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A Reminder on The Impact of Technology

Today, during lunch I happened to stumble across a very interesting article by Howard Rheingold (the SmartMobs author), called Look Who's Talking. His article was originally published in the July 1999 issue of Wired Magazine, and in it, Rheingold interviews Amish living in Lancaster, Pennsylvania about technology and how they decide to accept, limit or reject it.

Of particular interest to Rheingold was the use of cell phones by Amish in their communities. It seemed almost against my own perceived idea of Amish, who I saw as being against technology. I thought, "How could they accept cell phones?" As it turns out, that's not quite right. In fact, in the article, the Amish approach to technology is actually to weigh any tool's positives against its impact on community and human relationships. They ask:

"Does it bring us together, or draw us apart?"

when deciding on any tool or technology they might consider using. How interesting that was, I thought. I like that idea.

I kept reading and really enjoyed the article. To me, one of the key paragraphs in the article came near the end:

"Though the Amish determination to allow phones at work but ban them at home might seem hard to accept, I appreciate the deliberation put into their decision. In fact, similar reflection might highlight conflicts between our own practices and values. How often do we interrupt a conversation with someone who is physically present in order to answer the telephone? Is the family meal enhanced by a beeper? Who exactly is benefiting from call waiting? Is automated voicemail a dark hint about the way our institutions value human time and life? Can pagers and cell phones that vibrate instead of ring solve the problem? Does the enjoyment of virtual communities by growing numbers of people enhance or erode citizen participation in the civic life of geographic communities?"

This is something along the lines of what I was thinking in a post I wrote almost exactly a year ago, called On Keeping Technology in Perspective. Reading Howard Rheingold's story was a nice refresher — reminding me about those thoughts from 2003, which I felt were worth repeating.

Now, as then, I am not advocating a hermit lifestyle with no tech whatsoever. No, I believe technology can help us greatly, but to do so it requires us to question its role in our lives. Often we, in this very tech driven culture, just accept whatever comes down the pike as somehow useful and worthwhile, and take the hook, line and sinker, never questioning our goals and uses for the thing. I know, because I've caught myself doing this very thing. :-)

I'm reminded how important it is for me to question any new technology thoroughly. If I decide to accept something into my life, to keep it in mind as I use it — making sure it meets with my goals and expectations. And then, to be honest and part company if it fails to meet my goals, or I find it separating me from my family and friends.

This is the case with my use of a mobile phone. I had one for several years, but recently I found it expensive and not terribly useful for the cost. So, I cancelled my account and went mobile phoneless.

However, I have since seen how well a pay-as-you-go mobile phone is working for both my father and my wife. In fact, I've sometimes borrowed one of their phones as needed. And at other times I've experienced cases where I could have truly benefitted by having a mobile phone along. Time without a cell phone has been good, because it sharpened those moments when I realized a mobile phone might be very useful and helpful.

So, now I plan to pick up a pay-as-you-go Virgin Mobile phone of my own in April. It fits my needs well, because the cost is relatively low, compared to my minimal uses. It will be useful for keeping contact with Gail when needed, useful for travel and for emergencies. And to not be bugged, I can leave it off most of the time.

But this realization didn't come until I thought about my reasons for having a $20/mo. plan and a phone that mostly gathered dust. This resolution was much clearer and significant after going phoneless, because it helped me see the real uses of having a mobile phone rather than imaginary uses.

That's just a personal example, and maybe for you a mobile phone is critical for your life. What I'm saying here is, consider evaluating the technologies and tools you accept. Consider thinking about their true usefulness and being aware of their positives and negatives, improvements and energy draws on your life. Really be honest about how important they really are.

I wonder if we did this, what would surprise us as less useful or important than we imagined? What would we see as drawing us away from our friends, families and communities? Would we have the capability to say no to those things if we were really honest?

Reader Comments (1)

RawBear, yes, it is interesting that I chose the mobile. Initially it was cost savings, but then it turned into an experiment to see how much I *really* need a mobile phone. Turns out they are useful, but only now and then -- for me. :-)
March 31, 2004 | Unregistered CommenterMike Rohde

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