Last night, after our class’s Skype conversation, I sat around for a little while, wondering whether video conferencing is seamless enough to be used in the classroom. Of the 5 people expected to be in the conference, 4 were actually able to participate, 3 could see each other, and only 1 (I think) was able to connect without any software updates or other hiccups. Once we were able to begin our conference, it was already a half hour later than our scheduled start time. True, first time endeavors rarely go smoothly, but the overall experience left me feeling more disconnected than ever.
And to make matters worse, that was the second time in the day that electronic communication had failed me. Dropped phone calls, pages that fail to load and messages that are never received, are common headaches associated with humanity’s digital dialogues. I often find myself wondering whether technology is allowing people to communicate more efficiently or preventing them from really communicating at all.
Consider the internet, with its incredible ability to link people across the globe. As logically structured as the internet is, it often resembles a massive, million voiced mob. A few people are raving about politics, some weird guy is making modern “art” pictures of Hitler, a girl in Japan is doing a video about the latest pop sensation, and a few dozen people are playing video games for hours on end; and all of this on the same website even. It can be overwhelming to the most adaptive people; it can cause nervous breakdowns in less malleable minds. Furthermore, a private conversation on the internet is virtually impossible. Even if a small group of people can create an intimate forum the persistent presence of each statement accumulates until they literally drown in their thoughts. I have an admitted bias for old, low-tech living and face to face conversations, but is the ability for millions of people to communicate instantly really an enhancing accomplishment for humanity?
On the other hand…
If information is a mirror that allows people to see themselves, as some philosopher once said, than the current generation may well be the most free and individualistic people to ever walk the earth. I’m not entirely pessimistic when it comes to technology: the knowledge that the aforementioned philosopher’s name and entire body of work could be accessed with a few clicks of a mouse is truly inspiring. And for an aspiring writer, there has never been a better time to be alive (assuming that a writer wants people to read his or her work). All complaints aside, I think digital technology is empowering the majority and the minority for the first time. It will be interesting to see where it all leads to next.
As I sit here trying to type up my closing paragraph, and reflect upon the nature of my online course; my dog is whining and pushing his water bowl around at my feet. Despite his lack of human language, I feel that our communication is more successful than any digital communication, precisely because it is taking place in an organic environment. There is a living energy in face-to-face communication that, like living things themselves, cannot be replicated with technology. However, after I give my dog some water and he continues to whine, I realize there is another type of barrier between us. The type of relationship I have with my dog leaves me with a certain sense of longing. I need another intelligent mind to bounce mine off of. After realizing there is no one else home to talk to, I reach for my phone to see what my distant friends are up to. I think, when all other options are unavailable, there is a certain amount of fulfillment to be found in technology; an electric persistence in human interaction that is, for the first time in history, able to transcend space and time and link me to you, for as long as this page exists.
In short, I think the best way to approach the digital age is to view it as a tool, not a replacement for real-world interaction. It is great to be able to do my school work from my favorite chair, but I’m looking forward to the spring scents that waft through the quad and into the open windows of the classroom.