Department of Sociology Athabasca University
By Andrew Forgione
Life. Try to imagine it without technology. At least in North America, this is no easy feat. Everywhere you look in our world, technology is present. Each generation for millennia has felt the effects of a different form of technology. Currently, technology is growing at an exponential rate, with each forthcoming week producing an obsolete item for consumers to lament on. Technology has become so essential to our society that there have been studies conducted on the effects it has on socialization and interaction between individuals (Orlikowski 398). It has increased our quality of life, yet had dramatic effects on the surrounding Earth. Now capable of transforming virtually any landmass into a habitable region, technology has enhanced the possibilities of the human race. It has also changed how we interact with one another and the workplace environment we frequent on a daily basis. This paper seeks to analyze the change that technology has brought on our society in the past few decades, and provide an insightful, introspective approach to a life without network technology.
Social media and network technology have come a long way in the past decade. For example, the new social media application Google+ has taken sixteen days to reach ten million users. The popular Twitter social media application took 780, while Facebook took 852 days, respectively (Sawers). Technology has emerged as a driving force of modern day society. As a child, I recall playing with cardboard boxes and having a unique imagination throughout the days. Currently, I have family members who are very young and have items such as iPods and cell phones that take away from their inventive sides. Technology is changing how we interact with one another, how we interact with ourselves, and how we interact with our environment.
In my youth, the Internet was just starting to become widespread. We explored social media tools such as MSN Messenger to keep in touch with classmates and family. What became apparent upon recent reflection was how little I began interacting with friends physically, but how often I did on the Internet. I found myself becoming sleep deprived as I sacrificed sleep to message someone a few trivial facts and conversation that could have waited until the morning. My father always said, ‘if you talk [to friends] all night on the computer, what will you tell them when you see them tomorrow?’ This statement came true when I began my high school years, as stories would be told with such immediacy that I would find myself on a subway car with all my closest friends in complete silence. Would this be the case if network technology did not exist? It made me incredibly accessible at almost any moment, which translated into very different and ongoing social interactions as well.
Accessibility is a key aspect of network technology and the Internet in general. Cell phones are now capable of having emails pushed in real time, which actually blurs the lines between work and leisure. Prior to this capability, when someone left work it was much easier to understand that their daily paid or unpaid tasks were complete and it was now time to spend some precious moments with family and friends. With its introduction, emails are responded to well into the night and create countless social complications at home (Perlow 328). It is now, especially due to technology, exceedingly challenging to leave your work in the workplace instead of bringing it home. A coworker is now able to contact an employee effortlessly and actually expect a response the same hour in most cases. Therefore, through the introduction and obsession with network technology, we have increased the time expectations of social responses, and led ourselves into a much faster paced life with fewer boundaries.
Additionally, this lack of time spent on personal reflection has perhaps been a factor leading to the massive increase in use of psychological services in university and young adults. Even in my youth life felt much simpler and more in control. I had time to reflect on my life and interact with individuals on a personal basis daily. The key aspect of this interaction was that it was meaningful, which went a long way for personal growth and development. Although we may have more social interactions as a result of network technology, if they are not meaningful then they may not do anything but cause mental stress on the individual. It was not uncommon to find myself lonely, even though I had a number of ongoing cyber conversations on the fly. There was something different about reality versus cyber reality, and the real deal was something humans strive for. Without it, something always felt missing, which could potentially lead to higher stress levels or mental illness.
It is relatively clear that the dynamic between individuals on a daily level has changed with the introduction of more handheld electronic devices programmed with network technology. I have noticed that public bus rides have become anti social and extremely uncomfortable to the point where almost all passengers seem to be in their own world on some sort of networking device. Very rarely does one actually engage in meaningful conversation with the passenger sitting in the seat over. If you walk downtown Toronto or New York you will quickly realize that many walk with their heads down on some sort of device, rarely looking up to see the blue skies or the bigger picture. This is typical of the sort of fast paced effect that technology has bestowed upon our society. It seems to have taken away from meaning and vision in our lives, while putting an emphasis on short term, small-scale tasks and actions. Overall, I strongly believe that network technology and its rise to popularity truly impacted how we prioritize our lives. If it did not exist in the relative importance that it currently holds I believe that we would interact on public transit, on the streets, and in a much more meaningful manner.
A major transformation I have noticed over the course of my life is the type of values within the relationships fostered between individuals who are engulfed with the modern technological trend. For example, I have noticed many more connections between individuals made through online interactions, yet many of them lack profundity and values. It is considerably more difficult to establish values such as trust, respect, and loyalty through online interactions without actually experiencing daily physical relationships. When I started out on some networking applications, such as Facebook, I had only close friends to connect with. Connections were meaningful, possessed direction and purpose, and were built around already trustworthy networks and friends. Now, I have over 1500 friends listed on the application and a day does not go by where I do not recognize a name in my list due to a lack of connectivity for an extended period of time. Facebook allows for individuals to add one another to a network after a one-time interaction, leading to a different type of social relationship formed. Over the years a sort of ‘internet courage’ has arisen, where people may hide behind their avatars and words can be much less values based as a result.
With the advent of new technology, we truly get caught up in the anonymity of the Internet, and it may affect how we act in reality. Someone can be quite courageous and social in cyber reality, but this does not directly correlate to how they will act in reality. Network technology and social media have both allowed society to connect much more effectively, yet perhaps it inhibits our daily social skills. I have experienced talking to someone over email and online chat and then when put in a face-to-face situation I sometimes act very differently than how I felt online. Technology can form a protective wall between the two individuals talking, whereas this was not the case decades ago. It was much harder to hide behind your words.
Information Technology (IT) has encouraged and facilitated the increase of societal safety through connectivity; yet also contributes to new and diverse types of criminal behavior. Technology has allowed police and military personnel to better track unlawful behavior, and better monitor the negligent actions of society. For example, there are now strict guidelines for computer and cell phone use at work, and a separate department within large corporations to closely monitor it. The department even has the ability in some cases to let employees go based on usage violations. Without the magnitude of technology that we currently have within society, the workplace would be a very different environment. Without this level of technological integration, I believe the workplace would be much more comfortable as there are less avenues for employer surveillance and other areas of potential stress and powerlessness.
However, perhaps the productivity would be far lower than what it is today, and society would not be able to accomplish what it currently does. Security cameras and software trackers mimic – in an interesting way – Jeremy Bentham’s concept of the Panopticon. The concept rests on the basic principles that the observer can watch the observation targets without them knowing if they are truly being watched (Bentham 5). This was most effective in prisons to keep the inmates in line throughout their term. This creates a feeling that we are always being watched, and I strongly believe that without the level of technology that we currently have, this would not be the case. Technology binds us to the workplace and forces us, through novel addictions, to become slaves to networks and social media. On a more positive note, it also creates a number of unbelievable opportunities where we can excel and grasp new frontiers and experiences.
Overall, network technology allows us to connect on a much higher social level than ever before. If social media or network technology did not exist, I would most likely communicate through face-to-face interactions. They would be much more personal without this element of technology, yet also take longer to accomplish and require more energy to actually connect. For example, I would have to walk over to a friend’s house to chat in most cases, instead of sending a few messages over computer or cell phone. Although it is difficult to undertake, I picture a world that is much simpler and calmer without the level of technology currently in place. We would have meaningful conversations more often, and connect with individuals on a values based approach, not a mindless social media frenzy. I guess the point of this statement is that the world would be a much different place from what it is now, whether it is seen as positive or negative is completely up to the person contemplating it. This introspective paper has allowed me to reflect on the society we currently live in, and the role that technology and social media have both played in my own life. Interestingly enough, even writing this paper would have been much more difficult without network technology. Several friends were consulted and research was conducted in the comfort of my own living room in front of a computer – a comfort now taken for granted. Network technology is a powerful tool used for educational purposes, but if taken too seriously and made into an obsession, it could pose quite a few threats to our society.
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