Social Impact of Technology: Humans vs. the Machine

I’ve been an online school teacher at a public high school for the past five years, and I’ve seen first-hand the social impact of technology on the younger generation. Technology has the power to connect our world in ways that were not previously possible. It also has the potential to help equalize the playing field by giving access to information to an entire world. But, in the recent years, I’ve begun to see and experience some of the aspects of technology that disrupt our lives and bring us further from a global society.

1. Interpersonal Connections

I’ve recently been re-watching some Star Trek episodes (yes, I’m a nerd), and I’ve noticed how technology is used in the show. Despite the networked computer systems they have access to, the device is secondary to and supportive of human interaction. When crew members interact, they put down their pads and give their full attention to the interaction they are involved in. Yet I often find students and parents  fiddling with and even answering their phones while they are meeting with me.

I find it bizarre that people find it acceptable to text on their phones while we are having an intervention meeting on their behalf. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve fallen into the pattern of relying too much on my phone. I’ve had moments during a conversation where I said, “let me google that,” before realizing that pulling out my phone took away from the connection of the moment. I also rely on my phone as a planner, often putting reminders into it while having a conversation about what needs to get done. Is that use really any different than my students? Although my use of my phone is in support of the conversation, it still results in a shift of my attention. At what point does our constant connection to the internet begin to disrupt our interpersonal connections and eventually change the nature of society?

A recent info graphic from Assisted Living Today explains how social networking releases the same hormones we normally get from face-to-face interaction while also releasing addictive amounts of adrenaline by bombarding us with constantly changing material. This addictive combination could impact our ability to deal with stress, conflict, and social interaction. These are experiences that exists in society and the working world, and we need to be able to process them to become a global society.

I recently watched a video of Lori Deschene (founder of Tiny Buddha) speaking at the Wanderlust Festival. During the talk, she recalled a recent experience in the airport. She had purposefully set herself up to be in the airport without access to a distraction. Her initial reaction was a moment of panic, realizing she was going to be waiting in this line with nothing to do. I instantly connected with this experience. How many gadgets did I have to keep myself occupied while eating dinner alone or waiting for an appointment? And I understand precisely her moment of panic, the same as if when I got to a restaurant for dinner and realized I did not have my iPad to watch a TV show or read a book while I ate.

But when Lori moved through that distress into acceptance, she began to realize how disconnected everyone around her was. No one in that airport was connecting with each other. All these people on one place, and they had all found ways to distract themselves from the people around them. Sometimes, it’s important to have nothing to do. Sometimes, it’s important to be with yourself. And sometimes it’s important to be with those around you. Our difficulty with being present in the moment is dangerous sign of the social impact of technology.

2. Attention Span

Nicholas Carr wrote a popular article titles, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” When I first read his article, I felt an immediate connection. He was describing something that I had been feeling under the surface: the disappearance of my endurance. Carr describes his quickly fading attention span. Where he once could bury himself in a book, now his “concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages.” I felt his pain.

Earlier today, I found myself deeply intent on a book. I reveled in some of the first fiction I had read in months. All seemed good. And then a character shift came. I had been following the main character for several chapters, but now the story shifted to his brother. I was immediately affected by the change and found myself distracted, eventually putting the book down.

What had happened to me? This was not how I read before. When I picked up a story I could bury myself into, I would keep going, sometimes even at the expensive of things I needed to get done (partly why I’d left this reading until my vacation).There is value in multi-tasking. I make use of the ability to handle a wide variety of tasks at work—it makes me good at what I do—but it is equally important to have focus. In fact, the last week before my vacation, I struggled with a task at work because I could not seem to stay focused on the task at hand. Somewhere, I had lost my focus and I needed a way to re-cultivate it.

3. Self-Reliance

Technology also allows us to rely less and less on our own brain power. More and more I see students that can’t troubleshoot when something does not work as expected on their computer. And worse than that, they have no skills to assess what is wrong and thoroughly document it so that they can get the help they need. This lack of problem-solving skills is another indicator of the social impact of technology.

I can’t tell you how often I get an email or a call from a student saying simply “Aventa won’t let me do my classes.” From experience, I know a statement like that can mean anything from the student has forgotten their login to they don’t know how to open a class to they can’t figure out how to load their homework into the system. And when I question them further, the most often response to my questions is “I don’t know.”

Such indifference in resolving their own problems is an epidemic that could greatly impact our society. As more and more jobs are being outsourced, it is becoming more and more important to develop a workforce that can be self-reliant. The jobs that are available require skilled workers who can work independently and solve problems they encounter. Self-reliance on technology will deeply impact our future work force.

 

The question of the social impact of technology on our world is an important one. Clearly Gene Roddenberry’s vision was not for technology to replace our connections, but to build on them. So the question remains, can we reach Roddenberry’s dream or will technology lead to our eventual downfall? I have hope for our society, but what do you think?

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