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The Social Impact of Electronic Communications

April 18, 2000

A public radio commentary

Yesterday my wife and I helped break down the social order. We're not revolutionaries, but just two placid engineers. What we did was this: We bought groceries.

Not at the store, but via the internet. Our local store has a web site where we just click and then the next day the groceries appear on our doorstep. Now I say "break down the social order" because ordering via the internet takes us out of contact with people. It doesn't foster interactions and build communities and relationships. I came to this view while touring Amish farms with my uncle.

He lives in Indiana, and as a realtor has sold farms to Amish settlers from Pennsylvania. As we drove past the new farms he pointed at one and said "the Amish farmer who lived there publishes a newsletter, he writes it on his laptop." Laptop? Amish? Yes, I learned. I thought the Amish were anti-technology, but I learned that their approach is not disdain, but wariness. They watch how a piece of technology affects others in the "outside" world and then with caution bring it into their lives. For example, the laptop computer can be used only in the barn - it isn't to invade their home. Now I'm not saying the life style and methods of the Amish would solve our ills.

In fact, clearly not everyone in our world of five billion could live this way, but there is a message here: carefully analyze any technology before adopting it. In my field there is a saying: "Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral" - each aspect that touches our lives must be examined.

I took time last week to observe this adage in practice. I focused on how technology insulated me from people. For example, I noticed I got cash from an ATM, instead of a real bank teller. Or, I used e-mail extensively to talk to my co-workers. There were few face-to-face meetings. And when I called information for a telephone number I got {insert phone recording of toll-free operator}.. The phone company equipment taped my request, processed the sounds and fulfilled my request by computer.

Now I've been very negative about using electronic communications, but I'm certainly not anti-technology - my wedding ring proves it. The most important thing to me about this ring, this most traditional of symbols, was that if I lost it I wanted it returned. So I had my jeweler engrave not my wife's name, or the date of my marriage, but instead he engraved my e-mail address.

Copyright 2000 William S. Hammack Enterprises