Technology: Friend or Foe?

As a culture, we’re becoming addicted to what’s new, what’s next and what’s hip. We have a developed appetite for everlasting novelty. Connected relationships, the ones that last and matter, are about commitment, care and familiarity, not novelty alone. It’s for this reason that we need to engage and reflect upon how we use technology rather than letting it use us.

I had a pen pal throughout my childhood. Her name was Marie. We probably sent 500 letters back and forth from Burbank, CA where I grew up to Fort Mill, SC where she lived. On pretty stationary, we shared our thoughts and details. As an 8-year-old, I’d tell her about my dog, my friends, and what I was doing in my classes. As we got older our sharing went deeper: painful things, joyful stories, prayer requests — we shared our lives with one another in great detail. Each time I would write her, I’d fold up the pieces of stationery and shove all those thoughts and words in an envelope with a stamp and hand written address on the outside. I’d take a walk to the mailbox, open the blue metal box bolted to the sidewalk on the corner, send my letter and walk back to the house. Then I would wait. We’d wait the whole week looking for a response amongst the junk mail and bills. Once a week or so, there in the pile of things I didn’t care about, was a little envelope, handwritten with care and on it my name: “To: Kristie Vosper.” I’d run in my room and pour over the words she’d share, and if I was lucky she’d include a sticker or a picture of her dog or cat.

Now Marie and I are Facebook friends. It’s hardly as gratifying when she messages me. We’re older now, and probably wouldn’t keep up with our pen pal routine anyway, but something is lost from our long distance letter writing gone digital. There was something sweet to our waiting, the time we spent, the walk to the mailbox…

Digital media is new and it’s changing us. With every new thing that enters our culture we must examine its impact and learn how it helps us and how it hurts us. Knowing where it takes from us, and where technology gives to our life will help us to create a daily balance that promotes healthy, connected interpersonal relationships that bring us life.

Let’s not become a generation of people who lose sight of how to treat each other. Standing in line at the grocery store can become a concert of private conversations of preoccupied people on their phones rather than an opportunity to connect with those in our communities. Human dignity is something we show each other when we honor who is before us rather than who is texting us. We’ve trained each other to expect immediate access to us 24/7 and this is not a sustainable way that we can live. We have to practice good social etiquette, showing people that they matter to us with eye contact and our attention.

To a digital generation, our undivided attention is the greatest gift we can give each other. It is like gold. We rarely get to be with someone without their phone resting on the table “just in case.” Constant distraction quietly communicates that the person before you is not as important as the person contacting you, whether you mean to or not.

We’ve become so conditioned to fragments of information that the length of which we’re able to sustain our train of thought is shrinking. We simply can’t process all the information that we’re consuming. Inundated by small bits of scattered information, the mental space for deep critical thinking can be lost in a world of fast paced bite-sized thoughts. It’s important to practice sustained activities that hold our attention and give us a deeper space to reflect and think. Read a book, take a hike, paint a picture, don’t become slave to scattered, fragmented thinking that too much tech will unintentionally develop.

In the popular book “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,” social scientist Robert Putnam outlines our increased detachment from the social constructs of earlier generations. Much of this decline in the quality our community and interpersonal relationships is due to the way our culture has progressed away from organized civic clubs like the Kiwanis, Rotary, Masons, Girl & Boy Scouts, Women’s Clubs and traditional gathering places like churches and temples remember decades ago when their attendance rosters were bursting, now membership and attendance is something they work hard for just to survive. There are now many more places we go and connect, but my fear is that our connections never run deep enough and we settle for shallow relationships wondering why we have 1,000 friends on Facebook but find ourselves trapped in quiet loneliness. Now living amongst a world consumed in “crowded loneliness,” we’re often disconnected from community unless we are intentional to subvert the norm. We are in need of new constructs that come alongside of our tech culture, not to replace it, but to enhance our lives and keep us truly connected in healthy interpersonal relationships.

Loneliness is epidemic in our culture. Psychologists and sociologists are researching and speaking on the topic with much more regularity than ever before. Culturally, we find ourselves simultaneously more connected and disconnected than ever. In his Psychology Today article on the topic, John Cacioppo, Ph.D writes, “Loneliness isn’t about being alone, it’s about not feeling connected.” Since we are wired for connection, loneliness causes us to feel a diminished sense of our humanity.

Building community and healthy face-to-face relationships into our modern lives needs to become a part of our lifestyle rather than giving into the tide of social withdrawal and digital connection. While following your favorite celebrity on Twitter can help you to realize they’re human with normal everyday problems, reducing all of our relationships to texts and tweets can subtract from our lives and leave us with a digital sum of disconnection.

Technology intrudes and includes, frustrates and simplifies our communication with each other. We are inundated with full inboxes and tweets, likes, comments, direct messages and texts. And what about those darn voicemails we let pile up, sitting there, waiting for a response? How do we keep up with the plethora of ways we’re connected to others without withdrawing, ignoring and isolating in reaction and retreat? We have to make time for our relationships. They’re the most valuable gift we’ve been given, and we need them.

How do we foster healthy connection in a modern world? How do we strike the balance between being connected and responsive, yet also present to the moments of our life? Admittedly there are so many benefits to our web of influence, but also sacrifices. Here are a few steps towards living a connected community. Don’t settle for superficial relationships when we’re created for connected, life-giving depth:

1. Chunk Your Time.  Multi-tasking the right way. Chunk your time. Try to avoid the constant refresh of the inbox and Facebook. You’ll be much more productive if you do it all at once a few times a day. Sometimes I set a timer and try to respond to all of my email in 15 minutes. It helps me to focus on one thing at a time, which web surfing is increasingly training us not to do. According to Robert Pagliarini’s “Four Steps to Becoming A Multitasker” in the Chicago Tribune, grouping tasks together will prove much more helpful than letting them compete with each other for our attention.

2. Empty Your Inboxes Clear your inbox every 48 hours. It’s a good policy to keep a clear inbox so that you’ve responded to the people who have emailed you. Set up folders for info you want to hold onto, and respond within 24 to 48 hours so that you respect those who have communicated with you. If an email will require some work or a lengthy response on your part, a simple “thank you” or acknowledgement that you received the email is sufficient until you can complete the necessary work.

3. Take Time Out Commit to smart phone-free times in your day. Throw it in your purse. Dare to turn your tech on silent and challenge yourself not think about who might be contacting you. They can usually wait an hour. You will give your friends a gift when you are fully present with them, eye contact and all. If you need to keep your tech on the table, communicate clearly about why you’re making this exception to the person you’re with.

4. Keep Your Word. It can be easy to use technology to flake at the last minute and feel like you don’t experience the repercussions because you don’t have to hear the person’s voice. Avoid using your phone or email for that last minute “I don’t feel like coming” text, veiled in “I’m not able to come.” Keeping your word matters and shows your character. The people in your life will feel loved and connected to when we keep our commitments rather than texting our way out of everything we don’t feel like doing.

5. Create Community. Create the kind of community you want to live in. Choose a small group of people that you are going to commit to giving your best to. Have dinner together. Share your life. Tell your stories. Give each other permission to open up and show all the messiness of who we really are. We need people to know us and look us in the eyes with patience, empathy and understanding. We are made to be loved by others in deep, connected relationships.