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Editor's Note: Technology is Tempting, but it can Lead to Insulation

Dana Heupel
NPR Illinois

At a recent family holiday gathering, much of the talk among my siblings and me — and our spouses and now-grown children — involved technology. We marveled at the wonders of our iPads and smart phones and traded tips about features that keep us informed, entertained and organized. When we weren’t using the high-tech contraptions, we were charging their batteries, all the while monitoring college football bowl games on a high-definition television.

I had navigated the way to my brother’s house in a wooded, rural setting with my GPS, making the four-hour trip more bearable by listening to my iPod, which I can play through my car’s audio system and which contains about 2,500 of my favorite songs in a device the size of a candy bar. The GPS also took us straight to the entrance of our hotel about five miles away from our family gathering. My laptop computer stayed at home this time — though it accompanies us on most forays away from Springfield —because I figured we wouldn’t have time to use it. We did spend several hours on my brother’s laptop, though, showing one another our favorite YouTube videos.

When I returned home, I hooked up my newest toy: a small box called an Apple TV, a gift from my son that allows me to play music and videos from my desktop computer on my own new high-def television. I then fiddled with the HDTV — the main Christmas gift this year between my wife and me — for several hours to get the best picture and to configure it so that the sound also comes through my ancient audio system. After I finished that chore, I hooked up a couple of digital television converters that Comcast had supplied for old TVs in our bedrooms because the cable television company no longer broadcasts in the old analog format.

Over the years, I’ve tried to keep up with technological advances. And I’ll be the first to testify to the abundant ways that technology has enhanced my life: I can scan scores of news publications and keep up with events almost as they occur; I can communicate instantly with friends and colleagues; I can research in minutes what would have taken hours little more than a decade ago — if my local library had the material I needed. Perhaps the most beneficial aspect is that I can now get home from work at a reasonable hour, knowing that if something comes up at the office, I don’t have to drive back to deal with it. And I can live in a smaller city and still have access to nearly all of the cultural, entertainment and retail opportunities that were once restricted to those in large urban areas.

Of course, technology also plays a large part in what we do at Illinois Issues. We are now able to provide our readers with breaking news coverage through our blog and website. Our online presence reaches far beyond what we can offer on newsstands alone — a check of recent statistics shows Web visits from Canada, Norway, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, the Ukraine, South Korea, Brazil and the Netherlands, as well as from throughout the United States. And discussions continue about how we can offer more information online and through other technological platforms.

By choice and necessity, I have allowed myself to become thoroughly immersed in technology, and generally, I embrace it. But I also worry sometimes about what we’ve lost in all we’ve gained.

Consorting with technology expends a lot of time and money. I don’t read as many books as I used to, and I feel guilty about that. I am amazed — and incensed — that a $1,000 computer that was state-of-the-art only several years ago is now archaic and almost unusable. I spend an inordinate amount of energy at home and work updating and upgrading equipment and software and backing up essential information, such as my electronic calendar and address book, that might otherwise be lost if my computer coughs. And I’ve moved further than I’m comfortable with toward paranoia over electronic security, feeling at times like a resident of a dangerous neighborhood whose safety, privacy and possessions are protected only by cheap padlocks.

I am also concerned about the growing gulf between those among us who are swaddled in all this technology and those who either can’t afford it or find it too complex or too cumbersome to bother with. As more information is conveyed in bits and bytes that require expensive and complicated equipment to decipher, and as more places such as public libraries downsize or shutter their doors, we face a real danger of leaving a lot of people out of the discussion.

What’s more, when our focus turns more toward electronic esthetics and away from human contact and conversation, we run the risk of severing some of our personal connections, of replacing shared flesh-and-blood pulses with electronic ones. I often see that trait in students on the university campus where I work who wrap themselves in technological cocoons, apparently oblivious to everything and everyone around them.

Although many of us are irrevocably and willingly bound to technology, we might heed those who aren’t because they may still be in touch with something that we’ve forsaken.

While I thoroughly enjoyed all of the talk about the latest high-tech gadgets with my family at our holiday gathering, I find myself looking back on that day with a twinge of remorse. Past get-togethers had often included fierce late-night games of dominoes or Trivial Pursuit or a concert by the impromptu family band — consisting of several guitars, a piano, a harmonica and a lone clarinet — during which we unceremoniously butchered some beautiful Christmas carols. But this year, we abandoned those traditions in our collective headlong rush into the alluring world of technology. And looking back now, I wish we hadn’t.

Technology is a remarkable tool, but it can become addictive and all-encompassing. And if we let ourselves become too consumed by its siren song, we can lose track of whether we control it or the other way around.

 Over the years, I’ve tried to keep up with technological advances. And I’ll be the first to testify to the abundant ways that technology has enhanced my life.

Illinois Issues, February 2011

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