4 delusions of the digital age

Homer Delusional 01We are at an epic crossroads in our culture. The Digital Age is now a reality, yet there are many of us who still remember life before computers entrenched themselves in everyday experience.

This is what they call a generation gap, and there have been a lot of debates and nostalgia trips going on. Gen Xers, like their parents before them, are reminiscing about a “simpler time,” while Millennials are busy defending the awesomeness of their lifestyle. As a member of Gen X, it is sort of my sworn duty to uphold the Analog World, though I am not a technophobe. I think Google is the most useful invention since the automobile, and email has been my preferred method of communication since about 1998.

Technology is great when used properly but let’s face it: human beings are mostly slow-witted egotists who rarely use technology for the betterment of society. The discovery of fire lead to arson, the printing press begat propaganda and the internal combustion engine gave us NASCAR. It’s not technology I distrust, it’s people.

Let’s take a look at how the current generation is deluding itself in regards to new technology.

Delusion #1: The digital world is making us more educated and smarter.

The internet has opened the floodgates of information, but access to information is not the same thing as learning.

Just because you’re good at trivia doesn’t mean you are smart. True intelligence lies in the ability to process information and then apply it. Sure, the internet is the largest repository of data in the history of mankind, but how many of us are really putting that to use? The average person is on Wikipedia trying to find out if Channing Tatum was ever one of Beyonce’s back-up dancers, not looking up schematics to help them build a better rotary engine.

A larger problem is the prevalence of misinformation. These days my first reaction to almost everything I see on the web is: “That’s gotta be fake.” The internet is a free-for-all where anyone can post anything; there are no “gatekeepers” anymore. This can be a good thing if you’re living in a dictatorship, but in a capitalist society where clicks equal cash, websites will post and re-post without the slightest thought of accuracy or validity. That’s why we now have entire sites dedicated to media screw-ups. How does that make the world smarter?

Delusion #2: The digital world is making us more creative.

This is another misjudgment by quantity. Everyone likes to think they are “creative” but the reality is that most people just aren’t. There are millions of people on Tumblr and Instagram posting bad pictures with moronic captions, and this masquerades as creativity. YouTube is much of the same. There is nothing creative about standing in front of a camera dancing to a cheesy pop song or doing a shot-for-shot recreation of a scene from a 20-year-old movie.

Coloring books are fun and every kid loves them, but contrary to popular belief they do not involve creativity (yes, even those of you who colored outside the lines). Creativity starts with a blank piece of paper. But the bigger issue is distraction. A recent Technology Tell article made the point that “Boredom doesn’t breed creativity– sensory input does.” There is validity to that statement; however, I’d also say that boredom (or more accurately: free time) facilitates creativity while constant sensory input hampers it. This is why television got branded The Idiot Box. Your TV set just constantly bombards you with sound and images which keeps your brain occupied without actually using much of it. Nowadays, on top of TV you have the internet and smart phones functioning as Handicapper General. (Note to Millenials: Google “Harrison Bergeron.”)

Not long ago I was in a public place and I noticed this young woman repeatedly pulling out her phone and texting. She did it so frequently I became fascinated by the behavior. The phone would come out, she’d give it a quick look, type something, and then put it away – repeat, repeat, repeat. This went on for easily 20 minutes. I started timing the intervals when the phone was in her pocket. The longest – repeat, longest – stretch was 8 seconds. Eight Seconds. That doesn’t leave much time for creativity. Now you could infer that she was making plans or basically having a conversation with someone, yet if she was expecting a reply why did she keep putting the phone away? I suspect she was getting texts from multiple people regarding multiple topics and I suspect she does this all the time. Which leads me to the next misconception…

Image via http://www.softwareag.com

Image via http://www.softwareag.com

Delusion #3: The digital world is making us better at communicating.

Once again, we are confusing quantity with quality. Sure, we are better able to communicate, but because we are dealing with a constant barrage of phone calls, emails, texts, IMs, etc., no one has time to properly digest the messages. How many times has someone replied to one of your emails with a question that was already answered in the initial email? Why? Because we all get 100 emails a day so we can’t possibly read them in their entirety.

This volume of communication has also led to time-saving trends that cause miscommunication, like the over-use of abbreviations. Abbreviations and acronyms are forms of jargon that create confusion and exclusion. Don’t believe me? Listen in on a conversation between two people from your company’s IT department, or spend 10 minutes on a military base, and you’ll understand (or I should say you won’t understand at all).

Moreover, our increased reliance on text-based communication has handcuffed us. Take a Communications 101 class and the first thing they will tell you is that communication is 80 percent non-verbal, meaning it’s a lot more than just the words; body language, tone of voice, facial cues all help us express our meaning. All of that is lost in pure text. This is why Facebook has become a seething battleground of angry discourse – sarcasm doesn’t translate in the written word. And I’ve got news for all you tweeters, limiting yourself to 140 characters is merely an exercise in communication the way that Haiku is an exercise in poetry… and Haiku sucks.

Delusion #4: Modern technology is creating a global community.

This seems true because a guy from Tupelo can talk to someone in Oslo via Skype and anyone can access websites from any nation in the world. Sure, digital “communities” can be more globally diverse, but they also tend to be very segmented. We all pick and choose our preferred websites, social media platforms and entertainment providers but everyone chooses differently, thus we all live in different worlds.

I have one group of friends who are on Facebook regularly and another that has never used it once. Folks with a Netflix subscription assume everyone has seen “House of Cards” (we haven’t) and Redditors have a much different definition of what qualifies as a viral video than most of us.

Sure, the internet has created one big tent, but it’s so big that each of us is huddled in our own corner thinking we’re enlightened when we’ve never even met the group right next to us, let alone the folks on the other side of the center pole.

Check out Technology Tell writer (and Millennial) Devon Razey’s response to this article

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