A couple nights ago, The Colbert Report interview segment featured yet another self-important philosopher-type. When asked to critique modern culture in ten words or less, he replied, “Too much digital. Not enough critical thinking. More physical reality.”
Now, I agree with him about critical thinking, though it seems to contradict the rest of his statement. My opinion is that people who are active in both the physical and digital worlds can consciously choose to experience the best of both, based on their preferences. There are outliers on both sides and their choices are valid too, whether they choose full immersion in the physical or digital realm (as much as that is possible), but their choices are in no way superior.
What experiences shape the opinions of digital naysayers? Did their teenagers text through an important family moment? Was AOL just a little too complicated? Do they see ads for laptops and tablets and think that they’re babble in a language they don’t understand? Was a moment of forest reverie interrupted by a hiker’s Maroon 5 ringtone?
If I imagine my life without the digital components, it is not a richer existence. My husband and I got to know each other online for years before we met in person, so I wouldn’t have my comfy home life. I wouldn’t have any of the relationships I’ve built in virtual worlds and games, whether fleeting or enduring. The most lucrative positions in my job history and my financial stability now are based in digital technology. Before that, I was managing office buildings, which can be a difficult, miserable job.
Without digital technology, my experience of the world would be limited to what others tell me. I could read my local newspaper and the selection of books at the library and local bookstores, chosen by others. I could watch local television news and the national news. How limiting that would be! Now I have the work of thinkers around the globe, ancient and modern, at my fingertips. I can see the news through a plethora of filters. Plus, the income from those tech jobs allowed me to travel widely and to go back to college to study anthropology.
Speaking of anthropology, digital technology helps me understand and relate to other people. I’m not inherently good at that and if I had to meet everyone face-to-face, I’d become a hermit. I’m not innately compassionate either, yet Facebook and email allow me to express concern and support without my reserve being misunderstood. Because I can have a lot of interactions online, I have social energy when I need it. That allows me to take yoga classes and make small talk with strangers when I walk my dog through the neighborhood. Those can be excruciating or impossible when I am socially exhausted. Technology is thereby a contributor to my physical well-being, too.
My experiences with the physical world are entwined with the digital. Once I finish writing this post, I will clean and process a fantastic seven pound mushroom harvested from my yard: I know it is edible thanks to online mushroom guides, I watched a YouTube video of how to clean it, and I found a recipe for wild mushroom soup on a blog. Those digital elements don’t detract from gathering and eating the most local of food; they enable it. We’ve gone camping in tents, kayaking, and on long bike rides this summer, and all of those deeply physical experiences were connected in some way to the digital — making campground reservations online, finding where we took a wrong turn off the bike paths using Google Maps, checking the weather radar to see if those dark clouds heading toward us were full of rain and we should paddle our arms off to race to the beach.
Sure, some of us act like selfish narcissists and those traits can be more obvious when technology is involved. Some of us get dazzled or obsessed with something for a while, and aspects of digital tech appeal to our compulsive inclinations. But for many, digital technology is an integrated and balanced part of our lives. I might be an extreme example but I’m certainly not unique.