Sunday, July 18, 2010

Technology's Feast & Famine

Meeting recently with a 26-year-old first time homebuyer to write an offer on a house, I suggested we try to imagine the sellers’ motivations. My buyer quickly responded, “Oh, I know their motivations.”

“How so?” I asked.

“I pulled up their property tax records from the county web site and got their names and new mailing address. I drove by that new address. It’s a bigger and more expensive house than the one they’re selling. Then I went to Facebook and typed in their names. On the wife’s wall are photos of her pregnant and others of her holding a baby.”

My internal “creeper alert” was going off. All I could say was, “Really?” My buyer went on.

“On the husband’s Facebook wall were several comments saying he’s stressed about making two house payments. So they probably moved because they needed more room for their growing family, and they’re financially strapped because they own two houses. So I’m going to low-ball them on price. I figure they’re desperate.”

He did low-ball them and they eventually accepted his price. He had never met these people, but knew very personal details about them that saved him, while costing them thousands of dollars.

Think of it as the “feast and famine effect.” Often, new technology has a way of flooding us with one kind of contact, while starving us of another. The results are sometimes regrettable.

This spring my 19-year-old college freshman told me he deactivated his Facebook account. Earlier in the school year he found himself feeling isolated and lonely and started to wonder if Facebook was part of the problem. He’d gotten a little addicted - obsessed with wondering who was online - what were they saying - did they respond to his last comment? Being able to access it on his iPhone only made things worse.

As he described this, I recalled a Saturday night when I was on my computer and saw he’d just posted a comment – at 10:00. I commented, “What kind of college student is in their dorm room on a computer at 10:00 on a Saturday night?” He replied, “Yeah, kinda pathetic.”

So one night he just closed up his computer, grabbed his favorite DVD and went over the a friends apartment and asked, “Who wants to watch a movie?” He spent the evening with friends, in-person, instead of online and noted as he walked home how different the evening would have been if he’d stayed in his room and on his computer.

So he deactivated his account and made a concerted effort to spend more time with friends. Though he had hundreds of Facebook friends, the relatively few he spends time with face-to-face made life far more rewarding.

More feast and famine.

I’ve written often over the past decade about the hidden side-effects of new technology. We think about the new thing we get when a new technology arrives in our lives, but we never think about what we lose. The reality: the time we spend doing that new thing replaces time we used to spend doing something else.

What’s ironic about online social networking is that it can choke off our face-to-face social networking. We sit inside our homes staring into our computer screens and end up truly knowing fewer people, and knowing them less well, having traded it for more access to the fleeting thoughts and personal information of many, many more people.

Of course, there’s good in the feast. That’s why we embrace it. On Facebook I’ve been connecting with people I went to high school and college with – some I haven’t seen in 20 years or more. And students from my teaching days have found me, too. In my mind they’re still 16 or 17, but through their photos I learn about their husbands and wives and children. How could that be bad?

It can be bad when you get so infatuated with the new technology that you feast on its superficial gimmick to the exclusion of existing nurturing aspects of your life.

Watch a group of teenage girls together. They are physically together, but also apart as they each stare into their cell phones, texting rapidly to someone who isn’t really there. They are with many people, and no one, both at once.

Greta and I commented on this to our 15-year-old daughter recently. This is a girl who routinely sends and receives as many as a hundred text messages a day. She offered an insightful reply: “Seems like Facebook and texting hurts friendships.”

“What do you mean?” we asked.

“I’ll have plans to meet up with somebody in the evening, but when we get together we have nothing to talk about because we’ve been texting and reading each other’s posts on Facebook all day long. We already know the latest in each other’s lives.”

And that’s what the feast and famine is all about: overfeeding on something that can’t really satisfy your appetite to the exclusion the things that really nourish. Perhaps the challenge of embracing any new technology is to balance the two.

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