Is knowing how enough?

Our technological powers increase, but the side effects and potential hazards also escalate.
– Alvin Toffler

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I was struck by a comment a friend of mine made over the weekend. She suggested that when she read my blogs she could see how they originated based upon certain things she had heard me say in the days prior to their composition. Maybe I had read an article, or seen something on the news, or simply shared a reflection on something I had been thinking about. The noteworthy thing, for me, was the recognition of cause and effect, that the thing I ultimately produced had origins that, to her mind, could be detected and, in fact, traced.

Now granted, this was hardly a scientific accounting of cause and effect but it did get me thinking about the entire subject of cause and effect, a concept that has occupied my imagination for some time and that is one of the ongoing concerns at the core of this blog. As it turns out, my being reminded of this in such an immediate and personal way was valuable as I began to consider what I might end up writing about today.

I was already primed for something that would incorporate this theme when an article I saw this morning proved to be the final impetus. The article summarized the findings of a study undertaken at UNB in Fredericton that investigated the link between teens, texting and their propensity to be sexually active. While the conclusions were qualified in a variety of ways, the central assertion was that a link had been established between the amount of texting teens did and how likely they were to become sexually active. The study acknowledged that the closeness teens felt to parents and other factors should be considered as well but the bottom line was that those young people who texted with the greatest frequency were more likely to be sexually active than those who texted less.

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The authors of the study were very careful, as I say, to couch their conclusions in a number of qualifications but that isn’t what made the article significant to me per se. Rather, I was struck by the very fact that such a study existed at all. I’m at a loss to remember when I first noticed just how ubiquitous texting had become among those removed from me by at least a generation but I have to think that its prevalence has grown by leaps and bounds over the last while. I was sending the occasional text myself as long ago as probably 5 or 6 years but I don’t remember things then being quite as they are now.

Now – and this is purely anecdotal – it seems that being buried in your smartphone just about everywhere is commonplace. Walking down the street, sitting on a bus, in a restaurant: you name the place. Virtually everywhere you go, you will see someone engaged with a handheld device. When the population gathered in a room is largely teenaged, it is far from uncommon to see virtually everyone exploring the screen in front of them at the expense of conversation or other forms of social interaction. That being said, this behavior is certainly not restricted to teens. The same friend who suggested she could trace the origins of my blogs has commented more than once on my tendency to be drawn into the world of my smartphone at the expense of more social behaviours.

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If you are thinking by now that I am building toward some kind of critical rant against texting, handhelds, smartphones or some other device or technology associated with the same, I assure you that I am not. I readily acknowledge the convenience – the pleasure even – that can come from such things. As with anything new, it can lead to a great many novel ways to entertain, to engage, to who knows what?

And that last question DOES lead me to my point. The smartphone and texting are manifestations of a much larger transformation. Technology – particularly technological innovation – proceeds at such a pace these days that it is, quite literally, impossible to keep up, at least when it comes to evaluating the impact of something. The UNB study I referenced earlier looks at a very specific issue within a targeted segment of the population and offers conclusions that are clearly to be regarded as tentative and in need of qualification. In some earlier time, we might have waited expectantly for the next study to be carried out and for results to be published, say, two years from now, results which might further deepen our understanding of this phenomenon or dismiss it altogether. Fat chance.

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Two years from now, who knows where we will be as far as phones go. I am no fan of Siri (the voice on Apple devices) but I have a friend who never types a message. He dictates it and makes corrections to the text if it is absolutely necessary. Will we even need to carry a phone in two years? If you think that seems far-fetched, how many of you really believed we would ever approach a time where serious consideration would be given to allowing cars on highways that would drive themselves?

When I look to see how I arrive at a topic for a blog, it’s easy. Maybe I fail to account for the specifics in some way but I’m fairly confident that composition (even inspiration), however mysterious it might seem, can be traced to its source, even if the source itself might seem obscure at times. Where advancing technology is concerned, on the other hand, how do we evaluate its impact when the innovation of the moment is rapidly forgotten as the next great advance captures our imagination?

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We’ve all seen the movies or read the books where technological advance without some kind of oversight or conscience leads to the end of the world or some brand of catastrophe. Hyperbole? Okay, but the pace at which things advance technologically these days does concern me. Changes of any kind bring consequences. At the very least, it is always nice to be able to consider from some distance just what impact such changes have. I’m not sure we’re well-equipped for a world where change comes and is replaced by yet another change before we’ve even quite grasped the nature of the first. And to emphasize the point one more time, in the time it takes for us to consider THAT notion, chances are the world has moved on yet again.

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