We are accustomed to think that instant communications serve us well. They can be depended upon for emergencies and even improve relationships. However, a recent incident made me question just how instant and how communicative our modern gadgets are.
A friend of mine was traveling down the road one evening, and his car suddenly broke down. The left rear brake was red hot, and there was no way he was going to make it back home. He stopped at a Walmart parking lot and pondered his situation. Luckily, he had his cell phone that he could use to arrange for someone to pick him up.
Or at least that was what he thought. He called the first number and got voice mail. The second and third call had the same result. Eventually, he tried all the numbers of those who were in range. No one answered. No one responded even to text messages. He was stuck.
Since he was accompanied by a friend, the two decided to have dinner at a nearby Chinese restaurant. There was not much more he could do. After dinner, he tried again and luckily they called the car I was in and explained his plight. We promptly headed in his direction and picked them up.
I mention this isolated incident because I suspect it is not so isolated. The fact that no one answered, surprised but did not shock me. It is believable since everyone has experienced the frustration of finding no one at the other end of the line. Everyone has come to hate the mechanical voice that announces that your message has been forwarded to an automatic voice message system.
The incident also serves to illustrate there are many illusions associated with our faith in instant communication. It promises so much yet often fails to deliver.
The Illusion of Instant Connectivity
The first illusion is that of instant connectivity. It really is not instant, and it often does not connect. People claim they need cell phones for connectivity, especially in cases of an emergency. Phones will always help get ahold of friends and family. However, the small emergency just mentioned proves that technology can fail. In this case, having “instant” connectivity proved little better than the ancient yet ubiquitous pay phone.
However, this illusion of connectivity can be taken one step further when a person comes to be obsessed with the connection itself. The person feels full of anxiety without a constant and instant link with the world. It foments what has been called the fear of missing out syndrome (FOMO). People have the illusion that being connected is a lifeline. Insinuated in this urgent need is the notion that the world cannot live without an instant connection to the individual. The message is: I am important.
Incidents when technology fails show us that the world can get along fine without us. We are not that important. We might as well get something to eat. Some commentators have reported on what they call JOMO – the joy of missing out. There are times when disconnection can be good and improve our well-being.
The Illusion of Better Relationships
A second illusion about this instant connectivity is that it can improve relationships by facilitating communications. Everyone claims that cell phones make connecting with others easier between individuals and distant family members. However, this is not always true. They can also hinder communication.
I am sure that when my friends went into the crowded Chinese restaurant to drown their sorrows in a bowl of Wonton soup, there were those around them checking their i-phones instead of engaging in conversation. Everyone has experienced or even participated in these bizarre yet all too common scenes of social desolation. Technology promises to provide global networks of contacts while failing to consider the person directly in front of the other.
The Illusion of More Communication
The final illusion is that instant connection provides more communications. It does offer more opportunities, but more is not always better. When my friend was calling for help, I am sure many of those who were called did not give importance to the call. They receive so many calls and messages. There are just too many of them. In fact, many people have stopped using their smartphones as phones since they consider text messages and other apps much easier. Others have complained to me that people don't read emails anymore. They just rush through them trying to get the gist of what is written before deleting.
Indeed, short and direct text messages supposedly facilitate getting things done with minimal effort. However, the mechanical brutality of such messages can fail to deliver the emotion and nuance that are so essential to human communication. The short text or tweet requires little reflection and is so easily sent, that it can often lead to misunderstandings.
The human voice is much more expressive than mere text or emojis. Voice has a richness that conveys mood, tone and conviction. However, it also requires more effort, civility and more reflection.
Due to technology, never have people been so connected in history. Yet never have they experienced such loneliness and depression. People mistake the technology for the human acts, which they should facilitate. The key player in the use of technology should always be the person and not the machine.
John Horvat II is a scholar, researcher, educator, international speaker, and author of the book Return to Order: From a Frenzied Economy to an Organic Christian Soceity--Where We've Been, How We Go Here, and Where We Need to Go. He lives in Spring Grove, Pennsylvania, where he is the vice president of the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property.