Herald Journal Columns
March 20, 2006, Herald Journal

Technology hangover

We are headed for a technology hangover.

We have allowed ourselves to be seduced by cell phones, fax machines, e-mail, the internet, laptop computers, and Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs).

We have copiously imbibed in every new advance in electronic wizardry, and now we are going to pay for it.

Part of the allure, or perhaps the rationalization, for acquiring these things, was the notion that they would make us more productive.

One wonders whether there is any support for this argument. There is little doubt that technology has made us busier, but that does not mean we are more productive.

It is a familiar scene; you arrive in the office full of energy and ready to take on the world. But, by the time you wade through 57 voice messages and a few dozen e-mails, and then move on to the stack of faxes, you are ready for lunch.

We aren’t doing more work; we are just working differently.

Things have changed in our personal lives as well. There was a time when, if two people were sitting in a restaurant having a conversation, it would have been considered incredibly rude if one party interrupted the other to take a call on a cell phone. Now, this behavior goes largely unnoticed (the other party doesn’t mind, because it gives him a chance to check his voice mail, e-mail, or maybe the sports scores on his mobile web-capable cell phone, while he is waiting for the other party to return to the conversation).

Some people have convinced themselves that they are so utterly indispensable that the office will be thrown into chaos, and commerce will come to a screeching halt, if they are not available by cell phone every minute of every day to solve problems.

It seems unlikely that this is true, and if it is true, it is very sad indeed.

It is not just in bars or restaurants that people are chained to their cell phones. Wherever one goes these days, there is likely to be someone shouting into a cell phone (some people are apparently incapable of speaking on a cell phone in a normal voice. Either they do not understand how phones work, or they are determined to draw attention to themselves, and to the fact that they are so important that they are in demand wherever they go).

I have even seen people commit the ultimate breech of protocol by bringing cell phones onto the golf course.

I must confess that, while I don’t do the shouting thing, when it comes to dependence on cell phones, I am as guilty as the next person.

When I was young, cell phones were still in the realm of science fiction, and were something we could only dream about. Now, I can’t imagine life without my mobile. On the rare occasions when I am away from my phone, I feel naked. I feel disconnected and out of touch, and my stress level increases until my phone is safely back on my person.

Another side effect of technology is that it makes us stupid. Or at least it makes us seem like we are. All of these remote data storage devices erode our memory by eliminating the need for us to remember things on our own.

Some of us have become so dependent on voice dial and speed dial to reach frequently called numbers that we don’t retain them ourselves. I have actually seen people who had to consult their cell phone to look up their own number because they did not remember it.

There are people that I call every day whose number I don’t know because I simply tell the phone the name of the person I wish to reach, and it makes the connection automatically.

If I need an address, I almost always have to consult my computer.

To be fair though, it is a lot more complicated than it used to be.

Instead of having to remember just one number for each of our friends, we might have to keep track of two or three phone numbers and a couple of e-mail addresses for everyone we know.

The electronic age has even invaded the small resort in northern Minnesota where my family and friends have been vacationing for decades.

The primitive cottages still look the same as they did when they were built in the early 1930s, but now, when one is sitting watching the lake, in addition to seeing the ducks and loons, it is not uncommon to see people in bathing suits lounging at a picnic table on the shore, checking e-mail or flight schedules on their laptops via the resort owner’s wireless internet connection.

The availability of technology has robbed us of the ability to relax. We feel compelled to be doing something, not because it needs to be done, but simply for the sake of doing something.

Technology can be amazing, but it has a dark side.

Dependence on technology has reduced our ability to retain information and put us in a dangerous position.

I recall one dark day when the memory on my PDA got erased. My life flashed before my eyes as I contemplated the data I had lost (fortunately, I had the files backed up on my computer).

Technology is beautiful when it is working, but in the far too frequent times when it is not working, it can be hell.

Our lives are so intertwined with electronic devices that when they fail us, we can barely function.

Some businesses are so dependent on their computers that if the computers go down, they cannot complete even simple transactions.

It is a sad commentary on society, that some retail and service employees cannot even add up a bill or make change without a computer.

And in some cases, even if the employees could manually complete the transaction, the system will not allow them to do so, because it is designed not to work without the computer.

Technology has eroded our etiquette and changed the way we think and the way we live.

In some ways it has increased our freedom, but in other ways, it has taken away our freedom forever.

Whether we like it or not, we are no longer controlling technology; technology is controlling us.

We have enjoyed the sweet buzz of technology, but the consequences will be with us for a long time to come.

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