Accelerating change is having subtle and unknown effects

Lately there has been a lot of mail on the Internet about the comical problems social networking is causing older adults (when I say “older adults,” my friend Steve always asks, “Older than what?” and I used to try to explain, now I answer, “Shut up.”) However, I receive a lot of this stuff. I’m also the recipient of funny and not so funny items about getting old. And I wonder how many books will follow Nora Ephron’s “I Remember Nothing.” At least talking about aging is becoming popular.

I am not saying that I don’t belong on this list. I do. But there are some serious problems underlying change, technological or otherwise. We all know that once change happens, the frequency of change increases, witness the Internet. And we know that there are unintended consequences with change.

I recently saw a program about a charitable organization working to improve the lives of the people in a tiny Ethiopian village. It showed men and women at work. The men mind the cattle and share in tending gardens and occasionally kill a male member of the tribe across the river. The women work from dawn until sundown doing all the other work involved in subsistence living, including walking several miles carrying three 10-gallon containers to collect water from a river. They make three round trips daily. When asked what they do, the men laugh and say “Eat and sleep.” Asked if they ever fetch water, they reply, “All of that is women’s work.” The women obviously get some satisfaction knowing they are vital to the survival of the village, and the voiceover says, more than once that the people are a happy, hardy lot.

The charity wants to help by making clean water and medical services available, educating the women and establishing a school for the children. They don’t want to change them as a people because they ARE happy. Hmm, free the women from the long trudge to get water, educate them and the children, but otherwise leave everything the same? That is sort of like saying, “I’ll just knock over this first little domino.”

By the same token, social networking outlets “just want” to make it easier for people to keep in touch with one another and make new friends. However, there are other consequences. Recently researchers studied a group of college students who agreed to turn off all their electronic connections to the world for 24 hours. Some declared they felt isolated, alienated, and depressed. In contrast, another group of young people, an entire high school class, agreed to turn off their cell phones and TVs for a week. They discovered the pleasures of playing board games together in person, talking, and getting to know their fellow classmates.

I’m left with the question of whether the computer and Internet engendered a fast-lane, multi-tasking life style or simply facilitated society in a direction it was already headed. I don’t know, but what’s clear is that it is having a massive, if subtle, impact on all our relationships.

I have a file folder full of the carbon copies of the letters I wrote in the first four or five years after I arrived in Costa Rica. Most are long with detailed descriptions of my life here. Somewhere in my computer are copies of my later e-mails. They are much shorter, some telegram short, and are about the here and now or in response to similarly short e-mails to me. Now Twitter has shortened information-sharing and radically reduced the attention span needed to comprehend these messages, even more. Texting has changed our spelling. Costa Rica already has all of these wonderful new inventions (and more are coming down the pike, or should I say over the wireless?). New addictions have emerged. Everything is changing here except the potholes.

I think that many of us who use the cell phone only as an on-the-road convenience, our computers, and Skype, because it is free, do not text or tweet or friend or whatever else is new in networking because we don’t want to get caught up in the swift waters of too much change. I saw an interview with two 10-year-olds who are in an upcoming movie that is set in the 1980’s. The girl said she was looking forward to taking part in “a period piece.”

Maybe some of us are happy being period pieces, holding remembrances of things past.

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