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Blocking It All Out

March 13, 2012

“It is easy to become so immersed in technology that we ignore what we know about life.” – Sherry Turkle, Alone Together

Go for a walk. While you’re out, keep track of how many times you see someone with his headphones on (although it could be me – and I don’t count!), his phone in his hands, or using any other iteration of technology. If you live in a city or other densely populated place, you may see more people like this than you can even track.

We are tuning each other out with increasing frequency (a bad pun, I’m aware). Whether it’s by listening to our music; talking, texting, or browsing on our phones; or by plugging into our favorite video games, we are pushing real human interaction further and further away. “Is this important?” you ask.

iPod: Tune the world out.

Over a month ago, I first described this phenomenon of two worlds, the virtual and the “real” world. I argued that we must learn to embrace this “brave new world,” that is, what we call “the real world.” This “real world” has become a place that we are unaccustomed to. It changes from day to day, requiring (if not demanding) that we engage with it. It lacks the comfortable familiarity or the degree of control that the virtual world offers.

Rather than deal with an often messy engagement with “real life,” many of us choose instead to tune it out. Our iPods, smart phones, and video game consoles are a way to block it out while we shuffle to the next connected portal. Technology has given us the ultimate comfort: the ability to withdraw from “real life” altogether. Escapism used to mean a trip to the movies or to the ballpark; today it means an escape from reality itself.

If that doesn’t worry you, it should. It suggests that technology is creating an entire generation of people plugged into the virtual world and clocked out of the world that we all inhabit. This has disastrous implications for our families, our communities, and an already over-worked labor force.

Economically, this connectivity is a dream come true. It creates a world where workers are always on call. It creates a virtual marketplace that never closes and is just a fingertip away. It means more people working harder to get more money to buy more things they probably don’t need. It means increased productivity, bigger sales numbers, and more revenue. When economists and business people ask themselves “where is technology taking us?” their answer is simple: $$$.

No need for augmented reality; this is the world as we already see it.

This disengagement from the world around us may reap huge economic benefits, but it ultimately leaves us hollow, perhaps even inhuman. Last week, I wrote that texting makes us less human by transforming the meaning of us into the meaning of our words. Similarly, a withdrawal into technology is a withdrawal from community, from personal responsibility, and from the “real life” going on all around us. It is a rejection of some of the most fundamental experiences of human life.

This withdrawal into technology is not a retreat into solitude but a retreat into connectivity, into our virtual selves. That man on the train glued to his smart phone doesn’t want to be alone; he’s looking for a connection. Only, he’s looking for a connection divorced from commitment and responsibility. Paradoxically, there are possibilities for connection all around him, but the man buries himself ever deeper in the warm safety of his phone, his music, or the virtual world of video games.

We often take it for granted, what it might mean when we see so many so checked out of the daily activity of life itself. Lost in their own worlds, we often say of them. But they’re just lost. They are lonely souls looking for attention, for connection, accepting technology as a gross approximation of the reality that exists all around, teeming with life.

Video: Watch this amazing ad (unfortunately, it is an official Sony video and I cannot embed it on the website – special thanks to my good friend and loyal Tech Uninhibited reader Brian M. for sending me this video) for the Playstation Vita. Listen to how perfectly the narrator describes the responsibility-shirking dilemma of the modern man/woman: “Who says you have to choose?” Only he’s wrong. You do have to choose, or risk losing your true self to your virtual self.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. March 13, 2012 11:44 AM

    Seeing that I ride the bus to work every day, I get an opportunity to see this on a daily basis. However, I must admit that I am guilty of putting my headphones on as well. The other day, I had left my iPod at home and rode the bus sans headphones but it didn’t really matter seeing that everyone sitting around me had their headphones in. Even if you want to try and remain connected to the “real world”, it’s growing harder and harder when the number of people in the “real world” is diminishing so rapidly. Thanks for the shout out by the way!

  2. March 13, 2012 12:27 PM

    Fascinating point. When you live in a culture that doesn’t celebrate daily human interaction, do you just put your head down and remain silent?

    The iPod is also not an inherent evil. It’s about how you use it. There’s a big difference between someone sitting, smiling, and enjoying a cup of coffee and her favorite music, and that guy on the bus with the thousand mile stare and his headphones on full blast. One is open, one is closed. It’s up to us to be more receptive to conversation and interaction; whether we have headphones on or not shouldn’t really matter.

  3. March 15, 2012 5:53 AM

    Great post. The communication technology used to be the domain of fast-paced business types with car phones and pagers. Those adorned with electronic devices were viewed by society as important and successful and smart. While others might not have the high-power job, they could at least look like they do by having the same ornamentation. And in much of American culture, this is what matters – the appearance of success.

    And maybe this is related: many people want to be always ‘busy’. This may be how their brains adapted as they grew up immersed in the technology. Sadly, they do not seem to desire down time or solitude.

    Like Brian, I ride the bus every day. Most days I listen to my iPod, because reading on the bus makes me dizzy. And maybe other reasons, too – I’ll have to give this more thought…

  4. March 15, 2012 11:53 AM

    You make an excellent point! I’ve linked to your comment in my latest post (see, “successful”). Really, really fascinating stuff: “…in much of American culture, this is what matters – the appearance of success.” Yes. “And maybe this is related: many people want to be always ‘busy’.” Again, yes! Now we have the simple question: Why?

    In today’s post, I argued that this is a social and a business pressure. But is it?

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