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.


17 thoughts on “Crying Wolf?

  1. We are social creatures, whether we are introvert or extrovert. And being individuals we are not “predictable”. Thus we agree with you it is not the technology that we should focus on, but the people. There’s a saying “a poor workmen blames his tools” and we should not do the same!

  2. I think “broad value judgments” are not logical. This broad’s value judgment is that I feel like our culture infantilizes adults, with the need to provide constant distraction and entertainment (i.e. Televisions in every possible corner). I’m a huge fan of staring blankly into space, noticing details, having quiet places to be. It’s a skill set I practice as a buffer between me and a very noisy, very distracted world.

  3. Yes. Part of our personality? Some people love striking up superficial chats; some people feel closer to other people through the written word; and most people simply socialize with their co-workers, family and friends.
    People have not changed through the centuries, just been surrounded by different stuff and tools. So, perhaps we are using technology according to our personality? I would say: do what feels right for you without judging what others do.

  4. Tim, I absolutely love this line: I spent my adolescence without the internet and a smartphone, and twenty years later still have no idea what normal socialization is.

    Yup. Me, too.

    At the least social media helps me stay connected to something outside my head!

    Great post. Thank you.

  5. When I go to pick up pizza or a burger, I used to take a book. These days I take along my kindle to get in some reading on the run. Same thing when I am waiting in line at the grocery store. Since I am usually reading three or four books at a time, this is perfect. To carry the book might be a little too much but the kindle fits perfectly in my hand.

  6. Rather than stepping into the unknown, your words show a very balanced view of modern life and it’s never ending conundrum: Should we accept the new, or fight to stay rooted to the past? Times have always been called Modern, no matter how long ago they existed. I get it. Humans have managed to scare themselves into believing things are getting worse ever since they ‘sat around the fire’, as you say. We’ve lived through eons of each generation ‘crying wolf’. It’s time to stop. The moments wasted aren’t on TV and social media. They’re the hours spent worrying over some imaginary shared calamity. People have survived on this planet since the beginning of time. We’re not going to stop now. Even if all electronic devices stop working, climate change reconfigures Earth’s geography, and we have to revert to a Paleolithic lifestyle, we’ll survive. Or, according to the most optimistic predictions, we become interconnected with our technologies, we will progress from there. I’m happy with either outcome.

  7. Contrarian that I am, I’ll spare a kind thought for “old farts terrified of the new rock and roll.” Those old farts spent their lives trying to create a stable world for their kids, and many of them saw horrors in the worst war in human history to date. But then the kids start treating repetitive rhythmic frivolities like profound art, valuing release over decorum and feeling over thought and striving to emulate—surely the most confusing thing to many white parents at the time—the poorest, the marginalized, the least privileged.

    The world didn’t collapse, of course, but their world did. For many of them, it must have been disorienting, for more than a few, disheartening. I don’t think we necessarily need to agree with them to understand why they were afraid of new, untested social rules that might bring chaos or render them obsolete.

    (You know, if I were still a teacher, I might assign this as a rhetorical exercise: take the position of the parents who were shocked by Elvis’s gyrating hips…)

  8. Reblogged this on Gail's Blog and commented:
    Tim Miller crystallizes what I have been trying to convey to the naysayers of technology.

    Without my computer, I would not have started blogging, which has given me a creative outlet, a form of self-therapy and an online community connection. Without my mobile devices, I would be tied to my desk and unable to keep in touch with special contacts on the go. I would not be able to post as I am doing now, at 5 a.m., in the dark, in my bed.

    My devices serve as a welcome distraction when I need to be patient while waiting my turn or when I am bored in the company of people ignoring me. Devices enable me to indulge my longing for control and organization, and animosity toward mounds of paper.

    People I know who are not only adverse to but also take offense to devices, have their own distractions, which include filling their homes with sentimental objects and photos. They claim we’ve lost human connection. I would not begrudge them their emotional attachments or face-to-face engagements. Some of these people have a hard time letting things go. Likewise, I expect them to hold their judgment about my appreciation for the tools that help me work through my emotions, engage others with thoughts and humor, organize my stuff, and let go of thoughts through the magic of the written word.

  9. Thanks for this Jeff, I think a fuller reply to part of your comment will actually be my next post on Wednesday. For now, though, weren’t the parents who looked askance at rock the ones who embraced jazz when they were young, & it’s their parents that were scandalized, etc.? Certainly jazz is thought more “profound” than rock music these days, but still, I do wonder how much of this is what always happens, a reaction against the new. I would love for everyone to have Wordsworth & Eliot’s “Four Quartets” on their bookshelves, but I can’t honestly tell them their lives will be emptier without it, or that they can’t find meaning through, as you say, repetitive rhythmic frivolities. I’ll write more for Wednesday, but what do you think? Whatever you hold dear has lasted nearly a thousand years & more already, all the medieval stuff, & if what we value today is also meant to last, won’t it outshine what we think of as frivolity, in time?

  10. Thanks for the reblog & comment, Gail. This is about the only time I’ve defended technology on my site, and it is and only for the reasons you give: for the isolated many & the unread writer, or the friendships for those who mostly don’t have them, but now suddenly do with someone across the state or country or world. That’s pretty much priceless. I do think that technology today is more insidious in the past, it’s made almost certainly on purpose to exploit our weaknesses & keep us watching & clicking for days at a time; & certainly many are being dumbed down by it. But I imagine that’s the case with anything new; if we can turn somebody else’s rubbish marketing ploy to real meaning, why shouldn’t we?

  11. Agreed. The omnipresence of exploitation is unquestionable, but denigrating something in its entirety is not the answer. Some books may promote an ideology or morality that goes against our grain. That doesn’t justify book burning.

  12. I do agree with you that no matter how modern technology can get, there is something inherent in us that technology can’t change. In my own experience, albeit, it does help me to be able to express myself more (internet connection and computer has enabled me to create a blog and share my writings to anyone who appreciates them) but there are still some things I could not seem to get over with, and that is, I am unable to express myself verbally in straight English.

  13. TIm, sorry to take so long to reply to your response! I was mostly just taking a position for the sake of argument, because I have around 8,000 pop songs on my iPod and certainly know what it’s like to be a kid caught up in the immediate artistic energy of his own generation. And yet…

    I’m not the sort to corner any poor soul and press Eliot into their hands and demand that they better themselves thereby—but the older I get, the more strenuously I advocate that people, especially young people, dip their toes in culture that’s deeper and older than their usual fare. I didn’t set foot in an art museum until I was maybe 20, and I didn’t see a professional production of Shakespeare until I was nearly 30, and boy, I wish the adults in my life had known to point me toward this stuff when I was younger. I came close to missing out, which is why I never take all of these wonderful things for granted. It’s also why I’m getting less shy about pushing people to partake of something, anything, above their comfort zone. In the end, I don’t mind if my favorite artists or writers leave someone else cold; I just want to see people having unexpected and surprising encounters with art. They know what they’re getting with the umpteenth Iron Man movie; something not produced by a big media corporation might surprise and delight (or anger or annoy) them in important new ways. I suppose I don’t have faith that the good stuff survives unless some of us occasionally act a little bit snobby. (And as a medievalist, I’m also all too aware of how much rich and beautiful work we’ve lost.)

    None of this, of course, is a refutation of your larger point, only a defense of the much-maligned “kids these days!” argument, which, as an aging writer I have a vested interest in seeing recognized as rhetorically valid.

  14. It’s amazing to me that I grew up without a smartphone or streaming on demand television. I believe my parents raised me to watch little television and encouraged me to play outside as much as possible. Television is now being used as a babysitter tool

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