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Is Life Really Better With Technology?

Can you remember back before cell phones and beepers, before laptops and ipods, before satellite radio and high-speed cable? Think of those simpler days when people actually spoke to each other. The days when a ...

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Can you remember back before cell phones and beepers, before laptops and ipods, before satellite radio and high-speed cable? Think of those simpler days when people actually spoke to each other. The days when a real person answered your call and responded to your concerns.

Those days, although they seem like ancient history, are not so far removed. Our technology has changed rapidly in the last dozen years. So too, has the way we communicate and interact with each other.

The new technology has opened a vast highway of information and opportunity for the seeker. But it has also raised new challenges and countless ethical dilemmas.

This new technology has reduced human contact to almost zero. Everything is automated, from pumping gas to checking out groceries at the supermarket to shopping on Ebay or Amazon, where everything is about pressing the right button and engaging in the right function. Even if you make a mistake in any of these areas, your initial contact is with a machine, not a human being.

The next time you are on a train or walking on a college campus, take note of how many people are fashioning headsets these days. Even though many high schools have banned headsets and ipods, many students still manage to shut the real world out and listen to their music.

Is life really better with all this technology? Or is it more chaotic and dehumanizing? As this spring semester came to a close, I raised that question in one of my sociology classes. My student responses ran the gamut.

All agreed that the information superhighway was helpful, although misused by many. Most students agreed that the new technology stimulated their capacity for thinking and reasoning.

Half of my students believe that the new technology has further encouraged social isolation. The human touch is definitely missing. A large number of students noted that they felt most people didn't care.

They indicated that the present generation was desensitized to feelings and emotions and was much more focused on self-serving issues rather than the needs of the larger community.

These same college coeds also expressed a deep desire for intimacy, friendship and a life companion. However, they admitted that their skills in this area were seriously impaired or non-existent.

We grappled with the question "why?" Many felt it was the growing isolation that young people feel. They noted that some of the traditional connecting opportunities were no longer present. For example, the family meal or family time.

Many family traditions have been lost or compromised. In many households, conversation has been reduced to emails, text messages, voice mails or instant messages. The art of conversation is dying, if it is not already dead. If it is to survive or be revived, it needs to be practiced.

What occasions do we offer ourselves to practice the art of conversation? In these days and times, we rarely have to speak to humans because of the new technology.

In this regard, what price are you paying concerning your relationships? For the most part, the decay is subtle and unconscious.

Seriously think about how many times in a given day you make a phone call and actually speak to a human being. Just a few years ago, it was rare that you got a machine (at least during the working day). Now the opposite is true. It is rare that you speak to a person on your first call.

It is funny, life was really okay without cell phones and instant messaging. We managed daily events pretty effectively and efficiently. People read more and valued speaking to each other.

Email technology does seem to expedite communication, but is it handicapping our writing skills? On a good day, even fairly bright students have very poor grammar skills. Many reading this column would know a declarative from interrogative sentence or the difference between an adverb and an adjective. Clearly, the email venue does not encourage good writing skills. It does have promise to become more of a tool for effective writing development.

It is troubling that when two students have a verbal conflict, they lack the communication to effectively resolve that conflict. Instead, their poor skills only fuel the fire.

Recently, Mrs. K came to see me about her seventeen-year-old son who is a senior in high school. He is on the verge of not graduating from school.

TJ is obsessed with his desktop computer. Ask him a question about computer technology and you can be sure he will score in the upper 97% percentile. However, he is failing senior English and American History.

His mother complains that all TJ does is listen to music on his ipod all day long. He is an "ipod cabbage" potential. He has a brilliant mind that is turning into silly putty. He does nothing in school, but take up space.

When TJ is not listening to music, he sits for hours into the early morning in front of a computer screen surfing the net. He is seeking nothing that might be of help with school.

All throughout elementary and junior high school, TJ was very popular. In senior year, his world shifted. Prior to senior year, he was a social butterfly. Throughout senior year, he became a social recluse. He rarely interacted with his peers, with the exception of a few friends who are identical to him.

It is frightening. It almost seems like TJ's human development has been severely impaired. At best, his communication skills are weak. He possesses no problem solving skills and seems almost content to live in isolation.

If he is not listening to his ipod, he is playing video games. That seems to be his life.

How does one battle those influences and try to find the proper balance between technology and humanity?

The burden of finding that balance falls on us as parents. We need to set limits and parameters that we hold our children to and that we are willing to live by.

No matter how busy our life is, no matter how noble the cause or activity, if your family is important, then your family needs to connect and needs to communicate. That must be a priority.

A family should try to share a meal at least a few times a week, where everyone sits together at a table, the television is off and the cell phones are silenced. Even if it is only for twenty minutes, that kind of human connecting is imperative for everyone's growth and survival.

As adults, we need to model what is important for our children and lead by example. They need to see firsthand that no matter how great technology is, it should never replace human touch and communicating.

It is not about perfection, but rather human progress.