I was talking on the phone with a friend I hadn't seen in a few years—we were both in an MFA program. She is teaching basic comp at a college up on the Olympic Peninsula and I am teaching college and high school classes. Somehow it came out that I am on Facebook. She commented that several of her students had written papers about the damage caused by over-reliance on technology.
That was interesting to me because technology is a hot topic at my school, too. I must have read four or five of those papers this fall. One student argued that technology was a huge boon to education, but most of the essays saw danger: wasted time, distraction, shrinking attention spans, reduced productivity.
In fact, last year I had a student in one of my college classes who literally could not stay off her phone. She checked and checked and checked her phone. She only rarely initiated messages, but she had to check to see if any had been sent to her, and she did this every three minutes. Phantom ring? Oh, yeah. While most schools have accepted that technology and its use is essential to education, the many costs beyond money are too often ignored in the rush to be modern. Technology is rewiring our brains, and it isn't only English teachers who are worried about it.
One student expressed amazement at the beauty of letters written in the last century: "No one write letters like that!" She meant compared to texting.
It's been more than five years since Nicholas Carr published his essay, "Is Google Making Use Stupid?" in The Atlantic. Some of the conditions he described are exponentially worse. Many of my students spend hours a day on their cells. Indeed, most people I know are always "on." The average teen spends 7 1/2 hours a day with media, more time with television, cells, and computers than they do interacting with live people.
I would have thought it was someone's idea of a joke if I hadn't watched it happen. Dinners out with people who check their phone between bites. Professional meetings where even those in charge can't stay off their phones. Entire conversations where the person I am talking to never actually looks at me because they are too busy looking at their iPhone. A common concern is that technology is interfering with relationships.
That's one reason Richard Renaldi's incredible project photographing strangers seems impressive. Using a somewhat older technology, professional photographer Renaldi walks up to complete strangers on the street (in New York City) and asks them to pose together as family, lovers, intimate friends. That's his work above and below. Touching Strangers. [The book comes out spring 2014, and I have, of course, preordered it.]
Yes, it's true, none of these people knew one another until moments before they were photographed. Renaldi posed them, placed their hands and heads. He tells them to imagine their relationship. And despite their initial discomfort, an odd thing happens when people spend even a few moments in close proximally: sometimes they begin feeling what they had been merely faking.
Like so many other aspects of human animal, acting as if we care can lead to actual feeling. Smile long enough and people tend to feel happier; erase frown lines with Botox, and the sad feeling that made them fades away too. Weird isn't it?
Focus entirely on mechanical devices rather than live humans? What might that do to humanity? (Hasn't everyone seen Wall-E?)
Technology robs us of more than time. It may even rob us of our deepest feelings. As we interact with a screen and type in code to people a world or a hallway away, we lose touch with… touching.
When we slow down and notice others long enough to find and use the words that express emotion, that emotion becomes real. What a text message expresses is an instant's whim. It's harder to compose a letter, but the effort pays off by forcing us to notice the ones we care about in more than a superficial manner.
That makes me wonder what is happening to our emotions when we prize an electronic device over the people sitting or standing beside us?
You don't have to write a letter. (Though you might be touched listening to Sullivan Ballou's letter from the Civil War.) Just take the time to connect to the people around you. Next time you get the chance, look at someone. Look closely and think about what they have given you—the gifts of time, attention, skill, example… but you will have to look at them. And you shouldn't have to fake your feelings, not even for a moment.
"Only connect."—E.M. Forster, Howard's End
There's a wonderful video on YouTube that shows an email correspondence in progress from each side, and how the couple edits their way right out of communication.