Monday, September 9, 2013

Have We Lost Our Humanity?

In the news last week there was a story about a family from Guelph, Ontario, that caught my attention. For a year, this family has decided to live like it’s 1986. That means no computers, internet, or cell phones. And they’re dressing the part, too, with mullets and cut-off jeans. They’ve brought 1986 to the 21st century to embrace the simplicity of that era. That says a lot, to me anyway, about how we’ve evolved and the role technology has played in that evolution. Would I want to return to 1986 (I was thirteen then)? Probably not. But the fact that this family has evicted technology from their lives begs the question: Have we lost our humanity?
I was born in 1973. Pierre Elliott Trudeau was Prime Minister. Richard Nixon was President of the United States. Construction of the CN Tower began on February 6 of that same year. I grew up with the Atari game consoles, Commodore 64 and Vic-20. As a child, playing for me meant swimming in our pool, playing a game of Hide and Seek or Red Rover, building forts in the woods or going for long bike rides. In the summer, my parents took us camping, or on day trips to see relatives living in the country, or to pick strawberries followed by a picnic lunch. In the fall, we picked apples.
Maybe that’s why I’ve developed an aversion to technology. Don’t get me wrong because, as a multidisciplinary artist, the advances in technology that I have witnessed over the past forty years have helped me to launch and maintain my artistic career. Being an artist today means having a Facebook page, a Twitter and/or Instagram account, etc. The internet, social media, smart phones … It’s not necessarily the medium but how we use the medium that makes me wonder if we have in fact lost our humanity.
We’ve lost the art of conversation and with it some of our manners. Like the other day when I was at Liberty Shawarma, and the woman behind me maintained a full conversation on her cell phone while placing her order, and expected the clerk to wait for a suitable moment in her conversation before interrupting. Then there was the former colleague of mine who dumped his girlfriend by sending a 140-character tweet. And the hundreds of people lost in their own little bubble we see each day walking down the sidewalk or in the mall with their heads down while furiously manipulating the keyboard or touch screen of their cell phone. They’re completely oblivious to the world around them and the oncoming pedestrian traffic. When did everything become so important?
My mother always said I walked to the beat of a different drummer. On my days off I don’t answer my cell phone. In fact my cell phone is tucked away in a drawer and out of sight. I don’t check my e-mail after 6:30 pm, when my partner arrives home from work. On the rare occasion that I take my cell phone with me as I run errands, I step to the side (out of the pedestrian traffic flow) when I receive a text message or phone call (work-related) to which I “must” respond. My friends and I call each other and have long, good old-fashioned chats like people used to do in 1986. Remember the busy signal?
There’s just something human about sitting across from a friend, laughing and catching up over a coffee or bottle of wine. I get to hear their laugh that no smiley face emoticon can emulate. I hear the emotion in their voice, see the joy beaming in their eyes. That is what, in part, makes us human.
Pretending that it’s 1986 again, for me, isn’t perhaps the best method to deal with the growing place technology occupies in our lives. It’s not 1986, and society has changed but we’ve yet to really grapple with the ways in which technology has changed our lives — how we function on a daily basis — and how we interact with each other. Like Emily Post’s Etiquette, maybe we simply need to establish — for ourselves, for our families — etiquette around the use of technology in our lives. And perhaps in time this etiquette will evolve into socially accepted norms. This will allow us to, once again, find our humanity and become human.

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