Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Right Questions

Last night's Choosing Civility Symposium at the Miller Branch Library looked at civility in our society as it comes up against technology, and, more specifically, the generational divide in technology use. I enjoyed the perspective of each one of the panelists, and was grateful for moderator Korva Coleman's easy facility in directing the conversational flow.

Everyone came last night with opinions and questions stemming from those opinions. But this was not to be a simple Q & A. What happened next was a discussion that centered on what the deeper questions really are. In order for us to address these new challenges in our society, we must first be asking the right questions.

I was struck by a participant in the opening video who said (my paraphrase) "It's up to us to develop a still be human." Technology is completely enmeshed in our daily lives. It does effect our work, communication, leisure, and relationships. This is the reality. So how do we, accepting that reality, develop a way to still be human?

And what does that mean? Panelists touched on how technology enhanced our lives. They also highlighted ways that technology can facilitate unkindness, or speed up the spread of misinformation. I found Karen Stohr's comment about the importance of being able to be "alone with our thoughts" one of those essential pieces of our humanity that I don't want to lose.

Later, Dr. Brad Sachs talked about how relationships are colored by synthetic interaction versus enriched interaction. We may transmit information through a text, but the experience of being with someone in real life--listening, making eye contact, sharing a hug or handshake--carries a special authenticity that a smart phone cannot replace. Both have a place in our lives. But we must be careful to remember and value those things which make us human.

Although his remarks came closer to the beginning of the evening, I want to finish up by touching on Congressman Elijah Cummings' remarks. He described a hearing he attended where members of the House were vilifying an employee of the I.R.S.. Clearly he wasn't comfortable with the way in which the woman was being treated. And so he asked her a question.

"Do you have a family?"

Yes, she did have a family. She described her family. And something about the atmosphere in the hearing changed, because now she was not a cardboard cutout to be demonized, but a human being with human experiences.

The speed with which technology is becoming connected to our lives is mind-boggling. Our ability to set healthy boundaries and create appropriate social rules hasn't caught up yet. Last night's event proved to me that the way we must go about that begins by taking the time to ask the right questions.



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