My sophomore year of high school was 1985, and even in the small town where I grew up, the newly affordable home computers were being promoted and embraced as “the next big thing.” Accordingly, our school now offered computer classes to take kids a step beyond the IBM “Selectric” typewriters, which had suddenly become nothing more than a required time-hurdle to keep us from overdosing on the newer technology. That technology spoke to us through intense green pixellated characters, and it’s allure was irresistible to geeks like me. Well ok, I wasn’t really a geek. I just had geek-like tendencies which I was quite sure complemented my other passions for things such as motors, speed, and girls. Yeah, right.
Regardless, I was in the class, and I had my sights set on “schooling” the teacher, a younger man named Mr.Taliff, whose cranial magnitude would have given Jay Leno’s chin a run for its money. Little did he know that I had already learned several programing languages, thanks to my Mom’s investment in an Atari-400 home computer just a year or two prior. Sure, he was the teacher and I was just some punk kid; yet the ability to manipulate electrons and see results on the screen somehow gave me a sense of empowerment that overshadowed all the trivial realities of life. Little did I know at the time just how prophetic those thoughts and feelings would be as the years ticked quickly by, each with more virtual potential than the year before.
Somehow, between then and now, the real tangible aspects of life have taken a back seat to the virtual presentation of life as we receive it, most likely on our smart phone that is a fraction the size of those old computers, yet is light years ahead in ability. In so many ways, we’ve given up the real for the unreal, and have made it evident that the old-fashioned concept of human interaction is nothing more than a worn out idea from days gone by.
There are, however, some holdouts where the ancient skill of “reading” a real live person is still taught. When I went through the police academy, we learned that on the streets, it’s a life-or-death necessity to know how to interpret not only a person’s speech, but their body language as well. I learned to read the eyes, the muscles, the veins and skin color. Watch the hands, watch the feet. Our bodies communicate so much, often times through automatic reflexes and reactions to the situation or topic at hand. This “technology” was designed into us by our creator and has not ever required a software upgrade or a newer version to remain viable. How then has this emerging virtual world overtaken all that is real? There are no simple answers. And worse than that, there are no signs that we will ever regain our once finely honed skills of relating to real people in real time.
I suppose I should call myself middle-aged, thereby justifying a view into the lives of those on either side of my mid-life fence. For the most part, today’s youth possess only a fraction of the inter-personal skills they would have learned had they been born a mere twenty or thirty years earlier. Why won’t kids today look you in the eye when they’re talking to you, speak in complete sentences, and make good on their promises? Because that’s real life, and “real” is terrifying. It allows no anonymity, and it opens you up to a response or reaction that you can’t simply delete or ignore.
As I glance across to the other side of my fence, I see an older generation where folks were raised on the belief that a person’s word was his bond, because it was spoken from his mouth and sealed with a handshake. When these folks, these relics from a world long gone, interact in society today, they stand out against the sea of downturned faces aglow in the light of their phones. It is a truly marvelous thing to find a person who still practices the art of real communication, battery-free and no 3G or Wi-Fi required.
Please don’t think for a minute that I no longer embrace technology – After all, you’re not reading this lengthy opinion of mine on a piece of paper, now are you? My goal here is not to stifle the advances we’ve made, but rather to encourage us all not to forget the very rudimentary God-given need for human-to-human interaction. Some things, if not most, are best communicated in real-time, and no 3×5 screen will ever surpass the value of a real face-to-face exchange. I believe we’d all do well to put a little effort into supporting real life.