I have written about this topic before, but found the following article fairly compelling. As someone who has a foot in the technological world, but who readily chooses substance over convenience, I found these words to ring very true:
Convenience seems to come at the price of interaction — the sort of day-to-day interactions that make us a part of our communities. Instead of chatting with the person at the grocery store check-out we do battle with the automated self check-out machine. Instead of going to a teller at the bank we find any old ATM to do our banking. Jobs that involve serving the public are quickly disappearing as they are replaced by machines and internet-based services. And I can’t help worrying that the increased lack of human interaction is going to be socially detrimental and isolating.
I really believe that these daily interactions mean something, and I believe that they add richness to my life. I’ve recently heard that Blockbuster is going under and that NetFlix will soon be our primary movie procuring option, and I have to say that I’m very sad about this. In fact, my regular Sunday night trip to the local Blockbuster to pick out a movie with my husband has become something that we both cherish. After dinner we set out on a short walk to the store and hope that “Movie Guy” will be there.
“Movie Guy” is our most trusted Blockbuster employee who can always be counted on to provide excellent recommendations for movies both new and old. It seems that he’s seen every movie ever made and has detailed opinions about all of them. I’m not going to invite Movie Guy to my next birthday party, but we have a relationship nonetheless. It’s a relationship based on similar taste in films, on a shared sense of humour, and on one person doing his job really well and other people benefiting from that person’s expertise.
Ironically, it wasn't too long ago that Blockbuster was the convenience store of movies, putting independent after independent out of business. In fact, some of those Movie Guys had been, at one time, owners of their own rental places, which served not only as businesses, but gathering places for movie fanatics. So, one might view Blockbuster as an intermediate step on the process of moving towards full privatization and individualization.
This is one of the reasons why I have withheld complete support for a view that suggests a person can rely solely on internet resources or books to fuel their spiritual practice. Even a tiny group of people meditating together, yoga together, or studying sacred texts together has an effect one really can't come by doing it all "alone."
Beyond that, though, the larger issue is really the general struggle with community many of us have. Perhaps it won't be a big deal if, for example, Netflix takes over the movie rental industry. In and of itself, it's not terribly important. However, it does play into a trend of ease, that is coupled with isolation and a "checking out" of formerly everyday interactions.
A few months ago, I stepped up to the check out counter at our local library to borrow some movies. The woman behind the desk said, "Have you tried our individual check out yet?" I turned around and saw the row of computer check outs that are rapidly replacing interaction with a live person in our libraries. I wanted to say "Yes, but I prefer working with you." Instead, I just said "Yes" and she proceeded to pull the movies out of their covers, while saying "we're trying to get our numbers up on the check out machines."
The first thing I thought was "Aren't you concerned about your job disappearing?" Although it is the case that librarians are diversifying their skill sets these days, which is a positive, it's also the case that budgets are getting cut routinely. Underwriting billionaires to build new football stadiums seems to be more important than keeping libraries open and filled with intelligent, friendly staff folks.
After that initial thought, I felt a bit of sadness, noting how these kinds of interactions are slowly being whittled away by computerization, and unfortunately, we aren't doing a great job of shifting to a different mode of interacting with each other.
Again, I think it's more the general shift going on that's alarming, as opposed to any specific interaction. I have seen some librarians, for example, spending more time helping people locate information and resources vital to their well-being - so perhaps there a lag I'm witnessing there, which in the end, will result in much more interactive community libraries.
But I'm not sure it's a lag that can be generalized to the broader picture.
The world is obsessed with connectivity. Everyone needs an iPhone, instant access to email and text messages, instant access to products and information and yet I get the sense that we’re all more disconnected than ever. Sure, we can get 60 text messages a minute from our closest friends, but we avoid human beings in public like lepers. We plug up our ears, glue our eyes to our phones, and block out the random people who fill our days. We reject them thoroughly, then go back to our concrete boxes to eat dinner in front of TVs instead of with our families. We know a thousand methods for keeping in touch but we’ve forgotten how to reach out. We’ve forgotten how to say saying hello to the person sitting next to us on the bus simply because they’re sharing our space for awhile.
I would like to think we are in a transition period, where people are still trying to find the balance point working with the new technologies we have. But so much seems accelerated these days, and it takes more effort to be ok with not keeping up with it all. I see it even with people who are dedicated to slowing down, to practicing meditation and other spiritual practices, to prioritizing paying attention over production and speed. All of that is at odds with the demands of their workplace, or their families, or some other vital part of their lives.
In fact, I can see it in myself, having spent the past three or four years advocating with others that our Zen Center get more "online" and "connected with the outside world." It's not that this is a bad thing, but that it has forced a few folks, including our head teacher, to plug into technology in ways they might have not chosen to without the pressure coming from us. And while I believe we are correct to be moving in this direction, it has brought up all sorts of questions about how to apply the ancient teachings that are supposed to guide our lives to what we are doing online.
While my own experiences and learning probably makes me more optimistic than the author of the article I am quoting above, I do think there are more and more people who have become "Convenience Zombies." You even see it amongst people coming to zen centers and yoga studios. "Just teach me how to meditate. Just tell me how to move my body. No ritual. No archaic texts. I want to feel better NOW."
It's all a cause for pause. Because those disappearing "Movie Guys" are symbolic of a larger trend, one that we really might want to reconsider, even if it means slowing things down a bit.