I admit I am frustrated. I have spent time recently dealing with various institutions and “authorities” to manage changes which seem more like requirements than choices (although in the end, we do have choices). Although billed as “good for me”, they seem to benefit the institutions more. I have been trying to contact people in those institutions, presumably people who understand bureaucratese and who can provide personal advice, or at least assistance with procedure. Those efforts are quite frequently frustrated. I am referred to what is ONLINE, digitalized and impersonal. Why is it that, increasingly, contact between people is, and in many cases required to be, mediated through Cyberspace? What is gained and what is lost thereby?
Medical visits and information, processes, prescriptions and treatments are increasingly computerized. Although it is sometimes possible to contact a representative after a reasonable wait time, patients are strongly encouraged to use their computers to review or add to their records, make or cancel appointments, question their doctors or their bills, get directions and the like. Records are digitalized and doctors communicate with each other online or through e-mail. Doctors are expected to see more and more patients faster and faster, using the digitalized technology at their fingertips. All this means less time spent directly with patients, communicating directly, and patients find themselves in the position of having to communicate with their doctors in Cyberspace, except for brief office visits in which the doctor’s attention is divided between patient and computer. Although this may not be true one hundred percent in all locations, it is the increasing trend, and the faster our computers go, the more our medical (and other) communities seem to be drawn into it.
Insurance companies, Social Security and other government agencies also reflect this trend. Yes, there is still in person contact with representatives whose business it is to sell people specific policies; usually the contact is made via mailed response to a mailed ad. However, efforts to contact a specific agency, governmental or other, by phone is more difficult. Often, there is a long gantlet of digitalized and recorded choices to pass through before an option to connect with a representative is given. Sometimes, at that point, the caller is put endlessly on hold, and perhaps even disconnected. Of course, before this happens, a number of web sites and FAQ selections that one can bring up online have been given. Then, if contact is finally made, the representative is frequently limited to reading to the caller whatever it is that is on the online screen. There is no real conversation, interpretation, advice or help, just a hopefully friendly voice repeating what is found online. Access to people is made difficult in favor of digitized information. Any real action is found in Cyberspace.
Social media have become increasingly prevalent as a means of communication, along with texting instead of talking. Both are digital interactions instead of personal ones. Whether or not one has flesh and blood friends with whom to personally interact, many “friends” are available on Facebook. It is as if the definition of “friend” has changed, accommodated itself to the times. It is difficult, if not impossible to have a traditional friend whom one has never met, physically conversed or shared a presence with, or with whom needs are not mutually prioritized. On the other hand, online one can have many contacts with whom surface, public dialogs are exchanged. While the ability to make many and far flung contacts is a wonderful thing, an online friendship is lacking in those qualities a substantive friendship provides.
Schools are a dramatic example of progress into Cyberspace and away from personal and present interaction. Many schools have reduced their use of books, or no longer use them. School approved databases become a source of information, along with digitized visual presentations. Coursework is done online; assignments are received on “blackboards”, completed on computers, and submitted on computers. In some cases, especially tests, computers correct the assignments. Parent conversations with teachers become difficult to obtain; online communication is the default way of communicating. Students without personal “devices” in school are at a disadvantage from their peers, who can access information and “answers” during discussion in an instant. Often it is nearly impossible for a parent to find out what actually happens in class. It takes a parent with perseverance and a good basic knowledge of technology. Certainly, this may be efficient and cost effective, but something is lacking when a teacher is assigned large classes, computer assisted. What is lacking is the personal contact.
In business and finances there is also increased computerization of sales, customer service and financial transactions. Many, if not most people shop online, ranging from occasionally to exclusively. There is no personal interaction here, just interaction in Cyberspace. The popularity of this means of shopping is edging out of business brick-and-mortar stores and the people who serve there, actually interacting with customers. Grocery stores, too, tend to push the digital checkout lines, where one cannot chat for a minute or two with a checkout clerk. (I have noticed long lines at the single checkout lane open, while the self-check lines stand vacant. Do people really prefer self-check for the sake of speed?) More and more people are using the convenience of ATM machines and online banking, forgoing the human interaction with a teller. More and more are opting for direct deposit and bill paying online or by direct debit, opting out of even the minimal contact of receiving a check someone has prepared, or preparing a check for someone one has to pay.
This digitalization expands, even as online hacking is increasing. Hacking is a difficult phenomenon to trace and control, and learnable by anyone with a small talent for and interest in computerized manipulations. It is more prevalent and difficult to counter than such things as mailbox thefts or “confidence games”, which are certainly equally deplorable, but also more humanly interactive.
Even our negative and aggressive actions are finding that in Cyberspace they lose the personal responsibility for their perpetration. The effects on human beings are minimalized, and respect for life itself becomes in danger of ceasing to be. Drones, for example, are the digitalized killing of people at a distance through flying, armed computers. Civilians are killed at the same time as the opposing military, and property destroyed without regard. Yes, bombing also did that, but drones do that without any remnants of humanity left. War is becoming a computer game in which death is just part of the game, and the suffering of the innocent is simply “collateral damage”.
What has this all in common? Certainly the use of computers can make life easier, and overcome obstacles of distance and time that existed before. What has happened is the progressive lessening of personal human contact based on interaction in the presence of another. It is the lessening of presence in the here and now, in the physical world. We are increasingly inhabiting Cyberspace, not just using it, but becoming drawn into it as a place of being. It is time to ask ourselves two sets of related questions. Who or what profits from our existing primarily in Cyberspace? What are we losing when we make that transfer of attention? How do we ourselves profit from an extended presence in Cyberspace? What have we lost thereby? If we ponder these questions, perhaps then we will be able to use our computers without their addicting us into themselves.