Albert Einstein once commented: ‘I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots’. His comment crystallises the perennial debate as to whether technology aids or retards human and social development. Given the ubiquitous nature of technology and its undeniable effects on individuals, it is therefore imperative to consider the question as to whether technology has alienated people instead of uniting society. While some critics propose the view that technology – in shifting the emphasis from the real world to the digital – has distanced people from one another, preventing them from creating meaningful relationships, I would argue that technology is merely a tool; how it impacts human relationships and social interactions ultimately depends on how the user chooses to wield it. As such, while technology has indubitably alienated people to a certain extent, it has also allowed for greater connections between detached individuals and unifies fragmented societies. It is therefore overly myopic to argue that technology only alienates people.
Some argue that technology has reduced the need for face-to-face communication. This trend has only escalated with the advent of the personal computer, smart devices, and the internet. By immersing one’s self within the digital world, this necessarily reduces time and space for face-to-face interaction, which are fundamental building blocks to constructing lasting human relationships. In Japan, there exists groups of individuals, labelled as ‘otakus’, who devote their entire lives to the digital world and therefore experience extreme fear, anxiety, or detachment when forced to interact within the real world. This demonstrates how technology is therefore detrimental towards the construction of lasting and meaningful human relationships, by damaging the individual’s ability to connect with others socially.
However, this argument assumes that all forms of technology eliminates face-to-face or conventional communication. Contrary to this belief, technology has preserved these conventional methods of communication. Technology has improved such methods and adapted them to different forms. For instance, telephones and mobile phones not only preserve the process of verbal communication but allows anyone anywhere in the world to engage in such verbal communication. This is evident from software such as Skype and Oovoo that seeks to overcome physical distance in order to preserve and strengthen human relationships. As such, certain forms of technology, when used with discretion, connects rather than alienates people.
Opponents to this perspective further argue that technology has made our preferred mode of interacting with the world more impersonal and detached. There is a loss of depth and quality in human interactions. Social media was created with the purpose of maintaining and extending connections with others. Nonetheless, it has arguably had the converse effect. Through social media such as twitter, people now compress their entire day or complex moods into 140 characters. This form of social interaction is further tainted by ulterior motives, as it is geared towards getting the most ‘likes’ or ‘tweets’. Social media therefore turns into a popularity contest, rather than a medium for genuine human interaction. Social applications such as Tinder and Bumble further perpetuates superficiality with regards to human relationships. The effortless swiping past pictures on the application reduces real human beings to their physical appearance, and connections made are often fleeting and superficial. There have been instances of ‘catfishing’, with individuals on such platforms using pictures of attractive people to cheat or scam others. Technology has thus led to the deterioration of human relationships and encouraged deceit.
Nonetheless, this argument assumes that all social media is used for superficial or nefarious reasons. This should not detract from the evidence that have shown that technology has brought people together in more efficient and instant ways. While certain social media may have sacrificed depth, it does not necessarily reduce quality. The two are not mutually exclusive. Often, users find social media a useful way to update their friends and families on monumental events in their lives, or simply their day. Social media has provided us with a platform for instant communication with the people around us, allowing us to gain new insights into the lives of acquaintances whom we otherwise would not have bothered about. Moreover, there have been instances of people finding lasting human relationships through applications such as Tinder. Indeed, romantic relationships aside, there has been an increased use of apps such as BumbleFriend to develop authentic friendships. Just because the relationship was initiated through a technological device or application does not doom it to failure or reduce its worth. Rather, it enables you to connect with people you otherwise would not have met in real life.
Finally, it must be argued that technology has allowed us to grow beyond our insular environment, facilitating our growth into more empathetic human beings capable of understanding the plight others face all around the world. The television for instance allows for the instant dissemination of news and the internet allows us to gain access to perspectives beyond the familiar. If one has an internet connection, one can plug into the virtual stratosphere and gain access to a multiplicity of viewpoints, as well as greater insights as to the happenings around the world. A person in Singapore for instance can have access to online newspapers from countries as diverse as Canada, because of technology.
The use of social media by many politicians and activists around the world, such as America and Singapore, has also successfully encouraged the younger generation to take a stronger interest in political issues, reducing political apathy. This has unified an otherwise detached population group, and youths are more inclined to take ownership in deciding their country’s future. Protestors during the Arab Spring uprising were able to successfully utilise social media and the internet to alert the international community regarding their cause and unify the nation around a common goal. It also served the practical purpose of organising demonstrations, drawing together large, disparate groups of people. Media campaigns for once obscure or otherwise ignored issues, such as PrayforMH370, KONY2012, #MeToo, raises awareness and empathy. This would not have been possible without technology. As such, technology nurtures a self-aware global citizen connected to their society and the world at large.
To conclude, it is overly myopic to demonise technology as the factor leading to the reduction and deterioration of social connections and human relationships. Rather, the user’s intentions and method of usage determines whether technology alienates or unifies. Technology has shown itself capable and full of rich potential for increasing human connections beyond geographical distance, and deepening one’s relationship with each other, society, and the world. Hence, rather than avoiding technology, one should embrace it and learn how to wield it meaningfully to create a more unified community of global citizens.
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