The debate on ubiquitous connectivity is littered with thousands of naysayers that have become hostages to the romantic idea that the past is better. Suffice to look at some headlines: “The web is driving us mad”, “Facebook is making us lonely”, “Social media is making us feel disconnected”.
There’s nothing wrong with nostalgia, but let’s not delude ourselves -progress is progress.
Stopping at a gas station to ask for directions is not nobler than using Google Maps. Checking out a book at the library is not better than reading one on my tablet or iPhone. I don’t miss handwriting my school essays in cursive. I don’t miss having to wait in line at the DMV to fill out a paper I can now fill out online in 5 minutes. I don’t miss finding out the night before a report is due that Encarta did not have the information I needed. I don’t miss having to schlep to the post office to ship a package (shout out toShyp). I don’t miss having to go to the bank to deposit a check. And no, I don’t think taking pictures of myself makes me an asshole.
I’ve learned more about the world in the four years since I got an iPhone than I learned in the ten years prior to that. I’ve used Duolingo to learn new languages. Every now and then I pick up a coding course on Udacity orCodecademy. I taught myself everything I needed to know to start a business using online blogs and resources like Quora. I’ve spent hours binge-watching videos on YouTube of people I look up to that have raised the bar for what I in turn am capable of achieving. I’ve learned about myriad issues I would otherwise be oblivious to thanks to TED. I’ve used Medium to share thoughts that, in the absence of a platform to share them on, would not have been given the opportunity to flourish. I stay informed no matter where I am thanks to Flipboard. I’ve contributed financially to ideas I would otherwise not know of thanks to Kickstarter. I’ve met people I now consider friends on Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn. I’ve empathized with the stories of strangers thanks to Brandon Stanton, the photographer behind the@humansofny Instagram.
But not only is the Internet generating empathy, it is mobilizing action. From Syrian refugees to gay teens to the parent of a child with a birth defect who is now able to get in touch with other parents and support groups, there is unanimous sentiment around the fact that these new communication tools have saved many lives.
I’m an optimist. I’m an optimist because increasingly, I’m seeing social media be used as a tool to make us more human, not less. Sure, we choose to portray the best version of our lives on Instagram. But already the social networks we’re designing (i.e. Snapchat) focus less on likes and followers and more on a raw, unfiltered reality. Revealing our humanness and being transparent about our thoughts and feeling is now celebrated on social media. We now have queens acknowledging via Twitter that they get nervous when speaking, CEOs using blogs and podcasts to communicate their fears, celebrities portraying their off duty lives and struggles more openly.
Contrary to what the naysayers predicted, technology is not turning us into people who hate community. Instead, it’s allowing us to break away from the constraints imposed by our offline realities and hack our connectivity through online interaction. In effect, what the Internet is doing is allowing us to create more relevant communities than the ones we are born into.
All this is not to say there is no risk with being connected 24/7.
I’m the first to admit that immersing myself in a book or lengthy article is a lot harder than it used to be. My concentration often starts to dwindle after three or four pages. I get fidgety, lose focus, begin looking for something else to do, and then get sucked into a never-ending cacophony of web links or wedding hashtag wormholes.
But what we fail to realize is that all of this is not unique to now; the debate about whether or not the pace of modern life is detrimental to society, culture, and the human experience is as old as history itself. Many of the arguments now made against the smartphone were once made against newspapers, telephones, and even written correspondence.
A group of men in Chicago in the early 1900s (left) look an awful lot like these college students (right)Socrates warned that as people came to rely on the written word as a substitute for the knowledge they used to carry inside their heads, they would cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful. Another philosopher warned that the easy availability of books would lead to intellectual laziness.
Yes, we have to develop a new etiquette to deal with the effects of having a mobile phone in our pocket at all times.
But I take issue with the idea that we are becoming a less creative society because of the information overload we’re exposed to. The current solution to this problem seems to be removing ourselves from everything digital — yes, digital detox is a thing. This is a band-aid solution. Do the majority of us really birth original thoughts by depriving our minds of new things?
Instead of discouraging the use of social media, let’s learn to use it constructively. Instead of blaming technology for our problems, let’s make ourselves accountable for how we choose to engage with it and shape its future.It is up to us to redesign technology to leave more room for deeper engagement. What if our phones were not designed to keep us attached, but rather to do a task and then release us? What if we used technology to encourage focus and make us accountable to our dreams? I’m excited to see what online experiences will break through to change the way we interact online.
Far from being intimidated, I see great opportunity. I believe advances in connectivity are driving breakthroughs in human potential, creating new skills and new jobs and fueling entrepreneurship.
I am skeptical of skeptics. I am an optimist.