Picking up some pizza at a favorite place the other week, it was hard not to notice that right by the counter a new TV had been installed. Hanging just where anyone entering or leaving the restaurant would see it, the screen toggled between stock photos of Italy and Italian food, and ads for local businesses: plumbers, electricians, elder care.
Despite all the suspicion of technology that fills this blog, I still found myself mesmerized by the new TV, and didn’t once look away from it as I waited for my food. I could say that I stood there with eyes glazed and drool coming out of my mouth, but that wouldn’t be true; I just happened to see it, and just happened to leave soon after.
And was it really so bad? Had the TV not been there, I would have just looked at my phone. But in the years before smartphones, would I have really done something better with my time other than staring off blankly and thinking about whatever? Would I really have struck up a conversation with a stranger or a waitress, or had some moment of insight which this TV now kept me from having?
On the contrary, it’s only because I saw the TV that I remember the moment at all; and as any of you can see who stop by here regularly, I’m still able to write a decent amount even amid all of our peculiarly modern distractions.
Which makes me wonder: are all the concerns over our addiction to smartphones or TV, or the ubiquity of advertising, just exaggerations? Even though it’s been pointed out that Silicon Valley parents send their kids to schools which don’t allow smartphones or tablets, I’m not sure that any of these things, even social media, can be condemned with some broad value judgment. Even if texting and Facebook can be put to horrible ends, their practical human use for allowing people separated by distance or social awkwardness to remain in contact is undeniable.
As with politics left and right, we tend to condemn those stances by using their most exaggerated adherents as examples. So that if we take away stories like the parents who let their newborn starve because they were addicted to online gaming; or the teenager shamed into suicide because of social media; or the guy who brought a gun to a pizza place after hearing online that a child sex ring was being run out of it, are we really left with a vastly different world than the one before? Are we really struggling anymore than before with how to interact with one another, or how we access and utilize information?
It seems to me that cruelty and stupidity always find a way, just as much as love does. Even if I said that, Well, technology should be limited to the young, until they figure out what “normal” socialization actually is, how would that be implemented? I spent my adolescence without the internet and a smartphone, and twenty years later still have no idea what normal socialization is. For many of us, communication via email or blogs is the best we will ever do, and they remain a lifeline; for many of us, face-to-face communication with another sympathetic human being is beyond a luxury, and always has been. And if in a particularly stressful few weeks somebody happens to unwind by binge-watching something on Netflix late at night, who are we really to judge?
At some point complaints about all of this make us sound like Luddites, or old farts terrified of the new rock and roll. But I would bet that the underlying social and cultural problems which technology has only intensified were there long before the iPhone showed up, and would still be there even if all we were doing was sitting around a fire.