Robert B. Simpson: Always a cost

March 29, 2014 

There was a time when "washday" meant just that -- a whole day of backbreaking labor to do the family's wash. White goods were boiled in a cast-iron wash pot heated outdoors over a roaring fire. Clothes were soused in a washtub full of hot, soapy water, then scrubbed on a washboard until they were either clean or one's knuckles were raw, or both. Everything was rinsed in another tub, then wrung out and hung on a clothesline to dry. And then ironed with a flatiron heated either on a wood stove or in front of an open fire.

The advance of technology produced washing machines run by small gasoline engines or by electricity, eliminating the agony of the old-fashioned washday.

Few would have bothered to look for a downside to this improvement, given that the upside was so significant. But technology comes at a price, sometimes so small as to be hardly noticed, at other times so large as to change the culture. And modern advances often seem so desirable and come with such rapidity that unwanted changes may be upon us before we've had time to calculate the cost. For example, there's personal communication.

My wife and I recently acquired "smart phones." Our garden-variety cell phones handled calls quite well, which was, after all, why we had them. But we wanted to appear modern. It's disconcerting to be in a public place and realize you're out of date, the only ones not staring, mesmerized, at a small screen. And smart phones can do amazing things through the use of specific applications downloaded into them from the millions available, so many that the phrase "there's an app for that" is lodged in our language. By the way, we modern folks always call applications "apps." Many of these apps are entertaining and some are even useful.

You don't really have to add apps, though, to fit into modern society. Onlookers have no way of knowing. Now when my wife and I are in a restaurant, we can sit across the table from each other and gaze down at our personal screens while we scroll aimlessly up and down. Nobody knows if we're only repeatedly checking the time and the weather.

Joking aside, we have seen a young couple sitting across from each other in a restaurant booth, holding hands across the table, each one using their free hand to hold a cell phone, staring at the screen, thumb flicking furiously as they scrolled away at some spellbinding segment of a digital life. We have seen a table loaded with prom celebrants, dressed to the nines, with several of the males staring down at small screens half hidden by the table's edge, while their dates chatted among themselves.

Advancing technology continues to arrive rapidly, and the cost may be extreme in some cases. Computers have affected the distribution of news, both positively and negatively, in ways not imagined a few decades ago.

Experts announce that the shopping mall is on its way out, axed by Internet shopping that already has eaten into brick and mortar store profits and threatens to devour them completely. Robotics promise to speed many manufacturing, storing, selling, and shipping processes, increasing efficiency and profits while eliminating thousands of jobs.

While the impact of technology on how, where, or if we work is relatively obvious, there are negative social side effects that are not so clear to most of us. Current research shows that our most cherished recent advances, beloved though they are, have exacted a cost. Being constantly connected electronically, regardless of how much we may desire it, leads to stress. The worker who once went home at the end of the day and relaxed, now often is still subject to job-related contact at all hours. At the same time, we are becoming more isolated from physical contact, with a consequent degradation of social skills among the young. Clinical depression increases. As does obesity. The constant input of information has led to a vastly decreased attention span, on the order of 50% or more, in the last several decades.

No one is suggesting we eliminate technological advances. But somehow we have to be aware of the steamroller that is rushing toward us and develop the nimbleness to deal with it without losing our humanity.

I don't think there's an app for that.

Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."

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