As smartphones and social platforms become more and more ubiquitous, debate continues over whether being connected all the time — even in a small way — is good for us, and that debate is probably never going to be settled. But even though I wrestle with the difficulties of ubiquitous connectivity and the “always on” social web, I believe that the vast majority of us are better off than we were before the internet came along.
What got me thinking about this again was a piece that Scottish novelist Andrew O’Hagen wrote in the New York Times‘ style magazine a few weeks ago, entitled “In Defense of Technology.” In it, the author talks about trying to convince his children that things were better when he was younger, before technology came along. But he admits that his heart isn’t really in it:
Past vs. future
This is not a popular view, by any means. Many parents — and even those who aren’t parents, but are simply observing other people’s behavior with their children — complain about the amount of time that kids spend with their phones, or iPads, or other devices. I confess that even I have forcefully encouraged my offspring to spend a little time outside on a sunny day, or asked them if they wouldn’t rather be talking with their “real friends.”
But O’Hagen is right when he says that we often have a rose-colored view of the past — a desire to paint it as more richly rewarding than it was, to make it seem as though spending hours walking to a library to try and check out a book is inherently better than reading one on a tablet. Or that asking people for directions is somehow more noble than using Google Maps.
That’s not to say there isn’t a risk in having a smart device always at our fingertips. I’ve written before about trying to rediscover the value of boredom — the kind we used to get as children, before the internet or smart devices, when we were forced to daydream or use our imaginations. And I enjoy having times when I disconnect and go for a walk, or paddle a canoe across a lake, or just listen to the kind of twittering that comes from birds instead of the kind that comes from a computer.
Your real friends
But then any activity can become restrictive if we do it all the time, not just being online. It’s good to take breaks from all kinds of things — but there is nothing magical about doing so that suddenly makes us better people. And when I tell my children to play with their “real friends,” they are right to get irritated with me: the friends that my teenaged daughters have made on Tumblr and Twitter and Instagram are real friends — just because they have never been in a room together doesn’t change that.
I can still remember an elderly relative scolding me for spending so much time on the telephone when I was a teenager, back when phones were attached to the wall. He told me that in his day, if you wanted to talk to somebody, then you bloody well put your boots on and went to visit them — implying that using a device to do so was evidence of some kind of moral failure.
An amazing gift
There are certainly all kinds of rude ways to behave when you have a mobile computer that fits in your pocket, and we are having to develop a whole new etiquette to deal with the effects of that. But at the same time, the fact that you can have all the world’s facts and entertainment at your fingertips — and that you can stay in touch with friends from around the world on the same device, with just the press of a button — is an amazing gift.
I’ve probably learned more about the world in the years since I got a mobile phone than I learned in the 30 years prior to that, and hopefully I am still learning. Almost every day, I take the phone out at the dinner table so we can learn something as a family — even something seemingly trivial. And every year I meet up with dozens people who I would never have known if it wasn’t for the connections I’ve created via Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
Can that kind of ubiquitous connectivity or the technology that enables it be abused? Sure it can — anything can be abused. But like O’Hagen, I wouldn’t give it up for anything. I am far better off having it than not having it, so long as I remember that I am the one in control of when I choose to use it and when I don’t.