Have we lost our ability as a society to be civil and gracious to others?
I wonder this every single day as I watch the way our society has become disconnected from others, in part because of technology. I know this seems counter-intuitive – I know many folks think we are more connected than ever because of technology. But are we? Are we connecting with other human beings in our daily comings and goings in a way that shows we have care and concern for their humanness?
I think technology has changed us. Even though we are more able to connect instantaneously with anyone, we do so with a barrier that creates homogeneity in communication. An emoticon cannot convey empathy the same as a human facial expression that is right in front of you. Typing LOL is not the same as hearing and witnessing a robust laugh.
We are increasingly migrating toward a world where our connectivity is more cyber and artificial. In the process, I believe we are losing general skills and understandings that allowed us to navigate a face-to-face world. We are more within ourselves and less aware of, and engaged with, others. I think this affects the incidence of civility and polite behavior we see in our daily activities.
While I was searching for something online the other day I ran across a WikiHow page that attempted to teach folks how to be polite in 14 steps (with pictures). I realize that there is information online about every conceivable topic, but this page took me aback. It made me reflect upon the way I was taught the value and importance of being polite to others. I was reared with behavioral expectations both from my family and my faith. These expectations were the framing for my interactions in the world. This framing still exists in society, but it is complicated by a technology-driven lifestyle that allows these behaviors to be utilized and practiced less often.
I know a great deal of research has been done in this arena. One of my favorite books – iBrain – addresses the way technology is actually altering the mind and affecting our ability to be empathetic toward others. The paradox of the Internet has been on researchers radar for quite awhile. Early researchers asked the question – does social technology reduce social involvement and psychological well-being? I have done no research on this, but my anecdotal data that I have collected from observing life around me screams – “Yes!” We are losing important things here – we are losing our ability to connect to others in the most basic of ways.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not suffering under the delusion that the clock can be turned back. Technology is here to stay. The Internet is to communication today, what the daily newspaper and telephone were back in my childhood – information and connectivity are forever evolving. What I am suggesting though is that we focus a bit more intently on the unintended consequences of advancement and evolution that have changed us in ways that are not all positive. I don’t know if a WikiHow page on being polite is a fix for what ails us, but at this juncture I guess it is a sign of what a stop-gap measure looks like. I do not have the answers, but I have many questions and tremendous concern regarding what a future lacking in the basics – politeness, civility, graciousness, and connectivity to our humanness (often referred to collectively as kindness) – will be like.
Day one thousand three hundred and forty of the new forty – obla di obla da