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Technology: The Enemy of Communication?

Yesterday it was my birthday. And like nearly everyone who has a Facebook account, my wall is filled with variants of “happy birthday” from numerous people. A few people sent texts, and I got a few acknowledgements in person.

When I read through all the messages, I am left with mixed feelings. On one hand I am grateful that people took the time out of their day to send their wishes, even if it was only 30 seconds. Yet at the same time I cannot help but think that most of these same people would not even remember my birthday if Facebook didn’t remind them. I am not faulting anyone here because I am equally guilty of this myself. However, there are several questions that go through my mind when I see this happening. Why would people take time to post something if they don’t talk to me much to begin with? What is so special about a birthday that makes people want to suddenly talk to me? But most importantly, there is a much bigger question: does technology unite people, or does it separate them?

I am hardly the first person to ask  this question, but just think about it for a moment. Think of the times before the advent of Skype, Facebook, Twitter, or even email (yes, there was a time where none of those existed). People would phone each other, write a card, or maybe even send handwritten letters by mail. As old fashioned as those seem now, there is one thing those have that our modern day equivalents seem to lack: a personal touch. That’s not to say that Facebook messages are meaningless and shallow, but they don’t have the same impact as a physical greeting. In a sense, some of the meaning is lost in favor of convenience.

I have about 200 friends on Facebook and yet the amount of people on there that I regularly talk to is probably no more than 10. Although I have personally met or talked to every single person on my friends list, the definition of “friend on Facebook” and “friend in real life” aren’t the same. Many of them are people I knew from high school, but have since fallen out of touch with. There are times in life where people will end up going different directions, and this is unavoidable with any network of relationships. Social media has made it easier to maintain relationships, but at the same time it makes it easier to maintain a list of acquaintances.

It can also be argued that technology has changed the way people interact with one another. In a public environment, chatter between strangers seems to be less common because people are fixated on their own devices. Much like how you wouldn’t interrupt someone talking on the phone, you wouldn’t interrupt someone reading, listening to music, etc. Before smartphones became a convenient way to store people’s phone numbers and birthdays, they had to be written down on paper and remembered. Today, people can just pull up a contact and have all their information right there. The need to remember the information off the top of our heads is gone, giving way once again to convenience.  This may be attributable to the fact that our online social networks have become larger to the point that people are unable to remember the details of everyone at once. Even the vocabulary used in our daily interaction has changed, with people using phrases such as “Let me Google that” or internet slang like “LOL”, “OMG”, etc.

The degree to which technology has ingrained itself into our daily routines is also astounding. In many ways we have become so dependent on technology to the point that people find it difficult to disconnect. It has become routine to check our phones or Facebook for messages from friends several times per day. This phenomenon is not just limited to our social lives, but also our working lives. Email allows us to keep on top of updates from work, and some people even work from home using remote desktop. With the ability to take our work with us, the distinction between “work time” and “personal time” can become blurred. Since work hours are no longer limited to the office, tasks don’t have to be saved for the next day. Granted this does not occur with all families, but it still happens.

Flip the coin, and we see the benefits that technology has afforded us. Knowledge is closer than ever to our fingertips; if there is something we need to find out, the answer is usually a Google search away. Communication is no longer limited by physical proximity, as we are able to make calls over the internet. Long distance charges are (mostly) a thing of the past, and updates from friends/relatives are nearly instantaneous. Ultimately, technology is here to stay. We need to ensure we use it cautiously while being mindful of the side effects that come with its usage.

Coming back to the birthday discussion, I would like to make it clear that I have no problem with people posting on my wall; in fact, I appreciate it. It lets me know that there are people out there who do care. The reason why I have such mixed feelings towards it is because I feel like people are only talking to me for the sake of saying “happy birthday” and nothing else. Considering birthdays only come once a year, it does get a little lonely at times.

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