Joy Beyond Technology

On Sunday, President Obama spoke at the commencement of Hampton University in Virginia, saying technology “puts new pressures on our country and on our democracy.” In his speech, he told the graduating students, “With iPods and iPads; Xboxes and PlayStations; information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment.”

“Information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment.”

I agree with what President Obama said, though I believe that as long as we are aware of the potential to be a distraction, technology can also be an enhancement to our lives.

I had an interesting discussion with my dad’s wife the other evening. We come from very different backgrounds. She was raised without television and computers, and I was raised in a family that kept the television on most of the day, if nothing else, as background noise to drowned out the chatter of my four siblings and me.

In our discussion, she expressed her frustration at technology today, and how it takes us away from being “real human beings,” about how we’ve forgotten how to write letters, sit and talk, ponder another human being’s feeling, rather than rushing a conversation between texts, phone calls, etc.

I’ll admit, at first I felt defensive, knowing I struggle and sometimes fail to completely set aside my technology to have a focused one-on-one conversation with a real human being, as opposed to a virtual one. But, I let my defensiveness go. After all, I’ve thought those same thoughts as I’ve watched people walk down the street, focused only on their cell phones while talking, texting, or listening to music. Whatever the techno-buddy cell phone provides, it permits them to shut out the real world. It’s the same in coffee shops or restaurants. We sit at tables with REAL people, but can’t seem to completely let go of our virtual world.

Is the once-removed communication cell phones and computers provide a wall of protection? And if so, what are we afraid of?

I will be the first to admit. I love email, enjoy the occasional text, participate fully in the Facebook world. All of that has made communicating with a wide variety of friends so much easier, and I’m back in touch with people I knew decades ago. Without technology, that never would have happened.

But, it has been unsettling a few times, when on Facebook, I discovered that a friend was ill, had surgery, or lost a loved one. So strange to learn of a major life event on a computer screen. But then, if it hadn’t been for Facebook, texting, whatever virtual source, I might not have known at all. Is this good or bad?

I’m thankful for the expanded ability to communicate through technology. But more and more, I also believe it’s important for us to remember to write a snail mail letter every once in awhile — they’re so much more meaningful, and now, even nostalgic. Send a real card by snail mail, rather than an e-card. I know I miss those days of watching the mail box for a letter or card. Go have coffee or lunch with a REAL friend. Watch his or her expressions or body language as you speak.

Technology has saved us valuable time by making communicating faster and easier. So, rather than filling up our extra time with even more technology, I believe we need to remember to use that time to exercise the things that make us human — those things that were so much a part of us before technology: tingling at the smile of a friend or loved one, feeling the warmth of human touch, or your heart flutter at the sound of joy or sorrow in a voice.

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