Where are we going? How will we know when we’re there?

We know that societies and cultures change over time.  We have probably all dreamed of traveling through time to the past and wondered at the differences.  Those differences sometimes evolve so slowly, we don’t notice it until after the change has occurred.   When enough people in a society change their ways or change their minds, a critical mass is reached which causes a basic change in the society itself.   Perhaps, we can anticipate those changes, though, which can give us insights into culture…and into the future.

It’s something we do at least once a week – we’ve going to a place we haven’t visited before, so we input the address into our smartphone and, like magic, there’s a map with directions and a lovely female voice to calmly guide us through every turn to our destination.  We have no need to carry an atlas or a street guide in our car and we never have to try to fold another paper map.  There is no “downside” to this change, right?   Maybe….but, maybe the reliance on our wonderful technology also involves a loss of something we don’t realize.

GPS provides an easier and quicker (and, often, surer) way of reaching a destination.  I admit that I have gotten accustomed to the security of not getting lost all the time.  I wonder, however, about what we have lost when we traded our old maps for our shiny GPS app.

The philosophical difference between the old map and the modern app is indicative of a subtle evolution in our modern culture, from a community orientation to an individual orientation; from being a part of the world to being apart from the world.

The app shows only where you are and presumes you to be the center of the universe (and, it follows, the most important thing in the universe); the map shows you in relation to the rest of the world and your small place in it.

The app only shows you “the correct way” to go, one step at a time and on a predetermined path, leaving your choice out of the equation; the map (especially an old paper map which includes a tactile sensation and colorful symbols and intriguing names) shows you the whole world and offers you many opportunities to explore and interact with that world – to maybe change your mind and experience something new and unexpected.

Our technology has, without a doubt, made life easier and allowed us to more quickly accomplish tasks, but we have lost some of the wonder we found in a world that was not reduced to quick solutions.   Using a dictionary is a good example.  We can go to a website, like dictionary.com,  type in a word and get an instant analysis of the word, the pronunciation, its definition and etymology and a thesaurus listing.  It is totally focused and gets instant results.  It is results-oriented, while the well-worn volume of a traditional printed dictionary offers drawings to distract the eye and a universe of tempting words and ideas.  I used to get lost in a traditional dictionary, flipping from one page to another and learning a multitude a words; today, I type in a word, get my specific answer and move on.

I met friends for lunch today at a restaurant they had not visited previously.   They do not use GPS technology, so they figured out the general area, parked and walked. By doing so, they might have taken a few more minutes to reach the final destination, but made discoveries about the area that they would not have known about otherwise.  I, on the other hand, set my GPS and drove directly to the restaurant – totally missing a unique grocery just on the other side of the restaurant from the parking lot.

These are but simple, daily examples.  Our information “overload” has resulted in more efficient use of time, but perhaps a loss of wonder and the need for self-reliance.   We should pause to consider  the long-term effect of those losses.   As we rely more heavily on technology, I wonder if the part of our brains being disregarded will eventually lose, for example, the spatial skills needed to find our way to an unfamiliar place or the language skills needed to figure out how to spell a word.  Most people over the age of 40 have decried the use of text abbreviations (or “txt-speak”) and wondered whether people will totally lose the ability to spell correctly.  Not all evolution is necessarily upward and we need to be mindful that whenever we gain something (like time), we may also be losing something of importance (like depth of knowledge).

As mentioned above, when a critical mass of change is reached, society and culture itself changes. Such change should not be undertaken lightly or without notice.

Next time, we will consider the effect of these many incremental individual changes on  culture itself.


Mary McCoy, President/Cultural Crossroads



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