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“When we are born, we cry that we are come to this great stage of fools.”
William Shakespeare, King Lear

“There is more to life than increasing its speed.”
Mahatma Gandhi

At the risk of sounding like a complete curmudgeon or at the very least, a technophobe, I’d like to offer a few words on speed. Not the methamphetamine variety, nor necessarily the Newtonian view of rate = Distance / time, but speed as it relates to concentration and wonder.

Why is concentration such a difficult commodity to come by these days? As far as I know, I’m not afflicted with ADHD (Whoa, look at that fly! Do you like poodles?) and although I certainly have an awful lot on my plate, it seems as I get older, that serenity and ability to easily find center which were the hallmarks of my elders gets further and further away from me, like watching a handkerchief in a gale. OK, to be fair, only some of my elders had that serenity, but those are stories for another time. I’m not trying to land the Lunar Excursion Module on the Sea of Tranquility; I ought to be able to slow down enough for accomplishing the tasks I want, right? I could use the pervasive excuse that our lives are more complex than they used to be, but in my heart, I believe our societal existence is complex because we choose for it to be that way, not that it’s forced upon us. Like it or not, the direction and method by which we travel is the sum of our choices and the rope we balance upon is woven one fiber at a time.

The sheer volume of information available to us is certainly a hindrance to concentration, at least in my humble opinion, and it’s unlikely to be conducive to our young people going forward. The human mind, in all its remarkable complexity can only realistically handle so much input at once. The preoccupation of our youth with the minutiae of each other’s lives is a mystery to me and the preponderance of time spent informing others of their beverage choices, mindless patter (“What r u doing?” “Nothin, what r u doing?” “OMG a sale!”) and the status of their (ahem) bodily functions is completely beyond my comprehension. This electronic effluvia just adds to the mass of all the other visual and auditory information continually dumped over of us to be sorted for something of worth, and it saddens me to see more and more people living their lives (such as they are) through a three-and-a-half-inch screen suspended in front of their noses instead of looking up and experiencing reality. I’d be hard pressed to find something more disconcerting (YouTube notwithstanding) than seeing a group of teens sitting together at a table, iPhones in hand, texting each other across the Formica. Really? You can’t speak to the person 30 inches in front of you? Must the world be filtered through a tiny OLED display to be absorbed at all? Is it that we’ve been reduced to the existence of sponges? Are we devolving into sessile creatures continually waving our tiny feelers around in a vast ocean of mostly inedible bits, trying vainly to find something of nourishment? Will I ever stop asking questions? More and more I feel as a stranger in a strange land.

A 2008 (!) study by Harris Interactive showed that 47% of teens felt their social lives would end or at least worsen if they weren’t able to send text messages and that they spent an equal amount of time texting as the did actually talking. This trend has increased since then. The main reasons cited were the increase in speed for conversing with others (many report they can text with their eyes closed), multitasking capabilities, the option to avoid verbal communication and that it was fun. M’kay. I’m boggled, despite having a teenager in the house and witnessing the phenomenon over and over again. Sadly, and perhaps hypocritically, having spent a fair amount of time working in the cellular telephone industry, I know I’m struggling against a 1.8 billion-mobile device tide (estimated worldwide usage by our youth) and it’s not going to change. Studies indicate 80% of youths surveyed would go without food rather than their mobile devices, given the choice of one or the other. Our children choose to be this way and despite the absurdity of the previously mentioned statistic, those who buck the trend are effectively ostracized, although possibly better fed.  I know that I can’t ignore this technological trend or I become out of step from the rest of the globe and alienated from much of my teen’s life. Contrasted with the adult laments of my misspent childhood about the evils of television viewing, at least we should be comforted by the fact that our youth are reading more, despite the atrocious spelling.

Speed aside, how much actual information is lost in a text exchange vs. a live conversation? I know there are frequent misunderstandings when I send the occasional text, and without the subtleties of facial expression, body language, inflection and intonation, it’s at best a crap shoot to figure out what somebody really means. Liberal sprinklings of emoticons can’t replace a face-to-face conversation. I don’t know about anybody else, but more than once my intent was mistaken despite the appearance of the “smiley” at the end of a message I’ve sent. The first time I asked a girl out, I didn’t do it via SMS — I immediately knew what she thought of me when I asked her (or more accurately, stammered), despite her words. I wish her the best of luck where ever she may be ’cause she had her chance and threw it away.

Take the famous Mehrabian and Ferris study of 1967 where it was postulated that in a verbal conversation, 55% of what is communicated is through body language, 38% through tone of voice and a mere 7% is done through the actual words spoken. This in itself should be viewed through what is known as the “three C’s of non-verbal communication,” context, clusters and congruence. Context, meaning the communication environment, history between the communicators and roles (peer to peer or peer to superior, for example); clusters, meaning correlation of multiple visual and auditory clues to evaluate meaning rather than a single event taken out of context; and congruence, meaning whether or not the messages being conveyed by verbal and non-verbal channels are the same or different.

“When there are inconsistencies between attitudes communicated verbally and posturally, the postural component should dominate in determining the total attitude that is inferred,” quotes Albert Mehrabian in his book, Nonverbal Communication. You can’t get a postural read from someone in a text message so therefore, with all that texting going back and forth, only 7% of meaning is actually getting through. A poor lens indeed to be gazing through at the world.

I’m not a Luddite and I have no real problem with social media when used responsibly and properly (much like bourbon, for that matter). Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have provided world-changing insights into some of the most atrocious acts of aggression and injustice, and glimpses of horrific devastation due to natural and man-made disasters; scenes and news otherwise unknowable by the outside because of political censorship, infrastructure failure or sheer remoteness. Their use has likely saved many lives and I cheer their successes. But I also mourn for what has seemingly become lost in their pervasiveness, although the kitten videos are cute.

Please. Do yourself  and others a favor. Put the iPhone back in your pocket for a little while (don’t leave it at home ’cause if you get into trouble, the payphone has gone the way of the dodo). Go outside. Find another human being. Look them in the eyes. Have a conversation. Live life outside of the tiny glowing window for a little while. You might not want to go back.