Is technology’s edge dulling us?

Technology’s a two-edged sword. Remember back when you’d see someone fall or suffer a painful accident? You’d feel for them, maybe even help them. That was real life. Now life’s virtual – online and divorced from the here and now, except for a like, laugh or sad click. On the other hand, a powerful photo, song or well-made film can evoke deep feelings that provoke us to what’s become significant action in today’s world: a share or comment.

Has it always been so? Where do we draw the line between observation and involvement? Between objectivity and emotion? Is something a tragedy or comedy? To draw on the perspective of that respected contemporary philosopher, Melvin James Kaminsky, “Tragedy is what happens to me. Comedy is what happens to you.” The less our involvement, the greater the distance.

Once upon a time there were storytellers who mediated and dramatized reality to help us to see, to feel, to care, to believe. These ancestors – as recently as just a few generations ago – used metaphors and parables to illustrate their points and show us our place in the world at large. Today’s electronic storytellers help us become inward-facing, insulated and isolated. Large and small screens clutter our lives with noise and constantly changing images. When everything’s important nothing’s important because we no longer have the time or knowledge to cull fiction from fact, or the social experience to translate metaphor to literal fact. The fireside chat’s warm crackle and responsive story-telling of another era has been replaced by a screen radiating blue light and un-changing sales pitches, excuse me, stories.

The old storyteller was a person, somewhat like ourselves and our tribe. Today’s storyteller is a machine. While chatbots may eventually be context sensitive, I still don’t think they’ll be able to read the shiver down our back, feel that extra breath, or sense that fearful [or knowing] glance to a neighbor seated inches away, if there’s anyone else around.

But, you say, screens have been around for generations. That’s right, we’ve had television since the late 1940’s and cinema of one sort or another for fifty years before that. But even in the early days of film and television we still shared a common experience. There were fewer channels and programming options. And what there was sourced from language-driven media – live performance and radio programming. Commonly-shared media triggered conversations. Today’s multiplicity of sources leads to narrative instead of conversation – we create monologues describing our singular experiences rather than participate in dialogues sharing common experience.

More than media – this lack of a common experience has infected our society, as well. As bad as WWII was, it gave people shared experience, whether it was on the front lines or the home front. This lack of common experience has been named as one of the key sources of more recent generations’ political polarization. When we’ve never learned to share, never been forced to trust, we’ve lost a commonality with other humans. Screens can’t replace it.

The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there.

L.P. Hartley – The Go-Between

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