Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Can You Hear Me Now?

I'll bet there's not a single American who hears or reads that line without thinking about the campaign of cell-phone commercials that touts the wonder of the cellular network that allows the nerdy guy to be heard just about everywhere as he walks across our land.  Deep, right?

It's occurred to me recently that the advance of  'communications' has spelled not only fun and addictive little games about farming, but the systematic destruction of human relationships.  Put your Farmville on pause and allow me to elaborate.

A couple hundred years ago, people communicated primarily by speaking.  Many people couldn't read or write, and many more who could do so were prevented from having very many books by their cost and scarcity.   So people learned stuff and socialized and passed on information verbally, and the limitations of technology at the time meant that nearly all communication necessarily came with a personal, face-to-face human relationship.  People's entertainment and passtimes almost all involved something that entailed other people,  right there 'in their grill,' as the kids like to say.  From story-telling and apprenticeships to gathering round the piano for a song,  activities usually involved other people.  And interestingly, when someone is right there, in front of you, it's a lot harder to think of them as anything but a fellow traveller on this Earth journey.  If you tell them off, you have to deal with their immediate and probably unpleasant reaction.  If you give them a hug, you get a hug back.  It's all very human.

But as time has gone on, and  technology has gone from verbal transmission to books to telephone and telegraph, to radio, television, cell phones and internet, fewer and fewer communications have a human relationalcomponent.  Today, someone could watch TV, listen to music on their Ipod, download a book on their Kindle, send a bunch of text messages, and look at everything from news to medical information, to pornography on the internet, all without ever seeing another human, even in the form of a photograph.

Heck, many of us now have "relationships" with "people" on the internet, and the reason for the quotes is simply that many people who thought they were in a relationship with someone later found out that the 36 year old attractive female who likes to dance in the rain and watch NASCAR is actually a 22 year old, 400 pound male deadbeat who likes pulling people's chains or getting them to give them money for airfare to come and visit.

Basically, our technology has cut us off from the very basic, and very necessary activity of relating to others of our kind.  Not only does it make us much more likely to get mean and stupid, since we can now tell someone off or tell them we love them without ANY personal feedback in the form of body language or a punch in the snout, but oddly enough, this very state of affairs has been recognized for a long time as being one of the subtler forms of torture. 

It's called solitary confinement.    Back in the 1950s, Harry Harlow, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, wanted to use monkeys in studies, but basically couldn't afford to buy monkeys, so he decided to breed his own instead of importing them from India. He didn't know much about raising infant monkeys, so he cared for them like babies of that day—in nurseries, with plenty of food, warm blankets, some toys, and in isolation from other infants to prevent the spread of infection. The monkeys grew up sturdy, disease-free, and larger than those from the wild. Yet they were also profoundly disturbed, given to staring blankly and rocking in place for long periods, circling their cages repetitively, and mutilating themselves.   True.  You can look it up.

So, in essence, we have spent the last two hundred years introducing, multiplying, spreading and perfecting the methods to just about ensure that people become self destructive, obsessive lunatics.  So now, shut off all the electronics.    Sit down and have a conversation with someone--face to face.  Or, just go back to staring blankly, rocking and circling or mutilating yourself.  It's up to you.

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