Sunday, February 13, 2011

Increasing Facelessness in the Facebook Generation

More and more of our customer service needs are being addressed by circuitous automated phone message jungles or internet queries that can either be in the form of live texting or email exchange. We hear that soon there will be no actual people collecting tolls on toll bridges. There are fewer and fewer local offices where one can pay local utility bills. Many cities and towns no longer have a local department for the handing of fees for fines or citations; these are being funneled to distant addresses.

What does this mean?

In “the age of connectedness and connectivity” we are losing contact with actual people. This does indicate that machines are doing more of our work for us. This also indicates that there are less jobs available to be filled by the living and breathing. But, more importantly, there is less human interaction now, and what we have of that becomes more and more fractured and lacking in the personal and personalities that make life interesting. 

Finding simple information becomes a frustrating, Kafkaesque nightmare, in which one must repeat the same question over and over again to different people who answer the phone, or in which one loops through the automated message system, only to get dumped out at the other end, without ever finding the option that meets the need. Clearly, the world of the Frequently Asked & Answered Questions is a limited world of shallow concerns, the very least that providers are willing to be responsible for; any concerns beyond the FAQ, no matter how real, clearly is beyond the average human ability to solve, and therefore must remain unaddressed—for to address the concern not covered by FAQ means taking responsibility for having knowledge pertaining to unique situations. In a self-help, self-service world, nothing is unique, many real flaws and problems are not acknowledged, and we are expected to live our own lives and solve our own problems, whether help is available or not, whether we can pay for it or not.

The scripts for orderly human communication have been thrown away and they are not being replaced. The internet revolution is training us all to scream into the vastness of the universe, without expected to be answered or even heard. Eventually, no one will ask questions, because they will know it to be a colossal waste of time. Or, question asking will become the newest reality TV, where we all be voyeurs while some human becomes inhuman because s/he has been shut away from real human interaction. If such a thing ever comes to pass, will we laugh? Will we cry? What will we do?

The fabric of society has been unraveling for some little time, now, and the yarn is now bunched up in a gigantic, un-biodegradable heap. Institutions and departments and offices and businesses talk past each other, if they talk at all, developing irrational territorial practices that do not fit together, and passing blame when things, systems and people do not work or work well. We call these instances “cognitive dissonance” and we call them “dysfunctional” and we call them “disorganization”, but whatever we call it, and however much we roll our eyes and complain, here we are: it is upon us and we have to live with them all and their inevitable, frequently insoluable, consequences.

Recently, while dining at a restaurant with my family, I witnessed another family and child dining in an atmosphere devoid of interaction. [I have seen it before, and I know I’ll be seeing more of it.] After ordering the meal, each parent completely ignored the child, being entirely engrossed in something displayed on individual smart phones. When the food came, I felt sure that the gizmos would be put away, but I was wrong. The parents silently shoveled the food into their mouths while staring at, and interacting with, the screens of their phones. The child was left to play with her food, humming to herself.

I wondered to myself how children are supposed to learn conversation and etiquette, or indeed any methods of social give-and-take, when their parents, if they possess the knowledge of these things, do not pass the legacy on.

Our “smart phones”, I propose, are making us all “dumb people.” We “connect” only on the basis of the most shallow aspects of vox populi. We answer the rings of our phones while dining out, even though the technology is designed to collect messages for us. We react and overreact to text messaging, because it doesn’t carry the nuance of voice or enough depth to provide context or meaning.

We have technology, but we do not have to understand it. We believe that owning and using it gives us status and power. In reality, technology has made us slaves to aspects of human existence that do not promote beauty, culture, meaning or understanding, but that offer instead frustration, ubiquity and anonymity.

Orwell’s “Big Brother” was a single face of totalitarianism; our modern computer technology is a bit more frightening, in that it offers us whatever face we want to see, so long as we don’t expect it to speak to us, teach us, inspire us or help us to cope with an increasingly dysfunctional existence. Our gizmos draw us into complete and utter self-absorption and they suck our brains into an oblivion every bit as devastating as drug addiction.

If we become aware that we need an intervention, to be freed from the addiction, there is no one to call for help, there are no responsible parties, there is no liability, and we laugh it off, saying “no harm, no foul”.  But it is foul, and we are being harmed in ways we cannot begin to understand.

This, as I see it,  is the great existential crisis of the current generation.

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