Communications Technology – The Path to Devolution?

One of the key elements in human society and human relations is the capacity for communication on a person-to-person basis.  People who have trouble reading emotions and responding appropriately to them – whether through a genetic factor, such as Asperger’s Syndrome or autism, or brain injuries – are severely disadvantaged. Humans are a social society. In interacting with others, we learn to read people’s body expressions, their tone of voice, the minute expressions in their eyes, and scores of other subtle signals.  These skills are increasingly more vital in a complex society because, frankly, the majority of people don’t understand the technology and the institutions.  What most people are left with is their ability to read other people. In addition, one of the factors that reduces hatred and conflict is empathy with others, and that’s generated through face-to-face experiences. Electronic technologies, particularly cellphones and hand-held texting devices, are expanding to the point where they’re largely replacing face-to face and even aural communications.  Texting, in particular, removes all personal interaction from communications, leaving only a written shorthand.

High school and college students walk around with earbuds all the time, ignoring those around them, often fatally, as when they walk in front of light-rail, cars, and buses.  But that’s not the only danger.  The excessive volume used in such devices, perhaps boosted to isolate them from others, has resulted in permanent hearing loss in roughly 20 percent of the teenaged population of the United States.  In addition, the self-selecting effect of electronic communications removes or limits the interactions with others who are different – at a time when in the United States in particular, cultural homogeneity is disappearing in a multicultural society.  Perhaps some of the impetus for electronic isolation or segregation is a reaction to that trend, because a less homogenous society represents unpleasant change for some… but ignoring it through the filter of self-selecting electronic social networking does nothing to address a growing cultural and communications gap.

The vast majority of users of Facebook and MySpace and other social networking sites reveal all sorts of personal information that can prove incredibly helpful to identity thieves, information that most people would balk at telling to casual acquaintances – yet they post it on networks for other users – and hackers across the world – to see and use.

Likewise, for all the rhetoric about multi-tasking, study after study has shown that multi-taskers are less efficient than “serial-taskers” and that, in many cases, such as texting while driving or operating machinery, multi-tasking can prove fatal.  Equally important, but more overlooked, is the fact that electronic multi-tasking erodes the ability to concentrate and to undertake and complete tasks that require sustained continuous effort and concentration.  In essence, it can effectively create attention-deficit-disorder.

Add to that the fact that even email is becoming a drag on productivity because all too many supervisors use it to demand more and more reports – and those reports only detract from more productive efforts.

So again… why do we as a society tout and rush to buy and gleefully employ electronic equipment that is ruining our hearing, reducing our abilities in assessing others and thus handicapping us in making good decisions while amplifying negative traits such as negative stereotyping, seducing us into often dangerous patterns of behavior, increasing the chances for costly identity-theft, and reducing the productivity of millions of Americans? Or, put another way, why are we as a society actively promoting and advocating technology that will effectively replicate the effects of such handicaps as Asperger’s Syndrome or attention-deficit disorder?

If the Islamic terrorists released a virus that accomplished these ends, we’d consider it an act of war… but we seem to be doing it all on our own, and, at the same time, denouncing anyone who suggests that all this personal and social-networking high-tech communications isn’t in our best interests as a technophobe or a“dinosaur”… or “not with the times.”

But then, thoughtful consideration seems to be one of the first casualties of extreme technophilia.

6 thoughts on “Communications Technology – The Path to Devolution?”

  1. Ryan Jackson says:

    While I’m sure every reason you’ve listed is relevent I’d put forward one additional point. Laziness.

    A lot of the above behaviors crop from a desire to avoid effort one way or another, at least in those I’ve observed. Texting and communicating via written word avoids all need for emotional concern, for eye contact, for inflection. By reducing it all to just the core factual words, you get to not worry about any of the tripwires and pitfalls that can come with normal communication. When someone takes offense you get to retroactively tell them what emotion you “really meant”.

    Headphones do the same, they allow you to justifiably ignore other people because you didn’t hear them. I’m guilty of that one from time to time. If I have a project coming to a deadline at work I put in my headphones (Without deafening volume) and turn my desk so my back is to the door. Anyone trying to make casual contact I don’t hear, and anyone who has something that truly needs my attention can still just tap me on the shoulder.

    Laziness even fits into the pattern of why we rely on the tech as it comes out. As I believe you’ve said yourself, there’s nothing all that bad about the tech existing or being available. But when we as a society or as an individual let it become a crutch and replace normal mental or social skills it becomes a problem.

    And since this is my first post I’ll also take a second to thank you for your work. I’ve been deeply appreciative to have an author in the fantasy/sci-fi world who doesn’t write black and white morality as their source of conflict.

  2. hob says:

    A lot of problems are associated with alcohol consumption but I don’t think Mr Modesitt would recommend banning it. Moderation and self control are individual responsibilities. The heart of the issue is when known health or social/economic problems arise from personal activities, some highlighted above, and everybody else in society has to foot the medical/recovery/living costs.
    Should people who get injured or have medical conditions or work/employment problems through no fault of their own be covered by society. Yes, absolutely. It would fall under the same premise as water, food, shelter and education infrastructures which make the US one the best places on earth to live healthy, productive lives.
    Should the same system work for people who have been warned of the dangers of certain actions and do them anyway. I would say no. A society is not a parent. It does not have to love you, despite the reverse concept used by most defense forces. A society is a tool, and like any tool it has to be maintained and looked after for it to perform its function. A lot of modern business practices seem to be making that function harder and harder.
    US economic models should be given priority over short term economic gains. The problems applying such obvious restrictions is that social power/hierarchy in the US is based on wealth accumulation.

    Hording water in a chess game isn’t going to grow the wheat.

  3. Derek says:

    I don’t believe banning certain technology would be appropriate or even have an effect (beyond protests and riots), but I’m pretty sure Mr. Modesitt wasn’t advocating that. I’m pretty sure it is a rhetorical question to society about why we’re moving down this road when the warning signs are all around us.

    I agree, society isn’t a parent, but I believe institutions, like schools and universities, financed by society ought to use some common sense. I’d hope that we’d ban all a majority of electronics, namely cell phones, iPods, and similar ‘convenient’ devices, when at a government funded institution. Students, whether they think so or not, are still in their developmental stages of life. If we’re not giving them an academic environment where they can fully develop their social and reasoning abilities than we’re doing them a disservice.

    I don’t think I worded this quite how I’d like but I’d still advocate restrictions on certain technology at government institutions. After all, we have schools that institute gun-free zones, is it so much of a stretch for an iPod free zone?

  4. Lailoken says:

    While many of my fellow Modesitt fans have a variety of points, I disagree on having blanket “IPod free zones”. The tech is here, and if you use it as a tool for learning and integrate it into your lesson plans, you can add a new medium to connect with your students & give guidance on how to use it responsibly by leading from the front. Not every subject can transition easily, but where it does apply, doesn’t it warrant investigation? It’s not society’s responsibility to safeguard stupid people from stupid actions, but they used to say a lot of these things about television, computers, and many other technological advances. Can the tech be used to encourage critical thought and deliberation within students (people)?

  5. The only thing that hurts the eBook reading feature is that Apple plans to charge $14 to &15 for eBooks which is more expensive compared to what Amazon.com charges (which is $9.99 or less for most digital books).

  6. While I’m sure every reason you’ve listed is relevent I’d put forward one additional point. Laziness.

    A lot of the above behaviors crop from a desire to avoid effort one way or another, at least in those I’ve observed. Texting and communicating via written word avoids all need for emotional concern, for eye contact, for inflection. By reducing it all to just the core factual words, you get to not worry about any of the tripwires and pitfalls that can come with normal communication. When someone takes offense you get to retroactively tell them what emotion you “really meant”.

    Headphones do the same, they allow you to justifiably ignore other people because you didn’t hear them. I’m guilty of that one from time to time. If I have a project coming to a deadline at work I put in my headphones (Without deafening volume) and turn my desk so my back is to the door. Anyone trying to make casual contact I don’t hear, and anyone who has something that truly needs my attention can still just tap me on the shoulder.

    Laziness even fits into the pattern of why we rely on the tech as it comes out. As I believe you’ve said yourself, there’s nothing all that bad about the tech existing or being available. But when we as a society or as an individual let it become a crutch and replace normal mental or social skills it becomes a problem.

    And since this is my first post I’ll also take a second to thank you for your work. I’ve been deeply appreciative to have an author in the fantasy/sci-fi world who doesn’t write black and white morality as their source of conflict.

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