In the beginning, people communicated face-to-face, or at least within earshot of each other. It was primitive but effective enough, and the social creature we call “human” evolved into the dominant species we are today.
Then came long-distance communication through messengers and the mail, followed by the invention of the telegraph to speed it all up. By the time the 20th century rolled around, we were talking with each other on telephones, grounded by electrical lines until wireless came along.
Old-timers today can remember when personal communication was limited to the original “face-time,” along with letters and phone calls. But with the invention of cellular technology and the World Wide Web, our world was turned upside down. Now we communicate through mobile phones, instant messaging, email and texting. Some sort of science-and-tech version of telepathy is probably next.
Here in the 21st century, we have more ways to communicate, gather and exchange information than ever before—and it’s taking a heavy toll on our time, our workload and our psyche, in addition to how we interact with people. Even our approach to learning and absorbing information has changed, from linear reading (start to finish) to non-linear reading (gathering information in bits and bites without ever absorbing anything in its entirety).
Certainly there are advantages to being able to instantly communicate and gather information with ease, but there are problems that come with it. Modern technology hasn’t simplified our lives, it’s made life far more complicated. We have to multitask more (which isn’t necessarily more productive, even if it feels that way), and it’s messing with our minds. It’s contributing to the increase in crazies out there.
The stresses of the modern world are directly tied to our electronic devices. It’s harder to escape from work, or from each other. Our lives are on a 24/7 pace.
Of course, there is a way out of all this chaos—disconnect yourself. It’s a great temporary stress reliever, but it also takes you out of the loop and it makes your workload even larger the next day. And if your family and friends don’t know you’re unplugged, they worry about you. Unplugging yourself is a Catch-22.
I write all this out of frustration with not being able to keep up, and I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. Nostalgically, I remember a time in which most of our personal interactions were limited to physical closeness; now they’re only limited by our proximity to a cell tower or Wi-Fi connection.
The world is smaller now, but so is our free time. We’re bound by endless sends-and-receives, in a world that never sleeps (which we do less of, too).
All this technology is dumbing us down. No longer do we need to memorize the times tables, we’ve got calculators for that. The same goes with spelling and spellcheck. We don’t even need to read books anymore; someone (or an algorithm) has already posted a CliffsNotes-style summary for us.
And while being able to instantly communicate with friends and family is a great convenience, it’s also watered down our interactions, giving us the ability to block, ignore or knee-jerk condemn others we have uncomfortable e-encounters with.
Hopefully, having the totality of the world’s knowledge at our fingertips gives us more time for creativity, but even that can be stifled by too much knowledge. I thought I’d invented the phrase “communication overload” for this column until I googled it and found not only a definition for it, but dozens of links to articles about it. Silly me. Today’s internet can humble one’s creative notions.
So what do we do about these unintended consequences? Live with it, I suppose, while finding ways to adjust to the demands on our time and attention. My personal solution is better time management and occasionally disconnecting myself from the e-world that envelops me.
Our brains are becoming immersed in an artificial world while our bodies are still living in a physical world of sights, sounds and face-to-face time with each other. We need to remember that, so when the Age of Singularity arrives, we’ll still know who we are.
Tom McDonald is editor of the New Mexico Community News Exchange and editor of the Roswell Daily Record. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.