The threatening distance of technology

“You’re right next to me but I need an airplane

 

I can feel the distance as you breathe”

— Tori Amos, “China”

A few years ago, a student from the Middle East asked if I thought the world was getting smaller or larger. “Smaller” I answered, following the lines that modern modes of transportation and communication technology allows us to connect with people living far away. He disagreed. It’s getting larger because families are living farther apart.

I’ve thought about that youthful insight a lot lately. The smaller world concept allowed my younger son to visit last week. The larger is now that he’s returned to his home in Indiana as well as how far away I’ve felt from my father since he was hospitalized in Colorado last month.

The distance Tori Amos refers to in “China” isn’t measured by miles though. It’s the feeling we get when someone is close to us physically but the emotional bonds once shared have grown weak. The technology that helped make the word smaller can also push family members, friends and lovers in that direction.

Coming to terms with faltering relationships is never easy. It’s work to repair them. The alternative is the pain of loss and the unknown beyond separation. To avoid facing those choices, it’s not uncommon to hide the growing distance behind a newspaper, television or computer screen.

Of course, today there’s the ever-present smart phone to make avoidance even easier.

But these devices aren’t just distracting escapes from our troubles. Whether it’s text messaging or following far away friends on Facebook, a compulsive attachment to them will grow the distance between us and our real-life partner or friend sitting across the dinner table.

In a piece titled “Resist the Internet,” Ross Douthat called it “the real threat to the human future.” The conservative New York Times columnist believes spending excessive time online is to “experience the traditional graces of existence — your spouse and friends and children, the natural world, good food and great art — in a state of perpetual distraction.” It “breeds narcissism, alienation and depression” and can have an “insanity-inducing influence on the politically-engaged.”

It’s use, Douthat wrote, should be “sensibly restricted in custom and in law.” Aside from advocating tougher limits on cellphone use in cars, most of his ideas can be implemented without the help of government. University administrators could make rules keeping computers out of lecture halls. Restaurants owners could ask patrons to check their devices at the desk before being seated. Same for museums, libraries and cathedrals.

But one person’s vice is another’s freedom. And isn’t climate change a greater threat?

I pose these questions not as a competition between the issues, but to point out the commonalities they present. For one, we can’t have individual freedom without regard for its potential negative impacts on the commons. And in the age of information, advocates for solving either one will tend to seek out only like-minded individuals while generally ignoring everyone with an opposing point of view.

The internet has become a very effective tool for screening out what we don’t want to know. But limiting ourselves this way is masking the distance growing between members within our communities. We’re tending toward lateralizing polarized viewpoints by treating neighbors with whom we disagree as if they live on the opposite side of the planet.

How do we reverse this trend? Douthat says to start with the modern way of teaching our children. “Get computers — all of them — out of elementary schools” he wrote. “Let kids learn from books for years before they’re asked to go online for research; let them play in the real before they’re enveloped by the virtual.”

Then he goes further into Big Brother territory. “The age of consent should be 16, not 13, for Facebook accounts. Kids under 16 shouldn’t be allowed on gaming networks.” And cellphone providers should have to offer “voice-only” plans for minors.

“We just have to choose together” he concludes, “to embrace temperance and paternalism both.”

This balance between self-restraint and having it imposed from above is the one of the greatest challenges of a people’s government. But it’s necessary work. And it applies to gun ownership, environmental health and every individual and corporate freedom that has the potential to negatively impact others living beside us.

The choice is ours. We can work together in a civil manner to address the problems we face. Or we can continue in a self-imposed isolation of ideas. Choosing the latter won’t solve much. But it’ll guarantee that democrats and republicans, liberals and conservatives, will be an airplane ride apart even while living in the same city.


• Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident and retired civil engineer with more than 25 years of experience working in the public sector.


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