In the late 90s when everyone in my family got a mobile phone, I resisted. I like my ability to disconnect from the world. I like being unreachable. Finally, practicality convinced me to give in: I was dealing with chronic illness, and my parents wanted me to carry a phone in case of emergency.
Later, when everyone got a smartphone, I again resisted. I like not having constant access to email, tweets and texts. Then I launched my own business and practicality, again, won out. As much as I like being untethered, entrepreneurship comes with a long leash. I’ve booked speaking engagements, helped clients in crisis and finalized publicity strategies for a book release all from my super-smart phone. Connection has its privileges and some of them include efficiency, making a difference in the moment it’s most needed, and keeping up with the world’s pace when your business depends on it.
Still, none of the benefits of high-tech connectivity tip me firmly into the space of believing that all this connectivity happens on an open-ended upside. Ironically, increased technological connectivity often comes at the price of decreased personal connectivity. Too often we no longer need to actually talk, collaborate or interact face-to-face, many of the activities that strengthen social bonds and protect survival instincts that have historically allowed our species to reproduce and progress.
With the brain’s use it or lose it strategy for neural connections and productive pathways, it’s possible to imagine that in 50 years new generations raised on Androids, Instagram and Gmail will have considerably fewer neurons dedicated to the fine art of reading body language or interpreting tone of voice, the present-day wiring of many different areas of the brain. High-tech connection may come at the cost of low-tech disconnection. If we’re not careful, we just might design a future human race that is more adept at reading an email than reading a facial expression.
A recent debate about the query, “Is smart technology making us dumb?” showcased four experts (in two teams) debating both sides of the question. At the end of the debate, a live audience voted on the winner. For the first time in the history of the sponsoring program, the vote was close: 47% of the audience agreed that smart technology is making us dumb, while 43% disagreed.
Faced with technological advancement, a tie is often going to be the outcome of a for/against vote—and each side equally has its strengths. In the face of this truth, perhaps the question to ask ourselves is not whether high-tech connectivity is good or bad but rather, “How do we mitigate the bad while advancing the good?”
For example, as a former university professor, I place a high value on education and the ability of anyone to access it. I’m happy that online universities offer students increased options to achieve degrees on their own terms. Yet, as an educator, I worry about what gets lost when students don’t have access to the benefits of face time with teachers and peers. In my own onsite classroom, I could see when concepts were or weren’t understood, when students’ thought processes stalled and even when a class needed a shock to help them focus. More than once, I jumped onto a desk to up-level the energy of a tired evening class. Who will invigorate and focus students learning alone in a distant location that offers a slew of undiluted (high-tech) distractions? How will remote teachers create indelible and novel learning experiences that embed memorable neural pathways?
We can be passive in the face of high-tech connectivity or we can acknowledge the challenges it presents for how to create low-tech connectivity in a high-tech world. Daily life already offers numerous precedents of such a paradigm for balancing pros and cons. When taking an antibiotic that kills bad bacteria while also destroying good bacteria, for example, doctors recommend a simultaneous program of probiotics to replenish good flora. The “high-tech” medically advanced antibiotic is balanced by a “low-tech” holistic supplement. Because there are so many ways to apply this paradigm to the high/low-tech connectivity question, we don’t have to choose between the two options. Rather, we have to rise to the unique challenge of our age: how to be smart about the way we incorporate high-tech connectivity so that we retain the low-tech connectivity so vital to the success and wellbeing of human evolution.