Knowledge is power…but can it leave you powerless?

I was sipping on my life force (coffee) the other day in a pretty average looking Starbucks.  The espresso machine was whirring, the ice machines crunching, the coffee maker humming.  The staff bustled around the counter pouring, mixing, dipping, foaming, shouting.  There was not a single table unoccupied.  Settled into the dark brown and green smothered ambiance, there were what I like to call the “computer brooders,” there was a father frantically trying to coax his child into eating a Starbucks breakfast sandwich before school, there was a group of old men reading a stack of newspapers, and there was what looked to be a business meeting in full swing.  I adapted to the buzz of the room, ignoring the crying infant, the gesticulating salesman and the newspaper-rustling old men.  I didn’t even notice how loud the room had become until everything stopped.

Everyone froze in the sudden dark.

Then people began to look around.

The computer hermits tentatively turned their glazed eyes from their screens, the father swiveled his head, his arm still outstretched toward his daughter with an uneaten bite of croissant. The business man looked stunned and turned toward the Starbucks employees as though they could fix it.  It was one of the old men who eventually broke the silence.

“I think the power’s out down the whole block.  Looks like the traffic lights are broken too.” he said, staring out the window.

“Yep, there’s the first car crash!” he followed, with an eagerness in his voice that clashed strangely with his words.

Business man laughed nervously.  A barista copied him, his eyes still shifting from left to right, looking for someone who could save him from having to handle the “no power” situation.

Two new customers walked in, and the cashier apologized frantically, saying that she’d be happy to sell them pastries or already made coffee.  Unhappy that their venti-mocha half-caf-frappaccions were denied them, the new customers exited.

Then something unthinkable happened: people began to talk.  The old man began chatting with a barista, the father nervously made a few comments to a woman sitting near him, and the computer addicts even looked as though they might soon strike up the courage to say something to one another.

Everyone is happy living their own independent lives. Until the power goes out.  Then nobody knows what to do.

 

I always knew that technology had the potential to drive people apart, and it’s a lesson that is constantly reinforced by the refrain of “no phones at the dinner table!” If you’ve ever had friends who text mid-conversation, you know what I mean.  Still, the social media giants insist that their mission remains constant: to “connect the world.”

What you would think then, is that more people are meeting more people, and knowledge is spreading at a rapid rate.  While I am sure that this does happen (especially in the business world) my humble observations have showed me that the opposite is also possible.  Technology makes it easier to connect….which means that you can hang onto your closest friends for as long as you need.  Your best mate Joe is going to Australia for a year? No problem, you can strike up a conversation through What’sApp, hang out with him in google, and don’t forget you and you can always share a Snapchat.  Why should you reach out to anyone else in the meantime?  Joe is practically right there with you.

We can live in a place where we do not even know the names of our closest neighbors because we will never need to call upon them for help.  For our food, we can go to the grocery store and use the self-checkout in order to avoid human interaction.  For our maintenance, we can hire any service we want through the internet. For medical needs, we call the hospital. For all others, we consult a select number of friends (unless it’s something embarrassing—that’s what the internet is for).

But when the power turns off, where do you turn? Everybody tumbles back into interdependence. The only time you need to reach out is when technology fails.  Sometimes, it’s a power outage, and you must go outside and meet that next door neighbor to borrow a flashlight.  Sometimes, it’s a loss of cell service and you must enlist the help of a store clerk to contact your loved ones.   Sometimes, it’s a delayed train and you need to call another person to give you a ride.  Etc, etc.

Here’s a funny example: technology is slowly crippling the world of traditional dating (not that that’s a bad thing).  One in five couples meet online, presumably because technology does not fail often enough to heed normal communication.  We are too independent to have a plausible reason to go talk to that cute guy.  How would we look asking for directions while clutching our smartphones that are too big to hide in our pockets?

We’re seeing it everywhere.  video rental clerks, travel agents, cashiers, secretaries are all being downsized, because we don’t need them.  Why should we rely on people when we can have the much more dependable machines?  Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing.  Computers are much better at keeping track of data than are human brains, and they are millions of times more efficient.  So we put more stock in technology. So our capability for independence grows along with our hesitation to engage in interdependence.

This phenomenon even extends into the field of medicine.  You can keep your medical problems between you and your doctor—a relatively independent lifestyle.  You rely on yourself, your doctor, and the technology used to treat you.  Until the technology can’t. Your disease is too large, too rare, and too uncontrolled for your doctor to handle.  “The current technology is just not enough,” the doctor admits. Upon this failure, you finally reach out.  You reach out to research groups, to support groups, to activist groups.  If you pass on, your loved ones will reach out to your acquaintances and beyond because internet comments on grief just won’t cut it.

 

Technology is a wonderful and powerful thing.  It does much to improve our lives, and who could say that we are wrong to use it?  Certainly we are more efficient, not to mention incredibly self-sufficient.  But just because we can go a whole week without speaking a word to another human doesn’t mean we should. It shouldn’t take a power outage to realize this.

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