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GREG HARTON: Tech tests maturity of users

by Greg Harton | May 24, 2020 at 1:00 a.m.

There was a time in which people went about their lives less digitally connected but more dialed into humanity.

At 55, I'm at the age of having experienced what life was like before cell phones, "smart" devices, the Internet and constant connectivity. But I've also spent the last 30 years or so embracing as much of those amazing new technologies as my bank account would allow.

As a kid in Arkansas, we just watched ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS. There weren't other options. It wasn't until I was a teen my family got cable television. The remote was a wired box you could pull to the couch and each channel had its own button. I spent hours mesmerized by nothing more than a floating dot I could "serve" back to the other side of the TV with a "paddle" controlled by a dial connected to an Atari video console.

No fancy sounds. Just beep. Then boop.

When you left your house, people couldn't reach you until you got to your destination. And it was OK. Children told their parents where they would be, and parents knew the phone numbers of the homes where their friends lived. Parents knew each other. I'd spend hours roaming with friends and not worried at all about what was happening anywhere beyond our neighborhood.

People had phone manners. You answered the wired phone with a "hello" or perhaps with a "Harton residence" after running to the living room to be the first to pick it up. When I hit my teens, I remember us getting a long phone cord so we could extend the phone from its place on the kitchen counter to our front room for a little privacy and comfort.

I did not walk uphill both ways to school in the snow. I rode the bus.

It's hard to believe the iPhone is just 13 years old and Facebook just a little older. How dramatically have those developments and other social media changed the way we interact with each other?

Technology is advancing rapidly, far more rapidly than ever before. I don't think it's a bad thing. Technology is, basically, neutral. But our capacity to figure out its proper role in our lives is, I think, much slower. It sometimes seems our technology has more control over us than we over it.

In the MIT Technology Review in 2014, technology researcher and columnist Vivek Wadhwa suggested the human mind cannot keep pace with the advances computers are enabling.

"Changes of a magnitude that once took centuries now happen in decades, sometimes in years," Wadhwa wrote. "Not long ago, Facebook was a dorm-room dating site, mobile phones were for the ultra-rich, drones were multimillion-dollar war machines, and supercomputers were for secret government research. Today, hobbyists can build drones and poor villagers in India access Facebook accounts on smartphones that have more computing power than the Cray 2--a supercomputer that in 1985 cost $17.5 million and weighed 2,500 kilograms."

We adopt technology quickly, but do we adjust to it as fast?

Socially, morally and ethically, I'm not sure we humans have advanced as quickly as our technology, and it becomes disruptive to who we are. I think people treat each other far more poorly on social media than they ever would someone in "real life," for example. Technology has advanced, but our maturity level in its use has not.

The moment technology realizes its potential is when its users mature in applying it to their lives. We humans are still in our infancy relative to our devices and social media. They have a proper role in our lives, but we'll all be better off when we realize they shouldn't hold the all-consuming place they do in the current age.

Commentary on 05/24/2020

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