I remember visiting my dad’s work when I was a kid in the early 80s. He was part of what was an elite workforce back then: The few, the proud—the computer programmers!
I was mesmerized by the sci-fi room, all that activity on his floor buzzed around. It was filled with large metal boxes that spun reels of magnetic tape and spit out numbers—two numbers to be exact: zero and one. (Somehow, my dad could read it. He was awesome.) That was the computer.
What filled a room when I was a child now fits in the palm of my hand and connects me via satellite not only to an infinite stream of information, but to every other person on earth with Internet access.
Technology has changed, fast, and it’s changing us.
The ways we’ve been changed for the better aren’t hard to see. For one, we’re able to communicate ideas with the masses at such speed that it makes telepathy seem slow. If I have an iPhone and 100 followers on Twitter, Spock has nothing on me!
The recent uprising in Egypt was widely credited to Facebook’s ability to connect and mobilize the masses. Were it not for an army of smart phones linking the world to Facebook that revolution may not have happened, at least not so quickly. One Egyptian family even named their son “Facebook” in honor of the event.
Want to help the needy? It only takes a few clicks of a mouse to find them and a few more clicks to donate. Lazarus is at all of our doorsteps (see Luke 16) thanks to the Internet.
Want access to information? The average teenager has immediate access to more information through the Internet than Bill Clinton did with all of his advisors when he was president of the United States.
Want to stay in touch with your family in Africa? You can see them and chat with them from the palm of your hand.
But the dark side of our digital utopia isn’t something we should overlook. In the world of teens, for instance, 22 percent of girls admit to sending nude or semi-nude pictures of themselves into cyberspace. Ninety percent of kids 8-16 years old have seen porn online, most often while doing homework. Twenty-five percent of teens have been bullied online (or via text messages). People tend to say and do things online that they simply wouldn’t otherwise, forgetting the repercussions of their cyber activity in the “real” world.
But perhaps more insidious than the more obvious, capital sins of cyberspace is the way it can pull the plug on our connection to reality. Addressing Carthusian monks recently, the pope noted this growing trend, saying, “Virtuality risks getting the upper hand over reality.”
According to one study done in 2008 people spent, on average, three hours per day on social networking sites. A year later it rose to five and a half hours per day. Today Americans spend a third of their time communicating with others online.
Staying connected to thousands of people online is wonderful, but if it takes up too much of our social bandwidth it risks crowding authentic community out of our lives. We don’t form deep connections online. We connect with people as gods of our own social universes. Want to see how someone is doing? You don’t have to ask them—just spy on them from on high. Don’t like someone? Delete him! Disagree with a comment someone posted? Click “hide” and it’s gone. All communication is fast, to the point, and fully under your control.
And while access to instant information has obvious benefits, it risks hampering the ability of young people to contemplate and imagine. It’s hard to envision a childhood where wondering about something doesn’t translate into late-night conversations, pondering with friends, but instead, taking out your iPhone and Googling for an immediate answer. Will this digital generation have the skills, or even the patience, to ponder questions about faith, ethics or the meaning of life that can’t be so easily answered by Wikipedia? And what happens to a society when the ability to ponder higher truths grows dim?
No doubt, golden silence is becoming an ever rarer gem. In his wisdom-packed musing with the monks, Pope Benedict XVI observed: “Technical progress, markedly in the area of transport and communications, has made human life more comfortable but also more keyed up, at times even frantic. … Unbeknown to them, people are increasingly becoming immersed in a virtual dimension because of the audiovisual messages that accompany their life from morning to night. The youngest, who were already born into this condition, seem to want to fill every empty moment with music and images.”
So think twice before buying that next i(insert your product here) for your teenager. Or if you do, at least give the gift with firm limits on its use.
If not kept in check, this high-tech generation might end up hyper-connected to all things, except the quiet, present moment surrounded by our fellow human beings and pregnant with the presence of God.