Each new generation of communication devices is touted as an advance in human cultural progress, and it's often true. But where there's money to be made selling gadgets, the so-called advantages and attractions may be nothing more than aggressive advertising disguised as hi-tech hype.
I can still recall the CB Radio craze, the early walkie-talkie phone craze, and, of course, the explosion of computer network use (the Internet, or World Wide Web) following the development of the Personal Computer (the cathode ray tube accompanied by a keyboard).
The world will never be the same again, now that we're all hooked up and humming with electronic interactivity.
But what are the long-term effects of all this device communication?
In an earlier post, from 2/1/10, I wrote the following:
"Is the world more complex, now that we have an increasingly sophisticated means of recording and replaying it, of "storing" its essence in larger and larger repositories of data, than it once had been, before written language, before verbatim, before electronic data storage? Are people smarter, or better informed, than they were before this expansion of the electronic universe of gadgets and "interactive" devices? Or are they dumber, more dependent, less creative and responsible for themselves (and their opinions) than they used to be? Are they more passive, less earnest, and somehow disengaged from reality, as the shadow-land of the internet universe comes more and more to occupy their waking consciousness? Are we becoming somehow psychologically "inverted" from reality, as an involution into fantasy, an alternate reality more "entertaining" than simply living?"
--and I speculated about the possible effects of the new generation of inter-active devices. I've been thinking further along these same lines, and have come to some more specific conclusions.
Texting devices, such as the "Blackberry," enable people with interactive hand-helds to send immediate short-text e.mail messages (known as "tweets"--hence "Twitter") to each other. "Facebook," a new web social networking system, allows efficient communication between whole groups of people (a further refinement of the "chat-site" networks). And cell phones now enable people to take pictures and videos which can then be sent to others as e.mails.
These devices are especially popular with teenagers and very young adults, who have bought into the idea that rapid, efficient communication at all times is somehow necessary, and fun.
As a refugee from the older generation, which grew up with land-line telephones and radios and televisions and record-players and tape decks, this new immediacy and urgency seems pretty redundant. I remember my parents rarely used the telephone, except to transact business, though my mother did on occasion conduct "gossip" conversations with other women. Later, as a teenager, I remember having rather longish (30-45 minute) calls with friends, during which we worked out our complicated teenage problems, as surreptitiously as possible, over the family phone.
When the internet came along, I reluctantly began to engage with others on chat-sites, and eventually started my own blog, The Compass Rose. As a professional writer, and one-time academic, writing (blogging) came naturally to me, and, like many other people, I found it an ideal medium in which to exercise my natural tendencies toward expressing opinion and conducting arguments. In addition, e.mail soon became my preferred mode for interpersonal communication, largely supplanting the telephone as a cheap, efficient message relay system. Though I carry a cell-phone, I never receive calls on it, and use it only as a way of touching base with other parties to keep appointments (perhaps 1 call, on average, every other day, or less).
But the new generation of devices has carried the efficiencies of the internet (and e.mail) to new levels. These devices--both cell-phones and the new hand-helds--have become smaller and smaller--in some cases people put ear-plugs in and have a tiny wire speaker to talk into (and can be seen walking down the street speaking oddly as if to themselves--"look, ma, no hands!")--so small, in fact, that the "keyboards" with which they make "text" messages can't be utilized except with the thumbs. These new devices are moving towards a time when people will literally be able to interact, both aurally and visually, without time or space limits, with other people in real-time.
How much of all this interactivity is necessary? Why do people think they need to make contact with each other with the frequency they now do? The phone companies, and the manufacturers of these devices, would surely have us believe that the more calls we make, the more times we hook up and browse the streams of data available, the better. But how much is enough? Will all this flutter and buzz become passe in a couple of years? Are these devices just a passing fad, or will they increasingly take over our lives, becoming the new standard preoccupation of our lives, which computers and the internet appear to have done?
How does the use of these devices effect our minds, our behavior, our verbal skills?
Based on my first-hand (anecdotal) experience, most of what passes for content inside the new wave of device traffic is trivial, unnecessary and largely redundant. The tweet limit per text message is 140 characters maximum, which is about two sentences long. Most cell messages, and even cell conversations, in my experience, are short, owing in part to the sketchy nature of the transmissions, and the frequently awkward (noisy, public, untimely) conditions under which these conversations occur. Before public pay-telephones were obsoleted, they were originally housed in private booths, with doors, allowing the users complete privacy and conditions of quiet which enabled them to listen to the receiver, and to speak without broadcasting their words to anyone within earshot; as time went on, the doors came off, then the "walls" of the booth began to shrink. In their last incarnations, public phones began to look like hiway emergency phone boxes, with no aural containment(s) whatsoever.
Today, there's a new kind of rude public discourtesy abroad: Everyone seems to think nothing of conducting every kind of phone conversation and video exchange in public, in full voice and full view. We see sophisticated couples sit down in fine restaurants where the tab hovers well above $100, each partner engaged simultaneously in a separate cell-phone conversation. You will see children and teenagers in movie houses or restaurants fiddling with their text units, completely unaware of their surroundings or companions. People will go out in public, taking their computers along, in order that they can plug in to the Wi-Fi at a coffee-shop or juice bar--it's almost as if these people are taking their computers along as dates! And in what must be the most insulting and intrusive aspect of the new hand-held technologies, people are surreptitiously (or openly) photographing or video-taping strangers in public, without their permission.
There are at least three negative aspects to all these kinds of behaviors:
1) The imposition of private communication and disturbance. Cell phone conversations in public constitute an inappropriate invasion of public space by users. Not only do I not want to know what strangers are saying in private conversations, I don't even want to be forced to ignore what they're saying. I resent another person thinking that their cell messages, cell conversations, and hand-held exchanges are more important than their obligation to honor the reality of our company. It's a tacit declaration that what we're doing now, here, in the present, is of secondary importance and concern. It's a form of disrespect and selfishness which transcends tolerance, and should never be indulged in.
2) The trivialization of communication through brevity (abbreviation) and ephemerality. What could possibly be important enough to require the interruption of your work, your recreation, or your free time? Fully 98% of everything that is communicated through cell phones, texters and Facebook posts has literally no value, either to the sender or the recipient; it's comprised of pointless reports, remarks, wise-cracks, or simple "Hello's" with no more import than a wave across the street. Why would anyone believe that paying a service provider to engage in this kind of bland, petty, frivolous exchange is a worthwhile investment? If indeed people do this for no other reason than that it's the current fad, then its days may yet be numbered--for which, may we all pray. The formality of the public sphere of behavior and courtesy was intended to make the public life more enjoyable and mannered, but the breakdown of these formalities already has contributed to a general atmosphere of adolescent boorishness. Habituation to the use of highly abbreviated media almost certainly has the effect of lowering the general level of literacy and the ability to express coherent thought; and the habitual resort to the fewest possible "characters"--rather than cultivating concision--certainly discourages clear thought, worked-out and organized conceptual cognition. People who over-use abbreviation, as if it were a kind of preferred speech, will eventually turn into hybrid illiterates, who've lost the ability to talk about anything at length, or in depth. They will likely become so impatient with ordinary speech and reading, that they'll abandon most print matter just out of laziness and boredom.
3) The alienation from the presence of place and time through distraction from proximity. The notion that one must constantly be in touch with someone in another place, anyplace but right here and now, is a recipe for complete disorientation. "What's happening?" But the what's happening is almost never about where one is, what one is doing, who one is with, right now. Socialization achieved chiefly through electronic communication is a kind of bogus, ersatz socialization. One's physical presence, one's body, one's face, the sound of one's voice, the way you walk--these physical queues to one's identity are crucial existential factors in one's being in the world. For teenagers and children, especially, the idea of creating a fictitious identity on the internet, or through Facebook, is a dangerous temptation to certain kinds of schizophrenic alienation. Children are notoriously prone to it. Psychologists tell us that kids who habitually sit for extended periods of time at computers, playing games, twittering and chatting with mostly strangers online, will not only likely become overweight and lethargic and listless physically, but may also become mentally incapacitated in certain ways. Kids, and even adults, who live the balance of their meaningful lives through their electronic gadgetry, are living a shadow existence. They're connected, but they've lost touch with the reality of themselves in the physical world.
As members of the animal kingdom on earth, we're first and foremost physical beings. Our bodies have a physical dimension which precedes our mental space. The advanced human brain was a late development of the genetic descent of apes to humanoids. Physically--neurally, and through our skeletons and musculature--we are designed to move constantly through our environment. Our bodies aren't designed as passive interactive "units" which "participate" in a vast electronic matrix as docile cogs in the machine of energized bits of data. The more of our physical and mental spaces we cede to the fee-for-service webstream, the less we "live" our lives for ourselves.
The identities we acquire and live through within the matrix of data, are just tiny platforms of temporary utility. They give us nothing, and we leave nothing behind. Our blogs, our chat-posts, our mindless cell conversations--they obsolesce and vaporize within days, if not hours. We're living so fast and pointlessly, through the electronic waves, that we've de-valued and de-mystified ourselves as fully integrated, dignified presences.