Cyber- is a prefix derived from “cybernetic,” which comes from the Greek adjective κυβερνητικός meaning skilled in steering or governing. It seems appropriate that cyber means to govern or steer skillfully, since technology also has the ability to steer and guide a society that puts increasing trust and faith in it. Technology was created for humankind’s convenience, out of legitimate needs and genuine wants, and is both tool and toy, luxury and necessity. Keeping with its dichotomous nature, technology can also be our savior, and our undoing. We stand at a crossroads, and have exploded technologically, while not maturing fast enough to properly keep up with our own inventions. We must learn to better interact with our tools and toys, and in so doing, learn to better communicate with each other. Technology can be safe and infinitely helpful, or dangerous and dehumanizing. It is up to only us to decide whether it be boon or burden.
I’m the first to admit that I’m mostly clueless when it comes to Net Lingua – the language of the Internet, including numbers, characters, emoticons, acronyms and initialisms. I can drop my fair share of smiley’s and winks and LOL with the best of them. However, I sometimes come across seemingly random sequences of letters I just don’t get. For example, why write ILSHIPAPMPLIWALBA instead of just saying ‘I laughed so hard I peed and pooped my pants like I was a little baby again.’ Just write LOL already. Maybe a Haha. Do you need to capture every bodily movement and reaction you had to something? I can’t understand why you would leave the abbreviation ISAITIGMAHANTGTTHRNISTTIMI when you can just tell someone, ‘I’m so amused, I think I gave myself a hernia and need to go to the hospital right now. I’m serious this time. I mean it.’ You’re already halfway there. That just seems dangerous to me.
Similarly, I’m always a little confused by facepalm. At first I thought it was a brand of Palm Pilot (if anyone even remembers those), then I guessed it must be a new social networking site. Finally, I deduced that it was a gesture representing frustration or fatigue with something. Of course, I never would have figured it out from its emoticon symbol (– ‸ x). WTF? (Of course, I know that one) If I were forced to guess the meaning of that random collection of squiggles, I think I’d say it stood for ‘pirate eye’ or maybe ‘knuckle sandwich.’ Perhaps even ‘poking a flower with a stick.’ That clenched fist isn’t even close to palming that face. And then there are those that just write it out. Complex thoughts are distilled, reduced rather, into short pithy words, phrases, or pictures quickly signaling exactly what we’re feeling.
One of the most dangerous facets of computers and our rapidly changing cyber-world is the idea of instant gratification. With WiFi, high speed internet, smart phones, and data plans, we can instantly send emails, instant message, leave wall posts, send pictures, update websites, download documents, video conference, conduct online banking, and many other things. In the not so distant past, people relied on telephones to talk, snail mail to write, photo shops to develop photographs, and posters to advertise businesses and yard sales. Things took time, and patience was required. We knew no other way, and today’s advances were practically inconceivable. There is something dangerous about instant gratification. Angry emails and comments can be written without proper reasoning. Inappropriate pics can be sent or posted, embarrassing any number of people. Online shopping, banking, and stock trading can lead to impulsive purchases, sales, etc. Finally, there is something lost in the brevity and haste it takes to write an email, as opposed to the time and care it took to write and mail a letter. In our ability to perform tasks in an instant, we are losing the character and dignity that comes from effort and work, and we are missing out on face-to-face time with others. We are gratified and satisfied, but must sacrifice a little something.
Perhaps it has to do with the fact that we are all a little spoiled by instant gratification, and perhaps it has to do with the fact that we can instantly reach all our friends, but whatever the case may be, we have steadily become a society of narcissists. Perhaps the most visible example of this love affair can be found in the ubiquitous presence of ‘selfies’ – appropriately titled, given their innate vanity. The most common selfie is a shot taken by oneself of oneself, and oftentimes posed and purposefully trying to look cute, tough, etc. Firstly, the selfie eliminates a separate photographer – a seemingly moot point, but important, given the fact that photographs now need no other person, and the subject becomes the photographer – and more wrapped up into themselves. The selfie is often multiple shots – sometimes dozens – instantly posted to social media. The selfie has made photography the domain of everyone – effectively relegating professionals to the sidelines. Selfies have made everyone a model, and people have become increasingly more vain and self-important. Pictures in general have increased exponentially. Parents are quite fond of posting numerous pictures of their children, while simultaneously humble-bragging-a passive aggressive way to brag, while pretending not to under the guise of humility. We all know that bragging is obnoxious, but we still have important news we think society needs to hear.
Our posts are the perfect place to humble brag, and demonstrate more of that neo-narcissim we all seem to possess. Never before had we a platform to announce to the world our random thoughts, bold plans, angry rants, thoughtful and uplifting quotes, and love for this or that. Suddenly, everything we thought or felt seemed important, and Facebook provided a captive audience we could declare our thoughts to triumphantly. What’s more, they could ‘like’ the thoughts, and further validate and encourage us. If they were really moved, they could even write comments, which is the ultimate thrill and show of support. This validation also served to boost our egos and gave us more cause to keep on writing. Social media exploded, and suddenly, we were all writing pithy Tweets in 140 words or less, pinning up art and recipes we wanted the world to see, designing our own websites, building an audience for the blogs we wrote daily, and posting videos of ourselves talking to the camera about some funny or important story. We are everywhere and seen by everyone, and our voice and image are reproduced over and over. All at once, we are the celebrities of Hollywood and professional sports we always saw on screen, but now share in that same overexposure. We are all celebrities, and our image is everything.
The problem is, none of us know how the other is feeling…what they’re thinking, and how they mean what they write. Because very few of us are good enough writers to expertly convey not only the facts and thoughts of a statement, but the tone and feeling behind it. Irony and sarcasm have become endangered species in our culture. For example, when I poked fun at Internet lingua above, I meant it to be light-hearted and in the spirit of fun. However, I’m sure there are scores of people out there deeply offended and enraged by my senseless attack on the Internet and the shorthand they choose to convey tone and emotion.
Even the best of us can’t possibly be expected to detect all the subtle nuance and intent behind everything we read. We’re not computers. Actually, that’s precisely the problem. Humans are thinking and feeling sentient beings, which are genetically predisposed and constructed to be warm and tactile communicators, who play various roles in our communities. Computers ‘think’ in code: numbers…algorithms. That is why we call them computers. They compute massive amounts of raw data at staggering speeds, while human’s fragility—and strength—lie in their innate ability to process emotions and to build relationships based on respect, love and affection, as much as on instinct. As of right now, there is no computer that can process and compute matters of the ‘heart.’ Although we are not trying to forge relationships WITH computers, we are actually trying to maintain relationships THRU computers. Therefore, we must understand that even though they seem to make our lives better, easier, and more convenient, they are also potential barriers to effective communication. We must remember that we are using a cold and dispassionate digital processor to feed our hearts and minds into, while expecting them to come out the other side exactly as we intended. You needn’t look any further than any common website, where you can witness digital miscommunication sow seeds of confusion, anger, and violence right there in the ubiquitous ‘comments’ section. Relative anonymity mixed with strong conviction and perceived threat explodes on the page with rage. Small misunderstandings are stripped of context and tone, and escalate quickly into scenarios that might turn deadly, were they live and in person. I am not suggesting that individuals don’t have a choice in ratcheting up their rhetoric and actively engaging others in conflagrations. Sure, there are plenty of people that abuse the web with misguided malice and aggression. But for every one of those internet ‘trolls,’ there are dozens…hundreds…thousands of us that are bruised and battered by the very fruits of our labor, designed to set us free and make our lives better. However, some of us don’t even realize it. Perhaps like a battered wife, we have come to accept our equilibrium – however unstable – as safe and familiar. In reality, the very tools we gave ourselves often misuse us. We are surrounded by inventions without intentions. Their sole purpose is to compute and solve problems towards an end. Human beings also have their goals and objectives, but we care more about how we get there and what motivates us to go after our goals. In fact, we are constantly reevaluating our methods and mistakes, and reassessing our goals and desires. As far as technology has come, it has not produced sentient computers, with the ability to feel and make decisions about their futures, and its impact on those around it.
Our computers are incredibly advanced today, but we easily forget that they are not windows by which we look through them and talk easily with a person we see just inches away from us. Instead, they are the locked doors we cannot see through YET, and thus, we are just inches from our loved ones, but unable to see or hear them properly. When we truly unlock that door, we will be able to pass better than we ever could through our windows, but until then, we must try to understand how a door works.
We stand on the threshold of great promise, or perhaps great misfortune. With everything at our fingertips, we still seem to forget our sense of touch. We hurl ourselves headlong into our futures, and tempt fate as we try and better our lives. And yet, we somehow always seem to forget that the times we cherish and hold dear to us rarely features a computer or the latest tech gadget. Those are the moments when we are most intimate with those we love. When we are personally interacting the way WE were designed to communicate. We’ve taught computers our language, using our numbers and our symbols, but it’s unlikely we could ever teach a computer the nuances of our heart. Not the physical organ that pumps our blood, but that elusive place that houses our spirits…our souls. How do you teach a computer how to feel for a human being, or what’s more, to allow that emotion to inform the decisions it makes, regardless of its programmed goals and its complex series of algorithms. It’s that irrational and unpredictable human essence that a computer cannot hope to replicate inside itself, and therefore, shouldn’t be expected to replicate from one of us to another one of us. A computer is that invaluable door that leads to wherever we care to go, but it’s still not a window. It’s not unlike that game we all played as children – the Telephone Game. One kid would come up with a medium-length sentence, and then whisper it into the ear of the child next to him. In turn, he would whisper it into the ear of the little girl by his side. Before long, the sentence has made its way around the circle, and arrives right back where it started. When the last child repeats the line out loud, the original boy cannot help but laugh at how distorted and corrupted his original message was. And that game is played with a small group of human children. Imagine what our technology can do to the messages we send.
I jokingly refer to myself as a Luddite – a technophobic person or anyone who is opposed to technological change and innovation. In reality, I own all of the same tablets, cell phones, laptops, etc. that all of you do. I am very grateful for the role technology has played and continues to play in my life. I honestly believe it to be a blessing. However, I am also observant to the things I see around me. I am both awed by the ‘miracle’ of technology, and soberly skeptical about the subtle deleterious effects it’s having on our society. I consider us to be in the honeymoon period with technology. It is seemingly moving at the speed of light, while noticeably improving the lives, and making things easier than they’ve ever been before. But that’s the crux right there. Nothing truly good ever came easy. That doesn’t mean fortune can’t smile on us and bless our sweat and tears. Of course not. Nor should we be expected to toil as our ancestors did, when we have the means to lighten the load. But as they say in Spiderman, ‘With great power, comes great responsibility.’ We only stand on the threshold now, but we wield enormous power, and the door we’ve decided to open can never be closed again. Nor can we walk back through it. Just as a bell cannot be unrung, we cannot hope to walk backwards through the snow, while trying to erase our presence by stepping in the footsteps we left before. In every way, we stand on a threshold that is hinged with the door of technology and guarded by scientists everywhere. Men and women with advanced degrees guard our very way of life, and even our own protection, as they search for answers everywhere they find a question. At the present, we are looking out across a land only dotted with technology, but one soon to be blanketed by it. That may translate into a faster and tastier cup of coffee or could just be the very devices we need to halt or ameliorate man’s nearly irreversible impact on earth’s fragile ecosystem. Those are keys to unlock doors we want to walk through, but it’s what’s on the other side, we just don’t know about.
Technology is undoubtedly a boon to humans everywhere. Right now, there are hospitals saving the lives of people who would have been dead less than a decade ago, but are now saved by the awesome power of progress. Missing children are reunited with their families because a computer chip somewhere connected a web of concerned citizens and child advocates. Our mothers and fathers are with us longer, and enjoy an unprecedented quality of life that only computers could have provided. Many of us are threads in a great network of people we’ve never met before, and a smaller group of friends and acquaintances, many of whom live in distant cities and some of whom we haven’t seen in years. There are countless other examples, and all only possible through the wonder of technological advance.
I would never suggest we throw away the tools we’ve earned and richly deserve. It took generations of committed minds, self-sacrificing toil, bitter heartache, sweat and tears, and the forward march of progress to bring us to this precise moment in history. We are in our honeymoon phase with technology, but any married couple will tell you, that cannot last. Not for want of trying or honest to God devotion, but because fires simply can’t burn that intensely, and expect to last the night. Though we may never fall out of love with technology, our zeal and obsession is only sustainable so long. Inevitably, there will be a widespread endemic of tech fatigue, where our unrealistic expectations are realized, and the allure of the fast and new begins to wear off. It may never translate into a full-fledged backlash, but there will be plenty of disillusioned people looking for something they can grasp. Something more substantial. Naturally, that something is someone, and it’s us. If we let technology run us, rather than the other way around, than we are merely slaves of our own inventions. In a world like that, we would have to face the ironic and unintended outcome of being further away from those we thought technology could bring us closer to. Instead of FaceChat, there’s simply chatting face to face. Of course it’s easier, less costly, and more time efficient to make a video call to a friend. But don’t confuse any of that with better. The decisions we’re making today are faster and easier, but as I said before, nothing truly good comes cheap and easy. Relationships are built over time, and the foundation rests upon the subtle nuances of human speech, gesture, and that unknowable quality that is always present between two close people, or even groups of people. The building blocks often include touch, eye contact, a knowing grin, a lift of the eyebrow, the tone of a voice, and the familiarity of a shared laugh. As technology advances, sound gets crisper, pixels deliver unparalleled clarity, and we get savvier with how to wield and manipulate this power in our hands, we are even more beholden to our devices. We end up building digital walls out of the stuff we like, even as we think we’re building homes for the people we love. What may seemingly bring us together may in fact be the very thing that tears us apart.
Averting a painful tomorrow could simply mean taking a few preventative steps today. Right now, we are still on our honeymoon, but we are also on the threshold of our home, with our young bride in our arms, and ready to walk through that door. It’s terribly difficult for new lovers to see through anything other than rose-colored glasses. To them, the honeymoon will last forever. Yet we all know that isn’t the case. When the heat and the passion begin to wane, couples often grieve the loss of whom they once were, and are frightened by the vacuum of not knowing what comes next. Some couples fill the void with children; others develop active relationships outside the home; some try and find peace at the bottom of a bottle or are addicted to their own distraction. Technology may be a great distraction, but as anyone in a long and successful marriage will tell you, it took a lot of work. Nothing came fast, cheap, or easy. All good relationships are like this. What happened after the honeymoon was over? Well, they might have strayed with distraction, but all of the successful marriages have one thing in common: communication. There’s no way of knowing how long our honeymoon with technology will last, but we need to try and take steps today to facilitate productive communication tomorrow. And by communication, I mean, communication between human and machine and most importantly, human-to-human communication. Right now, we can’t seem to see the forest for the trees. We’re too deep in it all. We are irrefutably seduced by the power we think we have in our hands. Of course, if the computer were fully AI (Artificial Intelligence), the computer would be thinking the same thing about us. And the computer would be right. We are slowly losing ourselves into this tantalizing – and in most ways – benevolent, life-changing force. There’s no retracing our steps in the snow or picking up breadcrumbs this time. We are in this for the long haul. Technology is with us to stay. Perhaps even longer than we will. That’s the problem.
In order to tame our technology, we must first tame ourselves. We must learn what it means to be in a room with another human being, and one that is not a chat room. It is absolutely essential that we relearn what it is to be human. We must all do exactly what every one of those successful marriages had to do after the honeymoon was over: learn how to talk to each other. The key to every relationship, especially marriage, is communication, and learning not just what to say to your partner, but how to say it. And, I might add, when. The only successful marriages—whether it be a man and a woman, a woman and a woman, or a man and a man—are built on the fundamental principal of building a home, and what it takes to share a space with someone you may love, but not necessarily know how to talk to. It’s hardly different with technology. You may profess to love your new iPhone, but you don’t effectively know how it works, and most importantly, how it objectively makes you feel. Just because you enjoy your computer doesn’t mean it’s enjoying you back. How do you forge a relationship with an inanimate object that just so happens to be able to do complex computations and send just the right present to your sweetheart? Being in the honeymoon phase means that we can’t objectively evaluate our obsession with technology. We don’t know to take steps now to avoid future pitfalls we may have. However, we must learn to use these unrivaled processing machines in our own heads, to be able to anticipate how we can better interact with our own technology, so that we may better communicate with the living, breathing people we love the most.
Learning to manage the technology in our lives means taking a step back, setting parameters, and outlining clear goals and objectives. What is it we ultimately hope to achieve with x, y, and z? How does this device actually affect my quality of life and does it put undue strain on my human relationships? What is the worst thing I can imagine this computer could do to me, and to those I love? How do I delegate tasks and manage my time better? What is it I crave the most in my relationships that I can’t get when I put technology between us? These are just a few of the questions that need to be part of a larger national, international, worldwide discussion about the role of technology in our lives. Our futures may depend on taking the reigns and wrestling with the very real questions of risk vs. reward. Right now, this progress thing is paying real dividends, and it’s hard to foresee a future where it doesn’t. Sadly, that future is already with us. We are sowing the seeds, and must come to terms with the stuff we want in life as opposed to the people we want to share it with. Don’t get me wrong: they are not mutually exclusive. There’s no need to organize a laptop bonfire anytime soon. I love my technology, and wouldn’t want to part with it either. But you know what I love more? People. And like it or not, our personal lives are suffering at the expense of technology. It’s subtle, and you may not even know it, but it’s there. Even as we collect over a thousand friends on Facebook or Snapchat our naughty pics to lovers, we are really just slowly building walls around us. Except our digital walls are littered with our own profiles and pictures, like it was Pinterest or something. They look just like us, even move and sound like us. But they are not us. They are bits of binary code and pixels and a whole bunch of other ‘magic’ stuff that most of us will never know. When all is said and done, our sea of walled-in souls will feel like they’re part of a collective, and they’ll each be interconnected. As of now, computers have no heart unless we give it to them. How ‘bout we find love in all the right places? We could all stand to love ourselves a little less, and find ways to love each other more. The fault, dear friends, is not in our devices, but in ourselves that we are underlings.