Thursday, March 24, 2011

Scenes from a Slowly Disintegrating Social Contract

Technopoly and the Generation Gap

The little boy was screaming at the top of his lungs. His head was down on the seat of the booth, his feet flailing in the air across the counter and into the kitchen at the Baja Burrito restaurant. The cooks looked on with obvious irritation as did most of the diners around his table. His shrill voice was deafening, except, of course to his apparently stone deaf mother. The well dressed woman who had arrived with her child in an Escalade moments before appeared to be in her late 30s. She sat next to the squirming mass of six year old energy oblivious to his protestations and her own hardly touched lunch, her complete attention and both hands filled with her cell phone, thumbs furiously texting away.

Those of us who dare to commit the heresy in a Technopoly (Postman, 1992) of criticizing inappropriate use of technologies often get the common non-response that this is somehow a generational issue. Somehow, if one is young, it’s OK to be as self-focused and oblivious to others with your technological toys as you wish. Rude behaviors are somehow inoculated against being seen as such if you’re in the advertisers’ demographic target group. Any criticism of rudeness and inappropriate behaviors, no matter how obvious or well founded, can somehow be dismissed as the mark of generational resentment much like any recognition of the destructive elements of free market fundamentalism immediately draws charges of waging class warfare.

Of course, in this particular case, there was an observable generational gap. But the ordinary roles were decidedly reversed here. This was no adolescent consumer who saw herself as endowed with a blank check for use of technologies with no limits while her older parent sat nearby sighing about her behaviors. It was a 30 something parent in the role of the self-focused child, in complete abdication of her parental duties. And it was her first grade child who was protesting that self-focus and lack of appropriate parental attentiveness. Of course, given the rules of Technopoly, clearly the six year old’s irritation at being ignored and neglected, put on hold while Momma played with her technological toys, was a case of generational resentment.

So who functions as parent when the adults get stuck in adolescence?

Will Crusher’s Revenge

As I walked across the campus to my first class Monday, I had the eerie feeling that I had seen the scene unfolding in front of me before. All around me students emerged from classroom buildings, cell phones in hand, oblivious to their surroundings, texting furiously. Almost to the student, they were physically present but chances were they had little idea of where they were, much less who they were about to stumble into. It was a scene from The Invasion of the Text Zombies.

Suddenly I remembered why this scene gave me such a chill. About a decade ago, an episode of Star Trek, The Next Generation called “The Game” featured a computer game complete with a halo attachment that allowed the player to see the playing screen immediately in his or her face. The game had suddenly appeared on the Enterprise after a shore leave on one of the many life supporting planets in the Star Trek universe. As the crew began to play the game, its members almost immediately began displaying signs of addiction. Crew members stopped performing their duties and began to recruit fellow crew members to join in the game. As the episode neared its conclusion, the entire crew walked around oblivious to each other and their surroundings, addicted to the game and essentially lobotomized. It looked an awful lot like the text zombies staggering out of classroom buildings Monday morning.

Ironically, on the futuristic Enterprise, it was the non-human robot named Data who was required to save the human crew. But in our own place and time we have no one and no robot to save us from ourselves. And while we have no Romulans lurking behind our addictive activities involving our technologies, waiting their chance to take over the Enterprise, we do have commercial advertisers and their consumer technology employers to constantly encourage us to “talk (or text) all the time,” regardless of our circumstances or who else it might impact. And we increasingly reveal ourselves to be well-trained consumers.

But to what end? And at what cost? Who will save us from ourselves?

Bucking the Tide

As I came down the two-lane back road to the Lowe’s store Wednesday, I saw a man on a motorcycle, holding something in his hand. “Damn,” I thought, “It’s a cop with a radar gun.” In a state which increasingly discovers new lows in social responsibility, particularly when it comes to raising revenues in an equitable and just manner, fees and fines increasingly are emphasized as means to provide the necessary funds for our governments.

But, this is a story about leaping to conclusions and how wrong that can be. As it turns out, it wasn’t a cop. It was a young man in his mid-20s on a motorcycle. He had pulled over to the side of the road to talk on his cell phone. Now, while that sounds like a no-brainer (pardon the rather unintentional illusion to riding motorcycles without helmets here), I’ve seen an awful lot of bikers talking on their cell phones mid-chop and even a few texting while driving, throttle, brakes and direction all relegated to a single hand.

In all honesty, it’s so refreshing to see people behaving in a mature, considerate and responsible manner with their technological devices, I almost didn’t know what to think. But I’d like to congratulate that young man for the way he conducted himself. And I particularly appreciate the fact he was so highly visible, there on the road side, in modeling that behavior.

Maybe some of the rest of us will catch a clue. Because, contrary to our tendency to dismiss any criticism of our use of technology as generational conflict, thus avoiding the moral and character questions they raise, in all honesty, rudeness, inappropriate and dangerous uses of technologies are hardly relegated to any given generation.

We could all learn something of value from that young man on the side of the road. But will we?


The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. +++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

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