I have a blackberry.  I love it. It allows me to send my e-mails to friends and family when I am away from house. It lets me socialise according to my schedule.

Did I tell you I have a blackberry?  I hate it. It allows bosses and co-workers and spammers to send me e-mails when I am not in the office. It invades my personal time and makes me think every e-mail is an emergency requiring urgent attention.

That to me, in 8 sentences, is the double-edged sword of technology.

Now, there are some people who say that technology improves their life…and I must admit, part of me agrees. Innovation, creativity, artistry etcetera, are all great things that technology makes better.  I mean, just think of all the wonderful things we can do  with the amazing gadgets that exist – we can communicate, we can navigate, we can educate; we can feed, or heal, or nurture, with all the weird and wonderful machines developed with new technology.

Let me ask you though, are our lives really that much better? Sure, technology has changed the way we live – and it has made many things easier. For example, Skype just makes video conferencing possible from you laptop – that used to be James Tiberius Kirk stuff when I was younger. Being a physics geek, and a wee bit of a “half empty” kinda guy, I must remind you that  every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

Yes, it is easy and quick to send e-mails; but how many of you take a perverse pleasure in complaining how you must sort through a hundred e-mails a day (I think it is a weird sort of self-importance thing really). It is not unusual to spend hours sorting the wheat from the chaff, the valuable from the spam, the “I need to action this now” from the “I don’t need this info – ever”.  Before, if the information was crucial, people called you or gave you a piece of paper to read;  today it takes time and effort to sort out what is useful,  and the Inbox just never seems to be empty.

How about that information highway? I have to admit,  there is some valuable information out “there”  – all accessible within a microsecond.  But, when you search for services, or restaurants, or hotel critiques, or film reviews – you must now filter through 246,000 listings to find the most pertinent. (A simple Google search for “beer” yields about 610,000,000 results in 0.21 seconds – that cost me about 40 minutes…) If you are like me, we will randomly select several, only to realise we are no better off than when we started: Grumpy Pants thought that the movie was shit, while Constantly Happy thought it was the best movie in the existence of film! (I believe that was  a Twilight review – and okay, maybe I am Mr. Grumpy Pants.)  Putting on my “half full” hat, I admit that maybe I believe that the next review or rating will be the exact one to help me find a solution….but nope, it isn’t.  Wait, just one more….and then after 20 minutes of reading useless stuff,  I realise that I will have to rely on my gut – to go, or not to go.  So I make the decision and hope for the best.  The final decision process sounds kind of old school to me – a decision that can be made without 20 minutes of “research” and without any of the new apps, or the Internet.

And while technology can be slick and fast, it strikes me as more flash than bang.  So, as I do in these blogs, and as you probably know by now, I think back to the archaic and reliable that defined technology when I was a kid.  In our house, we had a simple rotary phone…maybe some of you remember them. (There were no touch tone beeps with those babies…by the way, I bought a functioning one at a garage sale in 2004, my kids aged 10 and 12 at the time had no idea how to dial a number with it! Priceless…) I remember how the phone was a revered object…how each phone called was an Event,  answered with immaculate telephone manners. And  I remember the monthly phone call with my grandmother and uncles in England: long distance, on crackling, echoey lines, the Family all crowded around the handset asking Nanny to speak louder (there were no speaker phones back then – well at least not in our house), and trying to work through that annoying delay on the line when both parties tried to talk at the same time (both saying, “No, no… you first!”) .  Aaah, good times.

It was also the time of handwriting and proper language – no “l8r” or “lol” or “FML” or emoticons.  I remember the giddy excitement surrounding the welcome arrival of an air mail letter – the envelope containing a carefully scribed, handwritten note. And who, of my vintage, can forget the dog-eared address book, sitting on the telephone table, with the protruding little bits of paper (pre-Post It notes, for those that are asking “why?”). The book was graffitied with multiple stricken entries and cramped, twisting writing as the owner tried to squeeze in just one more address or phone number amendment besides a friend’s name…always vowing that in the next book, all the addresses would be written in pencil.  That is that way it was during the Era of Pong.

Those relics are almost all gone…replaced by the iPhone or its sleek metal and plastic cousin, the personal digital assistant. Now, old friends, the people once lovingly entered with care on alpha-numerically indexed pages, have been reduced to binary bits of organised data that are inserted and deleted with a rapid stroke of CTRL-ALT-DEL. Unfortunately, once our utility comes to an end, we are digitally deleted –  vaporised into The Matrix.  All of our electronic traces are wiped out when we are no longer relevant, or when a new app is added, a new device purchased. We are erased – effaced even. Sadly, we do not even exist as a nostalgic memory, represented by crossed out numbers and letters on a lined page in a flimsy book.  If you have ever owned an address book, you will know how those crossed out entries still served as a fond reminder of a friendship or acquaintance that was once warm and vibrant.  My Contact List just does not have the same warmth. Okay, enough reminiscing…

So, what about today? To me, it seems that our lives are consumed with pursuing new technological advances and not harnessing and optimizing what we  have now.   But more critically, when considering how we behave while owning these new gadgets, I am amazed at how technology has undermined the foundation of our manners.  Technology can make us behave rudely.  The bad habits that have evolved with new technology are mind-boggling.  Off the top of my head, I can think of a few habits that prove my point:

  • The one-sided public conversation.  I hate these…on the bus, the train, the restaurant…wherever. Firstly, thanks for invading my space, and secondly thanks for sharing the fact that you have to stop at the store to pick up hemorrhoidal cream and tampons.  Some things are best kept private…and a cell phone in public is just not private, is it?
  • I don’t care if you love Beyoncé or Techno or Shout outs. I hate your annoying ring tone…I am not a fan of the Hamster Dance Song, or the Cat Hairball Song or the Shitting Monkey Song.  And you’ll know what I mean when you listen to this – ANNOYING RING TONES (R rated) .  To whomever posted the clip and thinks the tones are  “cool” – either you are slightly delusional and should get help, or you are 12 years old (hmmmm…maybe the word “cool” in the title gave that away already!)
  • The device that goes off during the meeting, the briefing, the movie, the play, the recital – wherever a phone shouldn’t be. On that note, do you really have to text during these events?  That screen is a lot brighter than you think and the sound of your thumbs moving at 180 characters per minute is not as quiet as you think.  You look rude and disinterested – you exude a sense of self-importance and lack of awareness that is conceited. Can’t your text or message wait until the next pee break? Can’t you excuse yourself, as you are disinterested in what is going on anyway?  Honestly, you are not as good at multi-tasking as you thought.
  • I do not appreciate a owners’ need to show me how wonderful their device is.  Let me put it simply…I DO NOT CARE.  I am glad they are happy about their new global warming app that estimates how much methane is added to atmosphere after eating a burrito. Can’t we leave it that, rather than showing me how it works?

Even though all those habits irritate me, there is one monolith of a bad habit – I call it the Queen Mother of rude techno manners – that I lament the most. It happened to me the other day (hence this blog).  That misfortune would be the rapid decline of engaging and committed conversation between two people who are face-to-face (or side-by-side for that matter).  How many times have you been talking to a colleague, a friend, or family member, and the conversation has been broken by the unwelcome digital muzak of a handheld electronic apparatus?  I have sadly observed that the intrusion is then followed by one of two reactions and one inevitability: either without missing a heartbeat and cutting you off with a dismissive hand gesture, or with a painful 4 or 5 second agitated delay (like a digital junkie suffering withdrawal symptoms) followed by that “you-don’t-mind-if-I-answer” look,  your conversation partner will undoubtedly check their phone.  Then they will probably leave you isolated and alone, idly twiddling your thumbs as they communicate with someone else; or, they will attempt a half-hearted attempt conversation with you, head-nodding absently and annoyingly while reading a text – pretending they are soaking in everything you are saying.  Bullsh*t, you don’t fool me!  The only thing worse than the head-bobber? Those who ignorantly compose an e-mail or text while trying the same manoeuvre.

Rather than just waiting, I had to think about it for a moment: what’s the message they’re sending me?  That I, the one standing in front of them (well inside their personal space bubble), am not as important – or heaven forbid, as exciting – as the person on the other end of the g3 or Wi-Fi.  Yes, it is as simple as that.  For those that are victims of this unfortunate new mannerism, consider buying your conversational partners the best innovation I have seen in communication technology in recent years.

Don’t get me wrong; I love our exponential technological growth– it has made things a lot better than when I was a kid: cell phones more powerful than Big Blue, HD sports and  blue ray movies that are so clear you would think you were there, spectacular video games to amuse and enjoy, Skype and webcam communications to link you to your loved ones across the Globe, MRIs and scopes to cure our ills…the list goes on and on.

But I am confused.

While technology amazes me,  the way it impacts our lives confounds me.  I just think we have not found the balance between technology enhancing our lives and technology controlling our lives.  Technology is supposed to make us better; I think it has made people behave poorly.  The potential  for technology to invade and negatively alter our personal time is enormous; its ability to confound and confuse by offering us too much choice is all too real.  And lastly, the way technology erodes our human interaction is just too insidious.  I used to get mad at people who didn’t realise that the person in front of them should receive more attention than the one on the other end of invisible waves.  Now I am just sad for them.

Disappointingly, I am not the only one who thinks that people need to relearn some manners in the Digital Age. The old and venerable Emily Post is another one who agrees with me (or maybe, me with her).  Note that Emily Post’s Guide to Good Manners is no longer just an antiquated 18th century publication that tells you how to fold your pocket-handkerchief.  Did you know that there is her own etiquette website called Etipedia® (Etiquette + Encyclopedia…cute).  And now you can find all of her successors’ advice and counsel to deal with a variety of etiquette conundrums.  More importantly, there is even one whole section that deals with the use of communication devices. It is perfect for people who mistakenly value their digital “thingy-ma-bobs” over real live human contact.  And it is even on-line .

Isn’t technology wonderful?