We’re at the point of no return, that’s clear to me. We’ve collectively jumped into the abyss of the digital world and it is now second nature for many if not most of us to communicate throughout the day to friends, family and co-workers via emails, instant messaging or texts. Phone conversations take back seat to electronic communication especially for those under thirty. Face-to-face? What’s that? Don’t get me wrong. I myself am in front of a computer screen much of the day and bumping into bulldozers as I walk down the street on the cell phone. And I love to text. But I am concerned.
Our love affair with all things digital keeps us occupied on Facebook, YouTube, cell phones, iPods, blogs, video games, news sites and online entertainment not to mention the requirements of work. I am especially concerned for younger generations that are awash in cultural ADHD, hopping from one gadget or website to the next or becoming so hyper-focussed on a compelling electronic game that they can’t be drawn away for “live” interaction. Our hunger for electronic stimulation is insatiable. I keep wondering why we’re never full and if the generations that have grown up in the digital age have room on their plates to savor the taste of genuine human contact. And, importantly, do they recognize the losses that go with the gains of the digital age?
I got a partial answer the other day. I had the poignant pleasure of popping into one of my old high-school haunts on a recent visit to Chicago, Pizzeria Due, a deep dish pizza place. The aroma generated an instant flashback as did the surroundings, only it felt a bit like a dream constructed in the movie Inception; not all the detail was still there. Most critically, decades of high school sweethearts’ names scrawled on walls and table tops had been whitewashed and varnished over, creating a less earthy albeit cleaner look. As my sister and I were waxing nostalgic, and about to exit with our pizza, the young host asked us if we were happy with our service. I felt compelled to blurt that I’d been a regular patron in my high school days (some many years ago) and we were back to check out the old stomping ground.
The conversation that ensued took my breath away more than the nostalgia or the mouth watering smell of sausage. This young man was clearly twenty-something and the first words out of his mouth were, “It must have been nice then.”
“What do you mean by that?” I asked.
Him: “Well…my mom tells me things were just slower then without all the electronics.” (Wistfully – as if imagining what that must have been like.)
Me: “How do you think things are different now?”
Him: “Everything’s more pressured.”
Me: “What’s your experience? What do you see?”
Him: “People on their phones at dinner. Not talking to each other. Taking longer to order.”
Me: “How does that affect you?”
Him: “I have to wait longer for people to decide on orders…it delays other tables.”
Me: “Do you feel pressured?”
Me: “Do you have kids?” (I ask because if you have kids you feel even more pressured. And if you don’t have kids and you feel pressure…well then it’s got to be pretty serious.)
Him: “No…but my girlfriend calls me at work and even though I don’t answer right away I feel pressured to get back to her.”
His expression conveyed such sadness I wanted to jump over the reception desk to put a consoling arm around him. All I could muster was a “Wow…It’s really interesting to hear that you feel that way too. Yup – these are different times.”
And boy, are they. But we’re not helpless victims to an invasive digital monster. We pro-actively engage and seek out the stimuli. The challenge for each of us in the digital age is to consciously choose what to indulge in and where to draw the line. Including setting boundaries with girlfriends, boyfriends, spouses and kids who expect 24/7 availability. We need to “just say no”.