The Machine Stops

2 10 2012

Space Shuttle Atlantis: remember the excitement in the early days of the space shuttle?

Technology has undeniably changed our world, and for the better. Stop for a moment, put down your iPhone, turn off the t.v. or radio, and think about all the great things we’ve accomplished through technological advances.  Although there are a myriad of problems, i.e. global warming, pollution, nuclear weapons, that have accompanied our development, the over-all picture is quite impressive.  Now use some of that technology to watch this amazing video to get some perspective on what we’ve accomplished:

Hans Rosling’s 200 Countries, 200 Years, 4 minutes

Many of the things that seem to be central to our lives, like cell phones, and the internet didn’t exist a generation ago.  When I consider all the changes we’ve witnessed in my lifetime, I have to ponder where we’ll be in another 50 or 100 years.  It sure seems that our scientific advancements are expanding at an exponential rate.  Who knows what’s right around the corner?  How much change will our children experience during their lifetimes?

Endeavor’s final flight. The end of an era.

There are obvious benefits from all these advancements, but what are the costs? Sure, I could talk about hot topics of the day like climate change, or the poor working conditions of the people making my iPhone.  As important as these issues may be, that’s not where my head’s at today.

No, the price of all this technology that I’m concerned with is more fundamental to our daily experience as human beings.  I think it’s effects on us are more subtle, more detrimental than greenhouse gasses.  We’re paying the price every day, on a more individual, personal level, without thinking twice.  We are allowing the virtual reality of our technology to take the place of the actual reality we’re surrounded by.

Never before have we been so “connected” as we are today.  You can’t find an eating or drinking establishment that doesn’t have at least one giant, flat screen television to help fill the apparent void that existed prior to this annoying trend.  We can email, text, call, Skype, or post on Facebook.  With a smartphone, we can do all of this from pretty much anywhere, 24/7/365.  Indeed, just like a drug addict, people can’t seem to wait to check and see if there’s any news.

Yet, with all of this “connectedness,” how connected are we?

I see people who are completely disconnected from their immediate surroundings, oblivious to the world around them; individuals walking down the sidewalk talking on their cell phone, kids in the car playing games on their Nintendo DS, or groups of teens sitting in the mall all texting on their phones.  While having dinner with my family recently, I witnessed a mother and young son in the booth next to us, who, for the entire duration of their meal, were completely dis-engaged. She was totally absorbed in her smartphone, while the boy was lost in his hand-held video game.  There was absolutely NO interaction between the two.  Even their food was treated as a side dish to the electronic entree’ they were so totally engrossed in.

People will interrupt a conversation they’re engaged in to take a call, or to return a text.  (I’ve caught myself committing this inconsiderate act myself upon occasion)  There’s those that carry on their conversation the entire time they’re in the check out line, juggling the phone, their purchases, and their credit card, barely able to fulfill their fiscal obligation with the cashier, let alone demonstrate any type of social courtesy towards said cashier.  It’s so easy to think that beep or ring needs to be answered, but how much of that stuff could quite simply wait?  How many of us are really so important?  Is it the POTUS texting?  Are hundreds of lives at stake? I really doubt that call couldn’t wait until after your lunch.

From the purely practical viewpoint of a martial artist, this oblivious state of being is in violation of the first, and most vital, tenant of self defense: Be Aware of Your Surroundings.  Predators are very selective in choosing victims.  It is not simply random chance.  They look for individuals who are most likely to submit with the least amount of resistance.  People who are unaware of what’s going on are more likely to be caught off guard, shocked, and freeze, unable to respond in an effective manner.  Predators know this.  Shouldn’t we?

The fact is, the odds of us being mugged, or otherwise accosted, are really quite slim.  Driving, on the other hand, is one of the most dangerous activities the majority of us engage in on a daily basis.  How many of us increase those odds by engaging in “distracted driving?” I quit using my phone while driving after the fourth or fifth time I found myself at my destination, unable to remember any of the trip getting there.

So I have to ask myself, what kind of a world are we creating through our actions?  The more we become “plugged in” to the virtual reality of our phones, computers, and televisions, the more disconnected we become from the world and people around us.  Sure, it’s convenient, engaging, and oftentimes efficient.  And, yes, it puts us at a much higher risk, while out and about. But what about our humanity? What about our society? At the rate our technology is changing, where will our civilization be in another generation or two?

E. M. Forster pondered this same question in his The Machine Stops.  Click the link to read chapter one, and then guess what year he wrote this amazingly prescient short story.



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