December 27, 2012

We Know What Digital Communication Has Given Us. What Has it Taken Away?


It’s almost 2013, and the Web is inevitably loaded with articles about the way technology will improve our lives in the coming year or years. Up-and-coming technologies and events are, of course, important to learn about and look forward to. But the end of the year is also a good time to look back and examine what we’ve lost with technology. Following are a few highlights.

E-readers have changed the way we read books. The percentage of Americans now using e-readers is on the rise, and those using the devices are reading more books. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, by February of this year, 21 percent of Americans had read an e-book, and owners of e-readers read an average of eight books a year more than people without the devices. This number is likely to rise sharply in 2013.

What this means is that nearly a quarter of us seldom touch paper books anymore.

What this also means is that people like yours truly, forced to read a paper book during a long power outage several months ago, actually find ourselves doing stupid things like touching an unfamiliar word on paper and expecting its definition to pop up.

Personal, written communications are becoming relics of the past. Admit it: you’ve sent Christmas or birthday greetings via e-mail or text. While it’s cheaper and easier than sitting down with a pile of pretty cards and hand-writing greetings, then addressing and mailing them, placing a bunch of printed e-mails on your front hall table doesn’t quite have the same festive feeling – and reading a birthday greeting followed by the language “this e-mail has been checked to conform with Acme Corporation’s corporate e-mail policy” doesn’t have quite the same charm.

Digital communication and entertainment is changing our attention spans. The kinds of people who have the ability to read and assimilate a long newspaper or news magazine article are becoming rare. Thanks to the way most digital media is configured, we can jump from piece to piece and link to link with the same rapidity we surf television channels, absorbing only the information we want in tiny snippets and discarding the rest.

We’re appalled when confronted by the prospect of reading an entire textbook or handbook. Where are the highlights? Where are the bulleted lists? Where’s the two-minute video analysis? What do you mean the article is eight pages long?

The proliferation of digital news and analysis is making us more partisan. Once upon a time, we had to absorb a great deal of information before we harvested the information that was relevant to us. Think about it: only a few decades ago, we all got our news from evening television broadcasts or the newspaper. We all watched the same broadcasts (you had perhaps four choices) and read the same papers, so we were forced to read and absorb facts that we perhaps didn’t like, or information that wasn’t necessarily relevant to us.

This enabled us to gain a meaningful understanding the wider world around us, and it meant we gained a meaningful understanding of “the other side’s” point of view. Today, we can tailor our media outlets to our prejudices, read and hear only the opinions we like, and easily reject any information we don’t want to be exposed to. We can also look for news 24 hours per day, instead of during a one-hour period in the evening, which has led to news organizations to manufacture “news” to fill in the other 23 hours per day. (Do you really need to take up space in your brain regarding Lindsay Lohan’s latest bust, or what Grumpy Cat ate for lunch today?)

Our handwriting has gotten worse. When’s the last time you wrote more than a few words or sentences with a pen? If you’re like me, the only time you pick up a pen is to sign a check (itself becoming a rare event) or to scrawl a few items on a shopping list.

I once prided myself on my excellent handwriting: today, to say my handwriting looks like chicken scratch is an insult to chicken scratch. Pens actually feel alien in my hand.

We’re having trouble making eye contact with one another. Let’s face it: what we do today via digital media is less like real communication and more like exchanging pertinent information. It’s possible to maintain a professional or even personal relationship with someone without ever really interacting with that person. While we have embraced social media as a way of maintaining relationships we don’t have offline time for, exchanging recent photos of the kids isn’t really a replacement for a warm, intimate personal friendship.

That actually requires looking at one another, and listening to one another.

We have less tact and fewer social skills in arguing. Once upon a time, we did most of our arguing and discourse about controversial topics in person, which required skill in not alienating your discussion partner even if you disagreed with him or her. Now that most of us do our political or social issue on online message boards, most of which don’t even require us to use our real name, tact and discourse skill have fled the premises.

It’s easy to call your opponent a moron when he or she doesn’t know who you are, and about 70 percent of discussion on message boards winds up evolving into pointless ad-hominem attacks, broken only by the occasional trolling individual (another unfortunate by-product of online communications).

It has led to a rise in bullying, particularly among the young. Thirty years ago, a kid wanting to call another kid “four eyes” on the playground had to have the spine to do it in person, which put him or her at risk of getting caught and required the bully to see the fallout of their actions: hurt feelings, tears, anger and on-the-spot retaliation.

Today, the media through which bullying occurs is so far separated from the real, human relationship that it’s almost an abstract cruelty. People are able to vent their anger and antagonism toward another human being in a way that is completely removed from reality. Facebook page hacking, bullying via text and starting online rumors seem more like an abstract activity or cathartic hobby rather than what it is: hurting or even destroying another living, breathing human being.

While technology may be allowing us to cope with a fast-paced world more easily, and while it may be improving our lives in many areas, it hasn’t all been good. This holiday season, take the time to sit down with a friend or family member and have a real conversation. Read a newspaper in its entirety. Try having a civil discussion with someone on the opposite side of your political beliefs.

And remember: communicating to someone that you like them should require a bit more effort than clicking a “like” button.




Edited by Braden Becker



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