In the past few months, during which I was dying while studying for finals, many interesting tech products were released. These are the gadgets that we saw in the futuristic shows of the 1990s and 2000s. That funky motion swipe screen that Tom Cruise was using in Minority Report? It’s already here, and for sub-100 dollars. Hell, you don’t even need that ugly looking pair of gloves to do it! Oh, and did I mention Xbox Kinect? The transparent glass LCD screen used by Tony Stark in Ironman? It’s already been around for a few years, just that no one has exactly found a practical use for it. How about the set of cool shades which allow you to access vehicular control, or flick on the lights at home with just a simple voice command? Google Glass has just been launched, albeit with mixed reactions.
It’s saddening when you see how technology and social media have transformed our definition of ‘social’. Even as I attempted to discuss this with my dad, I realised I was talking to a person who devoted probably less than 50% of his attention to me as he scanned through his inbox for emails. I find myself in awkward social situations where everyone stares at their own phones and I happen to be the only one talking. Yet, there is really no one at fault here.
Whatsapp has provided the opportunity to interact with multiple groups of friends all at the same time; Facebook and Instagram allow you to see, at a single glance, everything that is happening in your friends’ lives without them having to utter a single word. I don’t have to wait to get home before I can check my emails anymore. Friends will know when I’ve seen their messages, and wonder why I haven’t replied. Sometimes, it becomes hard to ignore group conversations because if you don’t, it’d be rude. It’s ironic how a lack of eye contact when talking to people has now become more socially acceptable than not replying messages for half a day (because you’re out with your family or other friends).
It isn’t all that bad sometimes though. I can very quickly find a route to a friend’s party with Google Maps even if I’ve never set foot in that area before. Wireless and waterproof MP3 players like Sony’s W273 are now entirely affordable (below $100), and they aren’t considered alien devices anymore. And I use it to get that extra adrenaline pump while skating/swimming, without the worry of soaking up my MP3 player or deal with tangled wires in my face.
The one thing that is most disturbing to me is that this progress has largely affected the skill set that even makes us human - the ability to communicate and socialise verbally. Just about a year ago, I realised something queer about myself. I was especially afraid to talk to strangers on the phone - this included things like ordering pizzas, calling beneficiaries and contacts in Cambodia, people from Dean’s Office. This probably doesn’t happen for many people, but I’m pretty certain this manifests itself in other ways. I have undergraduate friends who stutter and mumble when they talk to patients or doctors. One year ago, I realised - I did not know how to make new friends actively. And that came as a shock.
I’m not a social butterfly, but I learnt that talking to people involves a set of skills that can be picked up, similar to learning how to ride a bicycle, or to skate. I’ll be frank: I read The Game. I read it because a close friend recommended it - not for its mantra of how to pick up chicks (because it is entirely impractical in the local context anyway); but for the way it teaches one how to be an interesting speaker. Talking to people is one thing, but making people want to talk to you is entirely different. This is important because it is a life skill.
Reading that book, and carefully observing interactions between my more social friends and their surroundings taught me a lot. Statements that I took for granted (such as ‘listening is more important than speaking sometimes’) suddenly made a lot more sense, because people tend to like talking about themselves more than others. That being said, one has to avoid continually asking someone direct questions because it would come across as interrogative and rude. It is always best to share or discuss an interesting anecdote/story about a third person (not you nor the friend you’re talking to), because that’s neutral. And how do you get those anecdotes? You’d have to live life yourself. Go out, have fun, and see things that you would never see in your daily routine. Most of all, you do that for yourself. Not because you want to share that photo on Instagram, or because you want to impress people that you’ve been to the Alps by geo-tagging yourself on Facebook. People are interesting because they truly and sincerely are.
Somehow, I’m rather certain that a good handful of the people I know are not actively aware of this. I was appalled at the number of medical students who actually have to be taught how to interact with patients and to talk to them without sounding mechanical. And even more so when this came as a novel issue to them. Perhaps this arose out of fear; but it still does not explain the numerous awkward responses that my batchmates give when talking to people on a daily basis. So how are we supposed to tell our patients to get well, to go back out to the world and live their lives to the fullest (and healthily) when we don’t even know what life truly is?
The second way in which I feel that technology and social media has crippled us is the gift of memory. I have friends who rely entirely on GPS systems to get around - even if they have been to the same road every almost every week, or every single day for the past 2 years. Some people cannot survive without their Google Calendars or iCal.
To me, the single skill that constitutes a doctor’s pride and sets him differently from a nurse or another healthcare professional is the ability to remember mega loads of information without referring to a textbook, and being able to draw links and extract that information rapidly. Well, that’s something which I’m still working on, unfortunately :P
Personally, I have an atrociously small capacity when it comes to social memory. I don’t even remember my brothers’ birthdays. I never have. I’ve removed my birthday from my Facebook profile because I loathe the hoards of empty birthday wishes from people I’ve not seen in ages. People who promised countless times to meet up but fail to do so. And having to spend an hour or two replying all these posts out of courtesy. Do not get me wrong, I’m not naive. I think it’s perfectly fine for friends to drift apart. I just find it entirely unnecessary for people who have obviously not seen you in eons to drop you a birthday message when they might not really want to post (while browsing Facebook on their morning trains), and when you know you don’t really want to reply either. Why not just spare both parties the trouble?
Individuals who sincerely care about you prove themselves when they see you in person. Even if that means meeting up once or twice in 2 or 3 years, you know that they still care about your existence, and that the only thing separating you guys is your current social situation (having to study abroad, or in different faculties etc). My dad always told me this, ‘if you truly care for the people around you everyday, there won’t be a need to celebrate one another’s birthdays because every single day would be your birthday.’ And that is how my family functions.
I’m not sure what led me to write this long post. I suppose it’s the frustration that has been building up over the past months, watching friends struggling to multi-task with their phones and dinner and other friends. (well, my close friends don’t usually have this habit, but others do) Like what one of the Straits Times articles said today, I sometimes really wish I could grab that phone from that person’s hand and stir my coffee with it, so that he/she would give me that little bit more attention.
Here’s to hoping that I don’t turn to the dark side as well. I really think that all that tech progress is great. I mean, skydiving with Glass and skyping it all at the same time? DUDE THAT’S AWESOME. Well, although I do honestly feel that a lot of us having quite a bit of catching up to do when it comes to living life itself. How would you use all these gadgets when you don’t even yearn to see new things, meet new people and live life to the fullest?