It is not that I am a hopelessly garrulous yakker by nature. Quite the opposite. I’m a bit of an introvert–a lover of reading and personal cogitation. But I’m finding my recent business travel an increasingly isolating experience. Too much so.
I used to have the jolliest of chats with total strangers on planes, trains, and boats. It broadened me, it amused me, it opened me to the new. Of late, not so much. Less and less do I find these unexpected illuminating contacts with folks different from myself–whether it be a country barber, a beauty queen, or another business owner.
Why is this? I’ll tell you why. It’s bloody technology, goddammit.
I’m afraid technology is turning us into dull-eyed, unpresent I-Zombies. We are losing the gift for connection to our fellow human beings, as well as stunting our brain processes that summon nonrational revelations and “aha”s.
This was brought home to me earlier this year when I was in Dallas on business and found myself a bit lost and late to my next appointment. I was walking through the downtown arts plaza and I looked for some friendly, authoritative face to approach for aid. But as I looked around I found every person I saw shuffling along fully immersed in their personal private technology Idahos, oblivious to any person or thing around them.
I didn’t want to rudely interrupt, but I was annoyed because I needed some directions! This made me think about how much present richness and human feeling we sacrifice for an ersatz virtual reality. (I increasingly feel the same way walking down Broadway in New York when half the folks bump into you while texting, rather than taking in the infinitely unique international culture and urban magnificence constantly on display in my never-boring city.)
Note Douglas Rushkoff‘s book Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now. (The title is a riff on Alvin Toffler‘s Future Shock from the ’70s.) We’re becoming addicted to what Rushkoff calls a “dopamine squirt,” the ego boost we get from Twitter, Facebook, emails, and texts. This leads to a compulsive immersion in the superficiality of keeping current and cool on social media. According to Rushkoff, this is stress-inducing and, more importantly, creativity-killing. I certainly agree that we are becoming committed to a sort of always-on, live-streamed reality show which is taking us into creatively shallow, spiritually thin cultural waters.
Or consider Nicholas Carr‘s book The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains, which posits the rewiring of our brains by way of technology and social media. (Carr first became alarmed when he found himself increasingly unable to concentrate when he sat down to read a book, because of his longing for and growing addiction to the peripatetic excitement of his pinging computer.) Carr writes: “Any kind of thought process that requires focus on one thing is what is being disrupted, and, unfortunately, another thing brain science tells us is that the process of paying attention, paying deep attention, activates a lot of our deepest thought processes. Our long-term memory, the building of conceptual knowledge, critical thinking, all of those things hinge on our ability to pay attention.”
In other words, our “eureka” moments may be being sacrificed for a mess of pottage–that mess of pottage being our present experience of superficial sledding on an omnipresent sea of technological connectedness.
So I miss my now-infrequent accidental connects with my fellow man when I travel. (Not to mention the fact I’ve gotten two major pieces of business through these chance encounters over the years.)
Jaron Lanier, computer scientist and classical musician, who originally popularized the term “virtual reality,” wrote a book in 2010 called You Are Not A Gadget, in which he offered this prescient warning:
“Information is alienated experience. Stored Information might cause experience to be revealed if it is prodded in the right way. A file on a hard disk does indeed contain information of the kind that objectively exists….But if the bits can potentially mean something to someone, they can only do so if they are experienced. When that happens a commonality of culture is enacted between the storer and the retriever of the bits. Experience is the only process that can de-alienate information.”
I don’t think I can sum things up much better than that. So, the next time you travel, try keeping some of your time away from the allures of your iPad and iPhone. There might be some lost soul out there looking for directions. Like me.