A few years ago I attended a conference on the media and technology. One of the sessions featured a discussion about new technologies and their impact on everyday life.
Several of the speakers believed these new technologies meant nothing but trouble, that they would be the end of civilized conversation, that we would exist only as extensions of our computers, and that real interaction between people would disappear.
The man beside me whispered in my ear, "They sound like a group of medieval monks worried about the invention of the printing press, trying to convince us to stick with illustrated manuscripts."
I thought of these speakers Tuesday as I read a Monitor article by Paul Van Slambrouck about a growing movement of philosophers who are worried that "community is giving way to the isolation of keyboard."
I understand the concerns articulated by these Luddite philosophers because I share many of them. I am particularly worried about the inability of mainstream media to draw distinctions between useful technology and that which will simply increase the stock price of an initial public offering. A more critical media would help educate the public about the pros and cons of each new technology.
But I want to vigorously oppose the Luddite notion that using new technologies will destroy our sense of community and our ability to interact with each other in the "real world." In fact, I believe they will do the opposite by enabling us to create new virtual communities where none existed before, and allowing us to spend more time, not less, in our physical communities.
My own life illustrates the possibilities. Thanks to these new technologies I am able to work for one of the world's great newspapers, which is based in Boston, while living much of the time in rural Nova Scotia, Canada, in a community of 3,800 people. I know the milkman, the bank tellers, and the firefighters here by name. With the spread of the Internet, I am in more frequent contact with family and friends, many of whom are spread around the world.
For instance, new voice software enables me to speak regularly over the Internet with my mother-in-law, who lives in the Middle East, and save $400 a month in phone bills. Between e-mails and instant messages and "voice chats," I feel much more a part of the lives of my loved ones.
I also believe these new technologies are great educational tools. My wife and I read to our three young children every day. But we also use some very good software programs to help them learn about music, numbers, spelling, stars, and planets. We would no more plop them down in front of a computer screen alone than we would plop them down in front of a TV screen alone. We want to use technology to enhance their learning, not act as a cyber-sitter.
But that's how it is with all technology, isn't it? It's how we use it and incorporate it into our lives that makes the difference. For instance, cars can be dangerous. But that doesn't mean we should completely avoid cars. It means we should be careful.
As we stand on the brink of the anticipated Y2K "crisis," it's important to remember that technology has been, overall, a boon to our society and culture - even if we can't use the ATM for a few days, or more long-term problems arise.
Several years ago I interviewed the principal of a high school in rural Nova Scotia about the school's use of the Internet. In a room full of students working at computers he pointed to a young woman dressed in black.
She'd been a loner, he explained, often ostracized by her classmates because she was "different." He'd worried they were going to "lose her." Then one day she discovered a group of people on the Internet who shared a common interest in Japanese animated cartoons.
After that, the principal told me, she became a different person. As she developed social skills with her friends online, she began to use them in her local community and in her school. Her grades improved, she stayed in school, and last I heard she had gone on to university.
I think of her every time I hear somebody say that technology destroys community. And I wish they could see the forest for the trees.
Tom Regan is the associate editor of the Monitor's electronic edition, csmonitor.com
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society