When a new technology arrives we tend to focus on what new things it makes possible, but a recent trip to Taco Cabana and another to an Apple store reminded me that of equal importance are the things technology makes impossible, or at least extremely uncommon.
Below are five formerly everyday human experiences that modern technology tends to hide.
1. Limitation (or inability to acquire)
First, the trip to Taco Cabana. When my hungry family arrived for dinner, my wife and I suddenly realized that neither of us brought our wallets.
Our initial feelings were that of embarrassment and a little frustration, but then we experienced something else, something new and entirely foreign yet quite interesting. All of the sudden, we found ourselves out in the world with no way of acquiring food.
This made me realize that our normal experience of limitation is very artificial. We are limited in the sense that we can’t buy a jet or a mansion, and we want to limit any credit card debt. But if we are hungry or want something under $5,000 there is nothing other than our will that limits our purchasing power.
What I learned at Taco Cabana is that there is a profound difference between limitation in the sense of, “I probably shouldn’t spend my money on that” and, “I’m hungry, but I have no means of getting food.”
2. Loneliness (or isolation)
On to the Apple store. My phone recently broke, so I upgraded to a fancy new iPhone 5. Then a few days later, I needed to contact someone only to realize that his number didn’t make it on the new phone.
I was by myself in my car at the time, and the experience caused a strange feeling of isolation in me. I felt helpless because I really didn’t know how I would reach him, and yet I realized that I was not in any real sense. He could still reach me, and I could contact any number of other people if I wanted to.
Reflecting on this, it seems that the presence of a mobile device puts us in constant state of accessible-but-unconnected. Rather than being truly unreachable at some remote location and perhaps reaping the benefits of solitude, we find ourselves perpetually with a machine capable of connection, but not currently in use. This state of limbo can result in a heightened sense of emptiness and “non-placed-ness” all without experience the kind of true aloneness that happens when you don’t have a device with you for several hours or days.
3. Lostness (or directionless)
Like loneliness, as long as you have a computer or a phone on you, you can’t experience being truly lost.
I have regularly hoped in my car, started going in the general direction of my destination and only then pulled out a phone to get exact directions. At first I loved the flexibility and spontaneity of not need to plan a trip, but lately I’ve found this more stressful than charming. The almost humorously bad new Apple Maps made my strange dependence on digital maps and GPS even more apparent.
With GPS, I find myself often feeling “lost,” but then realizing that – like loneliness – I am really experiencing a strange hybrid state of lost-but-with-GPS-that-should-stinking-work-better. The connection between me and the world is not truly a state of “lostness” because it is mediated by the device and what it conveys about being lost.
Again, it is only when my technology failed to provide a normal experience that I was attentive to the kinds of profoundly human experiences that technology normally covers up.
4. Ignorance (or not knowing)
One of the fun things about getting a new iPhone was being able to try out Siri, asking it all kind of ridiculous questions with my kids (my son, for example, wants to know how exactly it is that crocodiles are so good at eating people).
This infinite knowledge in my pocket again creates a unique hybrid state. As with credit cards and GPS, as long as I have a computer or phone on me, there is no fact that is unknowable or inaccessible to me. Virtually any question about history, numbers, dates, functionality, and so on can be answered instantly. I might not know something, but I exist in a state where things are knowable.
And yet facts, the kind of data that Siri knows about is quite a different thing from wisdom or knowing what to do in a difficult situation.
5. Boredom (or nothingness)
Finally, the state of being that kids around the world hate – boredom.
The new phone I got didn’t come with Facebook, Twitter, CNN, or Instagram. It didn’t have any games, banking apps, or Bibles. It just had the same built-in apps that its great, great, great grandfather had in 2007. This emptiness reminded of all the times I’ve used my phone while waiting in a line or at a stoplight. I tend to fill all downtime with phonetime.
The problem is that all kinds of research shows that our creativity is triggered, not by looking at stuff on a screen, but by boredom. Apparently, our minds are built to make something out of nothing, and when we don’t have any nothing lying around, we have trouble creating.
So what difference does any of this make? Why are things like limitation, loneliness, lostness, ignorance, and boredom important? Isn’t it good that technology does away with these things?
As with most things, the answer is usually a both/and and a yes/but. Like many parents, I’ve noticed that my kids seem to have more fun when they make their own toys than when we buy them another thing that requires batteries. How, then, should I shape their environments to create the kind of nothing required to nurture their creativity? I don’t want to deprive them of good things, but I have to remind myself that depriving them of nothing is perhaps more damaging than depriving them of more stuff.
Could it be that the other human experience are like that, too? Would the metaphor of “lostness” in passages like Psalm 119:176 and Luke 19:10 be more impactful if we’ve experienced life without GPS? Could a bit of unconnected solitude could draw us closer to God?
One can only hope.