Thursday, December 16, 2010

Coping with Technological Change

Novelist Orson Scott Card offers salve to the minds of those wringing their hands about the social changes brought about by the Internet and social networking media in this WSJ op-ed. In essence, Card suggests that people get over it. Society is morphing in this direction and nothing you do will stop this trend.

Card acknowledges that there are down sides to our modern (and continually shifting) social-technological conventions. For example, “Pornographers, pedophiles and other predators use their online invisibility to evade the negative consequences of their activities.” While this is surely a problem, it is hardly the only problem. The most frequent complaint I hear is people becoming disconnected from those around them.

I think, however, that Card has a point when he compares the Internet revolution with other socio-technological changes that we’ve learned to live with, such as the automobile. While we grapple with traffic problems and environmental impacts, few of us would care to, as Card puts it, “give up cars, trains and planes to return to the hay-eating, vet-needing, poop-generating, one-horsepower horse.”

As far as people becoming disconnected, Card asserts that people are actually connected in different ways that do not necessarily require close proximity. He says that we “sort ourselves into interest groups and communities that have no relation to geography.” Indeed, some observers claim that our society is more socially connected than at any time in history.

Maybe. But there are also those that claim that the quality of these social interactions is wanting; that our social networking gives us unprecedented width in our relationships while providing equally unprecedented shallowness. Unlike physically helping a neighbor in need, a tweet-if-you-care exercise conveys little more than a good feeling. There is no real sacrifice required or substance behind it.

In several of his works, C.S. Lewis decried those that regarded themselves as being caring and loving for adopting a level of concern for distant people and groups with which they had little real contact. Many of these people, said Lewis, treat their closest neighbors with disdain. This allows them to feel good about having largely imaginary love for people they can only imagine while harboring real hate for the fellowmen that surround them.

This is not strictly an either-or proposition. The point is that we can, through our social networking, come to feel as if we care deeply for those we know only as acquaintances, while allowing our closer and more important relationships to suffer. There is no shortage of examples of this in our modern world.

In the last LDS general conference, Elder M. Russell Ballard disapprovingly said, “Not long ago a bishop told me two of his youth were standing side by side texting one another rather than talking to each other.”

It almost seems as if Card (a Mormon) is replying to Elder Ballard when he says that “it makes perfect sense for teenagers to text each other even when they're at the same party, or sitting on the same couch. For one thing, nobody can overhear them. And texting gives them time to frame their words more carefully, even if they're using shorthand their parents don't understand, like "imo" (in my opinion) or "aaf" (always and forever).”

Still, it is wise for parents to be aware of their children’s media choices so that these can be steered in a healthy direction. As a parent, I find this extremely challenging. It used to be that the only TV in the house was in a common room so that it was difficult for family members to privately view unwholesome material. Youth might escape to their rooms or to the car to listen to music their parents didn’t like, but it was difficult to keep that completely private.

Nowadays, media choices are increasingly individualized. We don’t watch a lot of TV at our house. But we do have a lot of computer, cell phone, and personal media device usage going on. I’ve got Internet filters on all of our computers, but it is still quite easy to access objectionable content. All of our computers are in public areas of the home, but family members often sit at these with headphones on. It is not possible to always monitor what is happening on the computers. And monitoring cell phone activity is even more difficult.

No matter what you or I do, technology will march forward and social trends will adapt. We are as unlikely to be successful in staying aloof from these changes as those that tried to remain behind the transportation revolution. Some will romantically flirt with “living simply,” but not that many are interested in actually living like the Amish. I note that cell phones are a common item at mountain man rendezvous re-enactments.

The answer for most is to learn to use evolving technologies in a healthy manner. This is not really a new thing. People have been coping with technological change since the dawn of history. The pace of such change seems increasingly rapid. But humans are very adaptable creatures.

I have full confidence that societies will successfully absorb even relatively radical technological changes. But individuals will adopt these changes at different rates. Me included. I’m still not on Facebook.

No comments: