Jim Bishop: Technology anxiety and the Luddite Mennonite

“Don’t know much about technology,
Don’t know much about a Blackberry . . .”
– from “Wonderful World,” (1960), with apologies to the late Sam Cooke

It appears to be a phenomenon emerging at more and more meetings, conferences and other group proceedings.

I gaze around the room, and virtually every participant is staring into their laptop computer while the group leader or speaker is making valiant effort to emphasize a point or keep the meeting on track. What appears on the various computer screens may or may not relate to the business at hand.

Beyond this, the session hasn’t gone on long before someone’s cell phone, not set on “vibrate” mode, awakens participants from their semi-comatose state and the recipient excuses him/herself to take the “urgent” call.

So is anyone at fault here? Is the very technology that provides access to instant contact with others also taking us down a slippery slope toward a major communication collapse?

Makes me wonder what we did or how we managed for so many years without computers on our desks or no access to wireless gadgets that maintain contact with the global village 24 hours a day. There was a time when my cousin Chuck Bishop and I drooled over the toy catalog advertising Dick Tracy two-way wrist radios. Welcome to the 21st century, Dick!

I walk between buildings on campus these days and find sidewalks filled with students with cell phones pressed to their ears or lost in their own musical world, courtesy of their Apple IPods.

I pass a row of oncoming traffic and every single motorist is yakking away on their cell phone with one hand on the steering wheel. I personally refuse to make any calls while driving; these can wait until I reach my destination. I was among the few persons without a cell phone at work – until told I had to carry one at all times.

Not that long ago we gave up our bright yellow rotary dial telephone at home, which worked fine but rendered us helpless when it came to transacting business by phone. Yet another example of planned obsolescence, along with cassette tape machines, VHS players and 35mm. film cameras (my Canon Rebel takes fantastic photos, but people give me that “you poor schmuck” look upon learning I still use it for personal prints).

My music library of 50 years of vinyl, albums and 45 discs has provided much listening pleasure and magical memories, but is outmoded. Someday soon, I will likely search for a market among the few, proud music aficionados like myself who think there’s something special about listening to vintage recordings complete with the occasional “hic” or skip – not to forget the amazing cover art (and liner notes that I can actually read with bifocals).

Maybe I’m having trouble accepting and adjusting to the rapid change in the technological arena because I’ve spent the largest portion of my career doing things the hard (old-fashioned?) way – banging out copy on a Royal standard typewriter, a bottle of White-Out in one hand and my Roget’s Thesaurus in the other. Years of taking and processing photographs – mostly black and white – was a several day process, and graphic design was often a tedious process performed on a layout board with an Exacto knife, cutting and pasting galleys of copy and acetate windows for images.

Several considerations that I deem important to this discussion:

– Only 12 to 14 percent of the world’s population has access to a computer, and just 3 to 5 percent has Internet access (Answers.com). The larger world is not as computer literate, by choice or due to economic circumstances, as we’re led to believe.

– We must recognize that these technological wonders carry the potential to become addictive. How many times an hour do you check your incoming email, send Facebook messages or write and read blogs?

– Instant communication, especially texting capabilities of hand-held devices, encourages users to become sloppy and careless in use of grammar, punctuation or not even using complete sentences. The language suffers as rules are broken, and after a while, who cares? Not having to be face-to-face in sending messages allows persons to assume personality traits that really aren’t theirs.

-As new capabilities emerge, delivery expectations continue to rise. Because we’re able to move from creative brainstorming to a finished product in a few short hours – sometimes less – we automatically expect that to happen every time, regardless of the pressure and stress it generates. Should we?

Modern technology is indeed a gift. Let’s view it as such and use it as a blessing for the good of humankind, or eventually it will become a curse.

Excuse me, my computer just froze up and I’ve got to finish this discourse with the help of my faithful IBM Selective II typewriter.

Jim Bishop is public information officer at Eastern Mennonite University. He can be contacted at bishopj@emu.edu.


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