Jun 17, 2013

The World At Our Fingertips, But Far From Our Hearts?

Not too long ago I was browsing the New York Times website when I stumbled upon this interesting article by Jonathan Safran Foer. It's about technology and gadgets and their influence on how (or if) we interact with our fellow human beings. Foer believes that "technology celebrates connectedness, but encourages retreat." And he seems to have the field of psychology on his side regarding this assumption:
Psychologists who study empathy and compassion are finding that unlike our almost instantaneous responses to physical pain, it takes time for the brain to comprehend the psychological and moral dimensions of a situation. The more distracted we become, and the more emphasis we place on speed at the expense of depth, the less likely and able we are to care.
Distracted because we're constantly checking our e-mail on our smartphones while we should be talking to our friends. Emphasizing speed because the next generation of laptop computers will open that webpage faster than ever before. How much do we really care about depth in our lives, especially in our personal relationships with others? Most of our communication technologies were invented as "diminished substitutes" of the real thing. Since we couldn't always talk face to face, someone came up with the telephone. When we got tired of that, we started communicating online -- even more convenient. And finally we started texting, giving us the possibility of communicating almost anywhere on the globe and without requiring a personal computer. Sounds good, but here's the kicker:
These inventions were not created to be improvements upon face-to-face communication, but a declension of acceptable, if diminished, substitutes for it. But then a funny thing happened: we began to prefer the diminished substitutes.
Why would we do that? Prefer aspartame to sugar? Artificial flavors to the sweetness of a natural fruit juice? Texting someone instead of talking to them in person? What has gotten into us? According to Foer, it's emotionally easier to go with the diminished substitutes (probably doesn't apply to the fruit juice ;-)).
Each step "forward" has made it easier, just a little, to avoid the emotional work of being present, to convey information rather than humanity. The problem with accepting -- with preferring -- diminished substitutes is that over time, we, too, become diminished substitutes. People who become used to saying little become used to feeling little. [...] I worry that the closer the world gets to our fingertips, the further it gets from our hearts.
The World At Our Fingertips
What do you think? How far from our hearts is the world really? Is Foer's worry a legitimate one? Is there anything we can do about it?

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