We clutch our phones tightly, ready to snap a photo if something interesting comes along, waiting to hear the pings that alert us to reminders, messages, news. We carry a library in our pockets, a world of information which may or may not be entirely accurate. At home our DVRs faithfully record the programs that we will watch at our leisure, after we have culled through our email and deleted all of the recordings from solicitors on our answering machines. It is quite a task keeping up with the demands of living in an electronic amusement park. We want to insist that the children join us in conversation after dinner but allowing them to be entertained with the latest computer games provides us with just a bit more time to carry out our own duties. Keeping them mesmerized by millions of pixels flashing on a screen surely can’t be as bad as we imagine. We shrug and tell ourselves that such pursuits are quite harmless, an opportunity to develop hand/eye coordination. Surely the electric world that surrounds us is a good thing, a sign of mankind’s inventiveness, a form of major progress in the grand scheme of human history.
Still there is a little itch in the far reaches of our brains that worries us. We wonder if all of our modern inventions have filled our world with unintended consequences. We know how wonderful it is to have a smartphone that guides us as we drive to places that we have never been. We feel so much more secure knowing that in an emergency we have a means of summoning help. The reminders and alarms keep us on task. Our dinner slowly cooks at home while we go about our work far away from our kitchens. The Roomba cleans the floor whether we are present or not. The Echo Dot turns on lights and monitors cameras that send images to our phones assuring us that all is well back in our little castles. The irrigation pipes care for our plants, the many different security systems warn us if there is trouble. Our lives are more carefree, less subject to worries…and yet…
We have a president who reacts to incidents without much forethought, tweeting comments that might better have been left unsaid. If we are honest we have to admit that many of us are not much better. We become embroiled in Facebook rants, Twitter trolls, email disagreements. We find ourselves wanting to take back comments that linger forever in the universe of the great social network. We cringe at the ugliness of the words that are so blithely typed in a moment of indiscretion. Our actions put us into camps of “them versus us.” It unnerves us and yet like our president we find ourselves taking argumentative bait as we tell ourselves that such habits must surely stop. Even when we attempt to serve as peacemakers we are often misunderstood. We know better and yet we try again and again to set things right in an electronic world that appears to have gone mad.
There are so many posers who want us to believe that they are keepers of the truth, fonts of wisdom. We have to be careful of the sources that we use to make decisions. Facts are twisted into opinions quite cleverly. Comments are taken out of context. Information is contorted to support ideologies. Finding out what is real is a confounding proposition, and we worry lest we become a world of lemmings blindly following clever power brokers who prey on our emotions and fears. We must look beyond the sound bites and edited images to know what is really happening. Ironically it is far more difficult to ferret out the truth in the present state of proliferated information that it has ever been before.
We see our children languishing in almost zombie like states as they spend hours upon hours in front of screens filled with games that appear to lead nowhere. They play long distance matches with people that we do not know. It all appears harmless until we realize that so many of them have lost the art of conversation and creative play. We know that there are youngsters in our neighborhoods but we rarely see them. The days of impromptu ballgames or fort building or gazing at the world from the branches of trees appear to be of a bygone era, replaced by playdates and organized outings. It is eerily quiet in the great outdoors.
I have a good friend who has rebelled. She owns the least expensive phone that Walmart provides. She eschews cable television in favor of a seven dollars and change subscription to Netflix. She doesn’t have a gaming system in her home, nor any kind of alarm other than one to warn of fire. She recycles and finds ways to make do. She enjoys the freedom that comes from turning off the madness. It gives her time to take walks or just sit outside waving at her neighbors. She reads from books that she finds at thrift stores and then passes them on to friends. She has rid herself of excesses of any kind. She only keeps what she needs and her wants are minimal. She has found a kind of peace and happiness that is all too often absent for so many of us even with all of our devices that were supposed to make our lives better.
I suspect that we are still attempting to understand how to find balance in the wondrous electronic playground that surrounds us. We have not yet learned how to keep the best aspects of our inventiveness while avoiding the unexpected pitfalls of our modern ways. We allow our machines to become more important than our humanity. We are sometimes so addicted to our devices that they become the focus of our daily routines. They make demands on our time, our talents and our personalities and sometimes imprison us in a vacuous wasteland if we are not careful. We have to learn how to take back control and impose limits on how much we allow ourselves to be negatively affected by the very devices that should be making us happier and more free to experience the delights of the world around us. We must begin to wean ourselves away from our dependence on machines rather than people, easy answers rather than careful thoughts.
Our world is wondrous and I would never suggest that we go back in time. There is still so much that we have yet to discover. The possibilities and dreams are exciting, and the tools that we have will surely move us closer and closer to better lifestyles for everyone. We simply have to pause long enough now and again to assess the ways in which we interact with people around us and to consider whether or not we are using our tools for betterment or out of boredom. Our phones, computers, televisions, and other machines need to know who is in charge. It’s time that we begin the process of reflecting on how we might use them more wisely.