Are Common Courtesy And Intelligence Victims of the Digital Age?

Over the past 20 years or so, there have been many powerful innovations in the world of communications, and I often wonder if these changes have hindered society as much as they have helped it. The Internet, e-mail, cell phones, Facebook, texting, these things are supposed to make our lives easier and help people become more connected with each other, but do they really? When I look back to my life as a teenager growing up in rural New Hampshire in the 1980s, I see a world so far removed from the world of today, that images come to mind of my great grandparents living in the era just before the streetcar. Let’s take a look back, shall we?

The year is 1983 and I’m a 15-year-old sophomore getting ready for school. Just before heading out the door, I call one of my friends on a telephone that still has a cord on it. The line is busy, and there is no call waiting. Oh well, I guess I’ll just talk to him later, it wasn’t that important anyway (this will be the last opportunity to use a telephone for the next eight hours). Throughout the school day, the only conversations that take place are in between class and at lunch, for the most part. There are no constant distractions from texts or endless phone apps on my iPhone, because they doesn’t exist yet. With nothing else going on, I guess I’ll have to somewhat pay attention. During study hall, I take a few minutes to write a letter, with a pen and paper, to a friend who moved away. A Little later on, I’m home from school and flipping through the pages of an Encyclopedia Britannica for a homework assignment. I can’t just punch a word or phrase into a Google search for the answer, I have to pick out the right volume, think about the spelling of the word that I’m looking up, find it in its alphabetical place in the book, read about the subject to learn the answers, and then complete my assignment with a pen and paper.

Homework now done and I’m off to my part-time job as a dishwasher at a local restaurant. Without a cell phone, I can’t be reached easily at work, but then again, why should I be, I’m supposed to be working. On the rare occasion that there might be a family emergency, I can be reached on the restaurants business phone, but as that phone line is for the restaurants business, outside conversations from the workplace are an exception, not the rule. This leaves not much else to do but work, and engage in friendly conversations with my coworkers. I get home from work and there is a voice mail on the telephone answering machine. The message is from one of my friends about getting together on the weekend. As this is before the era when everyone walks around with a cell phone glued to their hand, it is the only message. Telephone communication was not so constant, as you had to be somewhere with a landline to speak on a telephone. This extra effort usually resulted in most people only leaving messages for things that were actually important. Jump ahead a couple of months to summer vacation and my dad has sent me to the local hardware store to buy some new hinges for a broken barn door. I talk to the owner of this small store, a store that, amazingly, always seemed to have at least one of anything you would ever need. The store owner not only produces the appropriate items, he explains some do’s and don’ts about correctly installing these items.

That was life in the pre-digital era. Conversations were voice to voice, either in the room, or by telephone. Applications for jobs or bank loans were also done with a face-to-face meeting, and you couldn’t tell someone you were firing them in an e-mail. If you wanted to learn something, you had to make a real effort, either by talking to an expert, looking something up in the family Encyclopedia, or even venturing out to the local library. People weren’t so easily distracted by advertising as there wasn’t yet a television or electronic billboard placed strategically throughout the day. Human interaction was more direct and personal. People communicated with their family, friends, and peers almost solely through the human voice. The very nature of this simpler and more direct existence also made it difficult for people to avoid honoring their commitments.

Flash forward to 2010. While some of us still occasionally use some old-school methods for communicating (like the phone), it is almost impossible to escape texting and e-mailing in our everyday lives, methods of communication that rely on the perception of the reader, limit the depths of our interactions, and only contain fragments of the human element we once took for granted in our daily conversations. Many choose, or are forced to live their social lives through Facebook and other social networking sites, where thoughts are amputated at 140 characters and we never actually “speak” to anyone. We are so pressed for time in this hyperactive world and our lives are often so fragmented, that we will Google the answer to a question, rather than learn the entirety of a subject. We will text or e-mail a coworker or family member from the next room, or watch television in school on a screen smaller than the size of our hand. The very nature of the Internet allows a veil of anonymity for many, and I believe that the downside of all this technology is perpetuating a certain degree of social ineptitude, and at times, a lesser degree of intelligence for some.

Of course there are some positive sides to all this technology. Research has become more practical and efficient for the masses, it’s easier now than ever to connect with lost family members, friends,  and peers, and wrongdoers have a harder time hiding behind their actions, to name a few. But with all these advancements comes responsibility. How do we as a society use the good that this technology has to offer without losing our basic humanness along the way? Are we really as smart and connected as we think we are?

A friend of mine recently said that his grandfather is always telling him that technology is the drug of today’s younger generation. I think I’ll twitter him to let him know I just posted this blog.

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