How communications technology has changed us
Among the many changes I've witnessed in my 30-plus years living here, the greatest has been in how communication technology has altered us as human beings — and as neighbors. As I frequently tell anyone who will listen, communication defines community. Without communication, we aren't a community. Add the corollary that the quality of that communication determines the quality of our community. Case in point: the toxic communication poisoning our nation. So how has technology changed us? Much of our local communication now is online through something called Nextdoor. This San Francisco-based outfit thoughtlessly generated "communication communities" that are often disconnected from our City-sanctioned neighborhoods.
That's left several faux Nextdoor neighborhoods with no civic identity. Nextdoor's "Westwood," carved out of Hillsdale, doesn't exist as far as the City is concerned. Nor do "Upper Multnomah," "Lower Multnomah" or "Council Crest." Discourse on Nextdoor is largely about finding lost dogs and cats, selling used furniture and looking for a good plumber, babysitter etc. That's simple enough. But beyond that, Nextdoor's owners have had to grapple with "inappropriate language," "non-local issues," "racism," "unpaid commercial intrusion" and finding, training and managing volunteer editors (called "leads") to deal with this and more. No small task. Just search "Nextdoor Community Guidelines" online to witness the Hydraheaded complexity. Information technology also has changed our relationship with our physical community through Global Positioning Systems (GPS). Will our reliance on these mapping systems eventually erode our internal sense of where we are?
Just the other day I was out with a friend heading to a destination. I was 99 percent sure I knew how to get there, but she insisted that we be guided by a robotic voice on Google Maps. Guy-like, I insisted on using my God-given sense of direction to find the place — and I did. But if we stop using our inherent, internal global positioning devices (aka "brains"), I fear we will lose them. Many of us are increasingly in two places at the same time. Place one: an exposed crosswalk. Place two: cyberspace texting a friend and oblivious to real-world drivers waiting for us to sleepwalk across the street. Human evolution could go two ways. The "fittest" survivors will either be those who learn to juggle being in two (or three or four!) places simultaneously, or those who take things one at a time and stay focused on getting safely to the other side of the street. In terms of community, energy that is drained away from where we are NOW is the community's loss. In the extreme, we have a choice between the virtual landscape of smartphones, television and computers and the real landscape of neighbors, nature and community. Ironically, communications technology has also made us feel unsafe. Much of the communication on
Nextdoor is about suspicious characters lurking about. Or car breakins, or mischief generally. Occasionally, these warnings result in arrests. Well and good, but they also raise the level of fear, just as the "ifit-bleeds-it-leads" local TV news does. It's enough to persuade you to build a moat and raise the drawbridge. Neighborhoods increasingly bristle with hair-trigger car alarms, home security devices and surveillance cameras. These "improvements" have changed us. It's no longer such a wonderful day in the neighborhood. Our heightened sense of danger, whether justified or not, has nurtured a yearning for privacy, Add to that the barrage of "robo-calls" either scamming or peddling. Moreover, our online presence is monitored, exploited and sold to advertisers and politicians. Did someone say "Big Brother"? Finally there's communication technology's effect on civic — and civil — discourse. Try developing a rational argument using Twitter's 280-character limit. Try responding in 280 characters. What passes for debate has been reduced to hip shots. Consider the difference of addressing someone who is physically present, a neighbor perhaps, and addressing some distant, faceless
texter. And doesn't proper discernment take time? Do our exchanges via the new technology give us that time? In the culture of the internet, taking your time is often interpreted as rudeness. "It's been three hours and she still hasn't responded!" Lest I sound like a Luddite, I should add — as I type at my computer and stare into my very own screen — that much good comes from the new communications technology. But most of that good derives from behaviors passed down from a fast disappearing era of person-to-person discourse. The danger is this: The more we rely on communication constrained and dictated by a "damn the consequences" technology, the less neighborly we will become. Note: Most ideas here are not new — think of the work of Marshall McLuhan ("The Medium is the Message"), James W. Carey ("Communication as Culture") and Neil Postman ("Amusing Ourselves to Death," "Conscientious Objections" and "Technopoly.")