I’ve had a chance to think, allows me to respond in a more helpful way than the immediacy of in-person interactions where I may not be able to keep frustration out of my tone. But if I were to rely on email, I might never form a deeper connection. Technology can also easily separate us from those physically present with us — those we know, and those we don’t. As we become an increasingly constantly connected society, it becomes increasingly difficult to strike up a conversation with a stranger on the bus, and sometimes even to hold a conversation with a friend, if they are being frequently interrupted by their phone.
What I have learned this Lent — what I already knew, at some level — is that technology in itself doesn’t bring us together or keep us apart. We can use it for either. Connection takes effort — it always has, and it always will. Going forward, I want to be more mindful of how I am using technology — whether it is bringing me closer to others, or keeping me apart.