Technological Trade-Off

According to Neil Postman, technological change is a trade-off.  Though he does acknowledge that when a new technology is admitted to a culture, the culture needs to have its eyes wide open, Postman doesn’t give any advice on how to do so. Understanding the history of how US culture became a “technopoly” may provide insight, but there are no hard-and-fast rules for weighing the advantages and disadvantages of any given technology in advance.

I agree with Postman’s assessment, and the importance of understanding the culmination of technopoly, but I am frustrated by my lack of power to do anything about it. There are always groups who “opt out” of a given technology, but there is the fear of cultural irrelevance. There are also people who strive to understand technology, as if to conquer its mysteries and gain power over it; these are the people who seem most enslaved.

At this point in my life, I believe I am somewhere in the middle: I use some technology in order to simplify and streamline my life, but I don’t search out technology to help with every issue I face. I’m not constantly attached to my computer or cell phone, but I’m never too far from them, either. Perhaps it would be beneficial to consider how my own life might be shaped to fit the requirements of technology.

–          I have three different types of cell phone chargers, and I’ve had to buy a bigger purse to accommodate both my phone and the chargers.

–          My husband and I have an “emergency rule.” In an emergency, if you call the other person and he/she does not answer, don’t leave a message, but immediately call back a second time. We have both broken this rule so many times for trivial matters that the whole construct of a quick second phone call has been rendered useless. If there was a true emergency, I would need to text, IM, email, and call my husband to convey true alarm.

–          I no longer wear a watch (and I rarely see anyone who does!). My cell provides the most accurate time.

–          I don’t go to the library to peruse for books. Instead, I either email, text, or IM friends and ask for book recommendations or I go online and do some research before I go. (I do not own an e-book reader – all my books have pages!)

–          However, I have not used a single hard copy book from GVSU’s library as a source for my graduate papers. I have found everything I need online, including some books, which were available on google scholar.

–          I text and email more than I talk on the phone.

The list could go on, but the last point really has me thinking. I am an extrovert, a talker, a people-lover — so I have surprised even myself by how often I text, IM, or email instead of pick up the phone. (Of course I am aware that the telephone is also a technological substitution for face-to-face communication, but that piece of technology has always been a part of my life.) Why? Is there something gratifying in being able to send off a thought, and place the responsibility on someone else? Am I afraid of being stuck on the phone too long? What will I miss? (Someone else’s text message, probably!) Have I begun to prefer writing over talking?

Perhaps I should consider the trade-offs. Theoretically, spending less time on the phone affords me more time to do other things. In reality, I probably spend just as much time texting, IMing, or emailing – though I am communicating shorter pieces of information to more people, and more often.  But spending less time talking on the phone reduces the possibility of serendipity, deep conversations, perhaps important questions. Furthermore, the technological limitations of texting and IMing mean that my communication is short, my grammar and spelling not always correct, and my meaning mostly superficial. And yet I believe that short, but frequent text-based communication can strengthen a relationship. A few years ago, my husband and I would try to connect every day via telephone over our lunch hour. Now, we text and IM briefly throughout the day. It helps us feel connected, and provides us with a way to say “Hey. I’m here for you” or “I love you” or “You will do great in your meeting.” Nuanced? Not hardly, but this kind of communication has made our marriage stronger.

In this case, for right now, the positive impact outweighs the negative. If that changes, I hope I have enough perspective to be able to change my behavior —  and the strength to unplug.

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2 Responses to Technological Trade-Off

  1. sethrg says:

    One thing I think is lost in the SMS culture is inflection. It is very hard to convey inflection in short bursts. I think this has a flattening effect on communication, a de-layering. Consider the acronym LOL: How many different ways are there to laugh? LOL can be interpreted differently depending on the context but is still so limited. I’m not anti-SMS, but sometimes it seems like it is reducing human communication to a series of grunts and snorts.

  2. shanadair1 says:

    I agree that text-based communication will always be, as you say, “flatter” than face-to-face or even telephone communication. Perhaps one key to successful SMS, IM, email (or even hand-written letter) communication is having — and knowing — a context with the person you communicate with. (And sometimes a “grunt” or “snort” is better than no communication at all.)

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