Communication technology has come a long way in a relatively short time. In my lifetime, we have moved from twice daily mail delivery and phones that required the services of an operator to connect callers, to the instantaneous communication of smart phones and text messaging. At the click of a mouse, we can “join the conversation” on any topic, or post our thoughts and images online for the entire world to see.
The ability to be digitally connected around the clock creates meaningful opportunities for human interaction, but it also comes with some challenges; the digital environment can be a double-edged sword.
On the plus side, technology enhances our ability to stay in touch with family and friends. My family once enjoyed our own version of cross-country check-up via a three-way Skype call on the big screen TV with family members tuning in from Halifax, Montreal and Trail. While it was not quite as good as sitting around the kitchen table together, it was an acceptable option to being together under the circumstances.
But just as technology can bring us together, it can also separate us, even to the extent that it can create distance between people in the same room. I can think of no better example of this than the manner in which we frequently use smart phones. How often have you been annoyed while in the company of people who are obsessively checking their phones? In this case, the technology, despite its many excellent applications for augmenting communication, interferes with our ability to be truly present to those who are right in front of us.
The digital environment presents us with a smorgasbord of options – everything from current events, documentaries, online learning, and entertainment of many varieties. The Internet makes it possible for us to stretch our understanding of others and the world from the comfort of our recliners. The accessibility of quality entertainment, online learning, and probing news analysis is truly a boon to human development.
On the down side, the communications media can also provide a platform for the expression of some of the shadowy sides of human nature. Cyber-bullying and access to pornography come to mind, as do television shows of the Jerry Springer variety, and reality television that makes a virtue out of stabbing others in the back. Not all the options served up for consumption at the smorgasbord are healthy and wholesome.
Runners have a saying, “Garbage in, garbage out”, which means that what you eat prior to a run affects performance. Our use of digital technology and our media choices can have a similar effect on our mind and relationships. If we opt for a steady diet of mindless, violent, or sexually-explicit entertainment, we may begin to treat others with less than the respect they deserve, and if we always choose sensational newscasts over thoughtful analysis, we run the risk of mistaking human tragedy for entertainment.
When we use digital technology and the communications media wisely, they are a powerful force for connecting people and for fostering positive human interactions. On its own, the digital environment is neither inherently good nor bad; we decide which edge of the sword to use.
Louise McEwan has degrees in English and Theology. She has a background in education and faith formation.