Technology continues to transform how we live - and how we live with each other - in good and not so good ways.
I recall an op-ed piece written by a perceptive young waitress that alluded to a Thoreau quote, “Men have become tools to their tools.” She described how dining has changed in recent years, what with the prevalence of customers eating in silence, hunkered down at tables while consuming their cellphones.
In Seattle that kind of behavior is now common on city sidewalks crowded with Microsofties, Googles and Amazonians. I’ve been to college commencement ceremonies where graduates are more immersed in their phones than their graduation. Texting while driving now causes more accidents than drunk driving, and texting during conversations is just taken as a given, as if it’s a natural (and polite) thing to do.
But it is not technology itself that is the problem. Hard to blame tools if we have allowed ourselves to become their tools.
A few years ago I had the privilege of serving as host to Jim Sinegal, founder of Costco, for a presentation and question/answer session with students. One senior asked why it was that Costco was known for treating its employees so well while Walmart had a very different reputation. Mr. Singegal said it was all about culture, what was valued and what was not.
As I walked with Mr. Sinegal to his car after the session (secretly hoping to score some free hot dog coupons), I complimented him on his answer and asked a follow up question: “Are you concerned about Costco becoming more like Walmart as leadership transitions to new generations?” Mr. Sinegal explained that creating culture is really difficult, but once firmly rooted (for good or bad) it is hard to reshape. He believed that Costco’s culture would remain true to its principles because its roots ran so deep.
We may now be a hopelessly entrenched “tools of our tools” culture. On the other hand, however, maybe recent trends in our use of technology are not so deeply rooted and we could grow in a healthier direction. How can we tell? Count the cars. There is a farmer in the Midwest who predicts recessions based upon fluctuations in the number of railcars that pass by his property. Perhaps counting cars applies to culture as well as economics.
If so, there are signs that the technology pendulum is swinging back toward less obsessive and more humane use. More friends are establishing no cellphone rules when out for dinner. More parents are requiring that cellphones be put in a kitchen basket during study time and are charged at night outside bedrooms. Some millennials, hoping to focus on the agenda during meetings, are limiting their tools to spiral notebooks and pens to decrease distractions. Those high schools that didn’t cave into unlimited student use of cellphones are now the envy of those that did. And Amazonians who insist on burying their heads in their cellphones while on Seattle sidewalks are now openly mocked. (Not a nice thing, but a kind of satisfying one.)
The deeply rooted hunger for companionship likely runs deeper than the dopamine that is released with constant texting. Our culture could reflect this truth once again. But that will take a commitment to put people ahead of tools.