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Great article by @ethan_sg about technology and its effect on social disconnection.
Our Faustian Bargain
While technology has increased the accessibility and avenues for communicating with others, it seems to me that it has had a drastically negative effect on the quality and substance of our communications.
In the now increasingly distant past, before the phone, when friends and loved ones were separated by distance, writing letters used to be one of the primary modes of communications. Because of low accessibility caused by the lack of technology, the process of writing and sending a letter required so much effort, and it was hence recognized as a very heartfelt, personal and sincere form of communication.
They also tended to be long, elaborate, and full of emotive expressions. Many tended to be as long as what in the modern world would be termed an 'essay'. Can any person in the modern world imagine even writing a personal 'essay' to a close friend anymore?
When usage of the land-line telephone became commonplace, it helped increase the accessibility of communicating with those away from us, but not so much as to replace the use of letters altogether. Talking on the phone with a friend or loved one was also very personal - in many cases it could go on for hours, and required the undivided attention of both parties to each other for very extended periods.
After the telephone there came mobile phones. The earliest mobile phones came without a text messaging function, meaning that they initially served to augment the use of telephones by increasing its accessibility, as opposed to replacing land-line telephones altogether. Long, personal conversations between lovers, family and close friends were still usually reserved for the land-line telephone while mobile phones were generally used for logistical purposes when one was outside of one's home.
At about the same time, people were also increasingly using email as a form of communication. Emailing at that time was also far more personal than it is now. It gradually replaced the writing of letters due to the far greater convenience involved. However, because they were more convenient, they also tended to be more casual - and hence they were not as long, less personal and less heartfelt. After all, if one can send an email out anytime without too much effort, one does not need to put as much effort into sending each email. While the recipient of a personal email must still have been quite pleased, it surely could not compare to the joy felt in receiving a long letter from overseas from a loved one. The more accessible and convenient the medium is, the less personal it becomes - this is why when wooing someone you love, it is considered romantic and touching to send a love-letter, but not a 'love-email', or God forbid, a 'love-text message'.
Then the text messaging function was introduced into mobile phones. This was a huge advancement in convenience and accessibility. One did not even need access to a computer or internet connection. It could be done within seconds at the touch of a few finger-tips. This huge advancement in convenience and accessibility, coupled with the fact that each text message had a relatively short maximum allowable length, meant that text messages were often very short, brief, to the point, and perhaps at times even fashionably curt. However, while they did manage to contribute to decreasing the frequency and length of phone calls, they did not replace them altogether as it tended to be costly to send numerous text messages each day. Therefore the damage was still limited.
However, technological advancements in recent years have revolutionized the accessibility and mediums of communication. We now have social media and messaging apps. Now, we can communicate with anyone, anywhere and at anytime. Even without WIFI access, we can use 3G, 4G and soon 5G mobile network technology. Hence, accessibility and convenience is now ubiquitous across all borders and boundaries. We are all 'connected'.
Yet this huge increase in convenience and accessibility has once again come with a corresponding concomitant loss in the quality of intimacy and interaction. There is once again no avoiding the the insidious reality of our 'Faustian Bargain' with the tech machine. While modern communication mediums reflect an accessibility and convenience that is almost God-like in its ubiquity and instantaneous speed, little of what we communicate through these mediums seems personal or heartfelt anymore. Because it is all too easy, all too often it is all too casual, halfhearted and curt.
Moreover, one can understand the insidiousness of a technological development not only by understanding its own character, but also what it has replaced. The amount and quality of communication I manage with any of my close friends through any form of social media or messaging app pales in comparison to the depth and emotive nature of long conversations I used to enjoy with any of them over the phone. The writing of personal letters is now completely phased out. Even the writing of 'letters' through email has been almost completely phased out. Email is used primarily for business and commercial purposes. Land-line phones are gradually becoming extinct. Even phone calls through mobile phones are now primarily done for business, commercial or logistical purposes. Whereas it used to be commonplace for people to talk on the phone for hours, I doubt anyone can even remember the last time he or she talked to a friend on the phone for 15 minutes anymore, simply to ask about each other's lives.
Yet not only is communication easier and more accessible than ever before, we also have more so called 'friends' than ever before. Social media and messaging apps tell us that we have hundreds, if not thousands of friends within reach of a few finger-tips. Yet, like the rock-star at his rock-concert who tells his tens of thousands of adoring fans that he 'loves them all' - it is not personal at all. His 'love' for them exists only in the abstract sense of 'loving' a collective entity, without which he would not be who he is. But while he is indispensable to the existence of that collective, no single individual in that collective is. It's not personal. He does not really have a genuine connection or relationship with any individual within that collective. And if we are being honest this comparison is emblematic of the relationship that we share with the vast majority of our 'friends' on social media and messaging apps - it is mostly not personal at all. 'Quantity' but not 'quality'.
Technology has this insidious character of sacrificing quality for quantity. For instance, there is an old saying we all know - 'It's not about the destination - it's about the journey.' Life is an experience and process, not a target. It's about the means, not just the ends. Technology seems to have the singular mission of disregarding or obliterating the means and process, with the singular goal of reaching the destination, or achieving the 'ends'. Its goal is quantitative not qualitative. Hence from a quantitative or statistical standpoint, modern life seems to be great - all the achievements of technology in terms of convenience and accessibility can be easily measured and quantified. Social media and messaging apps tell us that we have more 'friends' than ever before whom we can reach out to anytime. Quantitatively, this seems a like a remarkable advancement.
While it is difficult to quantify or even express our loss, there are admittedly indirect statistics that can help to point to this qualitative loss. However the link is not often made. For instance, more Americans are living alone than ever before. Americans on average report having less people they can genuinely confide in than ever before. Less Americans know their neighbors personally than ever before. Similar studies done in other global urbanized epicenters around the world would likely reflect similar findings. This is not to imply that the advancement of communication mediums is the sole cause for the deterioration in the qualitative aspects of our lives. It is a both a contributory cause and a symptom of the overall disease. This article reflects the idea that qualitatively speaking, technology is on a linearly regressive path. However, not only is it linearly regressive, it is also all-encompassing.
Sadly, most of what has been lost and sacrificed in the process is qualitative and therefore by nature far less tangible - it is difficult to statistically measure or quantify it, but for those of us who have lived long enough, if we reach deep enough into our souls and compare our lives now with the past, we can feel the deep loss - qualitative and very real. Technology has enabled us to achieve all types of 'ends' by obliterating the 'means', brought us to all our 'destinations' by eliminating the 'journeys'. Yet in eliminating the journey, it has defeated the purpose of reaching the destination. Hence there is the empty feeling that technology has brought us 'everywhere but nowhere', to 'know everything but nothing' and to know 'everyone but no one'. This is the deep tragedy of our Faustian Bargain.
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