No Better Off Being on

Looking out my hotel room window tonight, I saw an apartment building across the way with a telling sight: countless rows of glowing televisions. Even in the city that never sleeps, the preferred nightly activity is plopping down in front of the T.V.

The same view, decades ago, would have been very different. I wonder if the view alone is what would have been the most significant difference. I wonder if the absence of the T.V. was simply satisfied by the radio and if not the radio the evening paper – or if the difference would be something much more profound.

There’s no doubt that there is comfort and convenience in our modern lives. We no longer have to plan social outing details because we can call friends via our cell phones when we get to venues. We can easily find our ways in unfamiliar places without having a map because of the GPS technology that sits on our car dashboards. And of course, as the glowing lights shown across the street indicate, we can keep up with breaking news from around the world, check tomorrow’s weather, and watch any of hundreds of movies, all by clicking a button.

Technology can make life easier. We know its benefits. But do we know its costs? Do we know the implication of millions of people sitting in front of their televisions several hours a day? Or if not there, browsing the Internet, talking/texting on their cell phones, gaming, and the like?

Surely, arguments can be made to say that media like movies, for example, simply are evolutions of books. Skeptics might say that all of the gizmos and gadgetry around us are modern day reincarnations of elements that humans have experienced for quite some time.

Yet It feels different. It feels like we are living in a unique time, with distinct circumstances, allowing us to be better, faster, and smarter.

Are we?

Are we smarter or do we just have easier access to information via the Internet? Are we faster or do we just have less patience and satisfy for lower quality? Are we better or have we just convinced ourselves of the necessity of our always-on connected world?

Sometimes I think that we are no better off being on. It’s not technology’s fault. It’s ours. We’ve opted to be lazier by watching more T.V. and reading less. We’ve preferred mindless hours on insipid websites over ones of substance. We’ve habituated ourselves to checking e-mail on mobile phones during unoccupied moments instead of pausing for reflection or even, dare I write, enjoying silence and non-stimulation.

There’s hope to be better off being on – but we have to want it. We have to purpose towards it. We have to break our digital addictions. We have to reduce the number of glowing screens – or at least ensure that they are not just numbing our minds.