Put Down That Smartphone and Look at Me!

Hearing the inventory of Steve Jobs’ ground-breaking innovations, it made me think of what effect his genius has had on how we now relate to each other. What have we gained?

We can now make magic — we can bolt right over those old time/space barriers that made connecting with each other take time and physical effort. Now we can communicate with each other instantly, effortlessly — no seeing/hearing/touching/talking necessary. Our words fly through space and land just where we want them to with just the tap of a finger. And while we’re with one person we can even answer another’s demands and reach them too — putting the live, visible person we’re with on hold.

But what have we lost?

Communication science tells us that first impressions — the input that helps us learn and discern as we judge people — are made up of 55 percent experiencing your body language, 38 percent your tone of voice and that only 7 percent is your words. Seven percent of total information about anyone is what cell phones give us as we contact each other! Even less since we use acronyms — not even whole words.

So what is our new magic making us miss ?

Each other. The delight and surprise, the troubling demands, the enigmatic and fulfilling contacts we used to make with each other. The challenge of learning how to scratch the surface we all present. To recognize the human traits we all share. To experience each other, to see and learn how others are handling life and its issues — by looking and listening to them.

From the beginning, we used to invest ourselves personally in communicating. From painting pictures in caves to drums and smoke signals to developing language so we could get more specific to creating rites and rituals, plays, dances, songs — we were driven emotionally to reach out and affect each other, to share how we felt. To confirm and find solace in the commonality of our human condition.

It worked for centuries. As we moved on, we still treasured what had been said and done before because we continually recognized that the outreach of all the arts kept answering our questions, giving us other approaches to what we all still continued to live through and care about. And we kept seeking out the personal relating and responding, savoring the talking, the sharing — the contact. In every society, at any time in history, there were always family get-togethers, community celebrations, participation in events and intimacies with fellow humans. We saw and felt each other, reassured by the recognition that we’re not alone. That we do share the space and the life we all live.

Until now.

Yes — we still gather in groups. We still have family get-togethers. We still meet and eat with friends and colleagues. But the drive for contact? Eye contact? Verbal contact? Vocal contact? Reaching out to make personal, human contact? That’s fading. We’re now satisfied to share through little hand-held mechanical devices and solo finger exercises. Human contact is becoming theoretical. If the little device shows letters on a screen that means we’ve made today’s kind of contact. And it’s enough. Much easier and faster than talking. Safer too, since we can reconsider, edit and rewrite before reaching out. But what’s getting short-circuited in the creation of this unquestionably genius device? The looking, seeing, smiling, frowning, raising a voice, laughing a laugh — all those native people-gifts that we used to use for pleasure. And to instinctively judge, react to, understand and feel the human contacts we made.

Young people’s acronym-filled messages are now simply asking, “Are you still there?” waiting for the screen to say “Contact — I’m here.” We all use the new technology to fulfill more than just work tasks. The screen also answers “Who knows me?” “Do I matter” “Am I a player in the big game?” But the basic substance of life and how we live it is still human — not mechanical — and these extraordinary inventions are also starting to dry up our original communicative talents that always made reaching out to each other — though a little more time consuming — such full, rich, meaningful experiences.

So — what have we gained? Speed and ease and freedom in completing the circuits; in making technology do our bidding, short-cutting all the tiresome, time-consuming ways we used to use to accomplish our tasks. That’s good.

But what are we losing?

Those native human gifts we all own. Finding the individuality, the one-of-a-kindness that we can only discover by looking and listening, by interacting and processing live, at once, while we’re in real, personal contact with each other.

So — what am I asking for? Especially from the younger ones among us who grew up addicted to those devices. Put down those cell phones and go for being present. When you’re together with others, park the phone. Look. Listen. Perceive. Tune in. Treasure and use those inherent human instincts we used to be so good at when we needed to sense friend or foe, danger or joy, surprise or discovery. Notice. Touch. Breathe in. Feel what happens between people. Find out what we share before we lose those skills altogether. Discover what else you can learn about yourself and living – -not just the fact that we can now also make contact by tapping away.

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Funny thing about us in Emergencies

If you read or listen to the news on a fairly regular basis you may have come to the conclusion that we’ve become a group of angry, divisive, name-calling sects, busily elbowing each other out of line, judging each other’s moral and mental capacities and losing that old, dependable sense of connection that used to mean being an American. Yes, we were always different from each other but we were always still related, allied, unified as Americans. Remember?

Then along comes Irene. And those hard, thorny, judgmental shells get peeled back to reveal— we’re all still connected. Connected by that most durable, eternal thread— our shared humanity. Everywhere we saw just folks rushing to rescue total strangers. Putting their own lives in jeopardy simply because they could feel the link. Their empathy and concern born out of the simple, innate human emotions we’re all born with. And suddenly we got to view that old American arm-in-armness that has been so sorely missing these last couple of years.

Of course folks like Rep. Eric Cantor couldn’t lose the opportunity to exhort us that FEMA – busy saving lives and property but spending money to do it —has to be considered one those evil government- spending programs that must be cut back in order to save money. Rather than asking the super-rich to kick in more revenue to solve our growing insolvency, certain politicians still see the human services our government provides as unnecessary, indulgent and only adding to the weakness of our economy rather than being the basic fabric of our society, grounded in our country’s founding principles.

So—does it have to take hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes and blackouts for us to rise to showing the best in us? And what will it take to move the hearts of those members of Congress who worship the almighty dollar and the bottom line more than our universally basic human needs. Needs we all share, we who are lucky enough to be part of this country whose foundations were built on answering those human needs— freedom of speech and of worship ,from want and from fear.