technology, community and the individual

Social computing is the culture of today’s young generation. Wireless technology, the Internet, SMS and electronics decreasing in size have contributed to the formation of a digital commons that links all people in all places at all times.
While these technological advances can improve the culture and the individuals experience of culture, as in the case with Japanese youth creating individual space, the technological advances can inhibit our well-being. The human person has two instances of existence- communal and individual. Both of these instances are required. We cannot exist solely as individuals nor can we exist solely in community. The pervasiveness of new technology requires a heighten awareness of ourselves so that we can remain balanced between our individuality and our community.
Sociologists and psychologists have increasing observed the increase in disordered individuality. While people have always overworked and always failed to maintain the balance between individual and society, recent advances in technology has increased the ease of that failure. With the cell phone, there is no longer refuge driving home or at a park or at location outside of the home or office. “I didn’t get your call” is an excuse of the past when you, via your device, always able to accept a call- whether or not it is answered. The fact that I’m writing this while flying 33, 000 feet above the midwestern United States is a testament to individuals allowing technology to destroy their ability of leisure.
I have introduced a few topics already: the difference and balance of the human person in individuality and community, the technological destruction of leisure and technological impact on culture. I will address each of these topics individually.
There is a philosophy of leisure most articulated by the German philosopher Josf Pieper that states that we has human beings need some level of leisure in our lives- not vacation but leisure. For example of this difference, a trip to Disney World with the entire family can be an extremely stressful affair between travel arrangements, the hotel, rental cars and the problems that always happen in each. A two-week vacation that is full of the stress of making that vacation happen is not leisure. Spending an hour watching part of a sporting event while on a break from work, if the person allows himself to mentally leave the stress of work, can be leisure- even if it takes place in the office break room
Leisure is the opportunity for us to break away from the stress of the working world or of the servile arts and “recharge” in a world not dedicated to a tight timeline or the constant demands of superiors- whether it be a manager or stockholders. Prior to the technological explosion, people had the easy availability of leaving the office or home and at least be away from reminders of the working world.
With cellular devices, handheld computers, wearable computers and cyborg applications, technology is slowing making it more difficult for us to disconnect from the working world- since the working world is no longer segregated from the world at home with our personal and professional uses of the Internet. The technology does not eliminate the possibility of our required leisure time but it makes us more vulnerable to the self-abuse of not seeking leisure.
While the problem of the individual not seeking leisure is impacted by technology, the ability for the individual to exist as an individual is impacted. Social computing, smart mobbing, locational computing and others all help us to become closer to the community-at-large and to form a more tightly-connected personal social network. The always-on network enables us to be communal at all times. Again, while not eliminating the ability for the person to take breaks from the community to exist as an individual, the pervasive nature of social technologies make it more difficult for us to detach. The human person, while a social creature, has a very strong defined sense of self that has maintenance needs that, for many people, require “alone time”.
The social demand to be available is increased by the functionality of developing social technologies. This is true throughout history as postal service dictated that you no longer had to visit someone or use trusted third-parties for an exchange; telephones gave us instant access to others, assuming they were at the telephone; e-mail gave us instant written communication, assuming we checked our e-mail; initial instant messaging gave us the ability to chat with multiple people at once, assuming we were at our computers. Now, cellular and WiFi technologies allow instant access to all forms of communication with virtually no regard to our location or time. Where people once expected a reply to a letter in months, we now expect replies to a text message in minutes. Technology has greatly improved the ability to communicate and be communal but as always greatly increased the difficulty in escaping from that always-on community.
Lastly and relating to all points mentioned, these new technologies are greatly changing our culture. Our culture is speeding up. We demand information instantly. We allow less time for research- how often do we not attempt to look up how to get to a new location until minutes before walking out the door? We expect not to hear “I don’t know” or “I can’t do that right now” since increasing amounts of information are available at all times. We expect the world never to stop and we expect to benefit from the non-stopping world. “After working hours” is an expression that is quickly growing out of use. As our culture speeds up, the need of the individual to slow down increases. We must become more aware of ourselves and our needs as individuals in order to successful continue this evolution of technological advancement.
While saying all these things, I am not against technology or the advances we are making with it. I was the first of my friends with a cell phone and the first with a wirelessly-networked home. While short-lived, I was the first of my friends to use an Ogo or similar device (Ogo is/was an AT&T Wireless product for wireless instant messaging and e-mail access. The Ogo is like a Blackberry but marketed to teenagers and young pre-professionals.). My caution is that while technology is changing the way we live our lives, technology does not, in and of itself, make the lives we live better. We have to be aware of what technology changes and be aware of what we must do to use this technology is healthy ways. While I never use it (except now while flying), my cell phone does have an off switch. Thunderbird does not always have to be open. The phone can be left off the hook.
As technology becomes threaded more into our everyday experience, we have to remember that we still control that technology. We control technology; technology does not control us.






One response to “technology, community and the individual

  1. Random Musings Avatar

    social interaction

    If you look at the social interaction styles of UT students today and ten years ago, they are vastly different. In today’s student environment, we head home after a long day and turn on our computers. Almost instantly, IM opens…

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