“I fear the day when technology will surpass our humanity. The world will then be populated by a generation of idiots.” — Albert Einstein
An email has been circulating with this Einstein quote accompanied by pictures of folks in a wide variety of settings glued to their cell phone or tablet. The images capture what has become emblematic of our culture. In the most intimate and sacred settings, we cannot seem to escape the chains that bind us to our technologies.
I have not attended a church service, theater event, conference or presentation that has not been interrupted by some inconsiderate soul’s cell phone echoing across the gathering. This happens in spite of pleas made in pre-event announcements to turn cell phones off or put them on silent.
Sitting in any public place, my people watching is now populated by folks passionately engaged with their mobile device. They are largely oblivious to the world around them and quite often to the person sitting across from them. Intimacy has become digitized, reduced to ones and zeroes flying carelessly around our wireless world.
Sitting at home watching the NFL playoff games, I realize just how deeply saturated my own family is in this digital culture. My daughters, not football fans, are each streaming movies to their iPads. Their cell phones are within easy reach. Without thought they pick up their phones to respond to a text, and the movie plays on without missing a beat.
My wife sits on the couch, cell phone in hand texting her sister. Her MacBook is in her lap, and she continues her labors on a project for work. Astonishingly, she is keenly aware of what is happening on the field and reacts to each shift in momentum as if the game had her sole and undivided attention.
I am not so lucky. I am sitting at my laptop trying to get some words on the page before my deadline. The game is background noise until I hear the roar of the crowd and look up. I cannot multi-task. I can write or I can watch football. I cannot do both. And so I surrender to the game, leaving my writing for the early hours of the morning when the rest of the house is asleep and attention-sucking technologies are resting quietly in their charging cradles.
Is my life better now? Am I smarter? Certainly infinitely more information is available to me than ever was before. But that newspaper I used to read? It is digital now and not nearly as satisfying. The three news magazines I once read religiously? They have gone the way of so many other tangibles in my life, relegated to history, replaced by sound bites, tweets and email alerts.
And my children — are they smarter? They have access to infinitely more information than was available to me at their age. But with so much information available, the most relevant skill is being able to analyze and evaluate that information. That is a skill current technology seems unable to cultivate.
Perhaps that is because so much of the information available now is not designed to inform but entertain. But it is also true that we have simply gotten lazy as a culture accepting at face value things tainted by spin, hidden agendas and manipulation.
Technology has surpassed our humanity, of that I have little doubt. There is much work ahead if we are going to avoid the prophecy that our world is soon to be populated by a generation of idiots.