- - Sunday, January 3, 2016

Let me start off by saying that I’m fully aware of the fact that this article may come across as slightly contradictory. I understand that this article, and its subject matter, are being distributed to you in the very way and by the very mechanisms it expresses discontent with. This is not lost on me.

Now that that’s out of the way, I’m going to follow up with a firm “Read this anyways,” because I wholeheartedly believe that what I’m about to discuss is important, and I think you should think so too. Not only is it important for us, now, living in this age of innovation and progress, as we do, but it is important as we look ahead, to our futures and the futures of those who come after us. I’d ask you to put away your phones and pay attention, but there is a good chance you’re reading this on your phone, and alas, the irony continues.

Ten points to Hufflepuff/Gryffindor/Slytherin/Ravenclaw for those who caught on that I’m talking about technology. And for those of you rolling your eyes at this point, first, don’t mock the Harry Potter reference, and second, bear with me for a few minutes.

Technology has indeed helped modern life in many ways. From aiding scientific advancement to expanding the scope of global connectivity, technology has not just fostered a shift in the way humans communicate, but in the need and desire for that communication as well. We are social creatures. We want to socialize. And technology allows us to do that in ways that we haven’t been able to before. The proliferation of mobile phones and social media has given individuals the means to communicate and interact on a global scale, through various outlets, instantaneously, and with just a few keystrokes or taps on a screen. This ever-evolving and ever-expanding domain has permeated all aspects of day-to-day life in such a way that does, in fact, make its existence indispensable for modern life. We can shop, educate, advertise, entertain and socialize from the comfort of our own homes. It truly is a magnificent thing, and I mean that sincerely. But what have we forfeited?

It could be argued, meaning that I am going to argue, that while technology has opened a door to a whole new world of communicative capabilities, it has also slowly been shutting the door on fundamentally basic and necessary human interaction. Real, in-person interaction. You know, the kind where you can see and hear and smell and touch the person you’re engaging with. I’m leaving off taste because that’s really a more nuanced kind of interaction, and may not necessarily apply to person-to-person engagement in a general sense. But to each his own, this is a judgment free zone. That was not an intentional rhyme. Back to my point. As much as technology and the Internet and all of these great things have helped us, as much as they have seemed to connect us to the world outside our doors, I’ve come to notice that, little by little, they are actually beginning to disconnect us from that same world.

Think about it. We’ve all been there. We send a text instead of calling someone and hearing an actual human voice. We send an email instead of approaching a co-worker or colleague in person, depriving them of the chance to get to know us or us a chance to get to know them. We sit in the same room as a friend or significant other or family member, and instead of engaging in conversation, we stare at our phones or tablets, trying to keep up with on the goings on in our digital spheres. I’ve done it. You’ve done it. The girl standing behind you on the Metro has done it. And in and of itself, it might not seem like the worst thing. This kind of communication is faster. It’s more convenient. But what I’m wondering here is if faster, more convenient communication really is better. Is it really worth what we’re giving up?

By the time you read this article, I will be 26 years old. And how old that makes me feel is a conversation for another day, but I also recognize that objectively speaking, I’m not that old at all. In fact, at 26, I am straddling a very specific line in the grand scheme of societal developments. I am old enough to remember what it was like when people actually engaged with one another in offline settings, but young enough to have been seamlessly immersed into the digital age. I remember what it was like when value was placed on social interactions that took place in the real world, but also navigate the various channels of virtual reality with my eyes closed. Literally. I don’t even have to look at the keyboard when I type. Maybe this is why I am constantly conflicted about society’s “new normal.” In fact, I’m pretty sure this is a large part of it. Because at 26, I can appreciate what the Internet has done for us as a society. I can, and I do. But I also remember what it’s like to play outside with other kids, or to make a phone call to share exciting news, and the feelings and skills and experiences associated with those kinds of interactions. And I’ve come to believe that you will never be able to fully replicate the kind of interaction that takes place when you sit down across from someone who is physically in the same room as you and have a conversation. Or watch a movie. Or eat a meal.

The kinds of verbal and nonverbal cues and behaviors that take place in those situations are immeasurable in value and necessity. I know I’m not the only one who has engaged in a conversation via text where something has gotten lost in translation. Or where my sarcastic wit and undeniable charm has not, shockingly, come across. Or where I have been totally calm, I swear, but someone has thought I was … not. This brings to mind the “Text Message Confusion” skit from the comedy show “Key & Peele,” which if you haven’t seen, you should definitely watch as it’s great, but I digress. There is a reason an argument over text messages usually leads to the need for some kind of phone call or in-person clarification. Or why employers still bring you in for an interview, instead of just conducting the whole thing through a back-and-forth over email.

In-person interaction matters. It’s important. It teaches us how to interact with different people, in different settings and in different contexts. It teaches us how to express ourselves in ways that get our points heard and more importantly, understood. It teaches us how to engage in social and professional settings. And it can’t be achieved in the same way from behind a screen. Want proof? Read the 2014 study, “The iPhone Effect: The Quality of In-Person Social Interactions in the Presence of Mobile Devices.” I’ll wait if you need me to. For those who need a brief breakdown, here’s a quote from the abstract: “It was found that conversations in the absence of mobile communication technologies were rated as significantly superior compared with those in the presence of a mobile device … People who had conversations in the absence of mobile devices reported higher levels of empathetic concern.” Allow me to paraphrase — conversations were “significantly superior,” and had “higher levels of empathetic concern” when no technology was present. That’s a big deal, people. And it’s a big deal to think that, with the way we’re going, there’s a solid chance that our kids will be proficient in engaging with digitized individuals, but not real ones.

So here is me rounding back to the question of whether or not this kind of technological ubiquity is worth it. Is it worth losing the ability to interact competently in an offline setting, as various studies have argued is inevitable given our current course? Is it worth forsaking quality of interaction? Is it worth letting go of the human part of human interaction? You might say it is. And you’re entitled to that opinion. Just as I’m entitled to mine, which is in opposition of yours. Both of which I’d be happy to discuss with you, over a cup of tea or coffee, in person. Any takers? No? Maybe then you try it with yourself. Be in person with yourself. Turn off your phone and talk to someone for an hour — in a non-work related setting. In 2016 challenge yourself. Remember what it’s like to have someone hear you. And let someone else remember what it’s like to be heard. Basic human engagement. Feel that again. Because if we continue on the path we’re on, where technology and convenience take priority and humans come second, we may very well forget what it means to be human.

Natalie Bahmanyar has a Master’s degree in media and communications. She is currently an associate writer at a specialized news content agency in Bethesda.

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