Dehumanization and modern technology

Today is “Back to the Future Day” — a geeky celebration of the day Marty McFly travels to the “future” year of 2015 from 1985 in the 1989 movie “Back to the Future II”, the second installation in the Back to the Future Trilogy. A lot of my friends are posting articles about what the movies “got right” about October 21, 2015 (big-screen TVs! Video conferencing! The Chicago Cubs playing in a series they might actually have a chance at winning!) on Facebook.

The other trending story, which is far outweighing the “Great Scotts!” and laments over our lack of hoverboards and flying cars, is about a four-year-old girl who was shot in the head and died due to a road rage incident yesterday in Albuquerque.

One thing “Back to the Future II” captured somewhat was technology and our interaction with it — personal video glasses, news drones, video conferencing. Technology and devices surround us and are integrated into our daily lives in ways we forget are weird. Technology today is all personalized, or automated, or set up to cover vast distances that were unfathomably expensive to cover before.

But what the show didn’t capture was how our current cultural acceptance of looking at little, personal screens isolates us from each other and helps us dehumanize each other. Our modern “interaction” with other human beings more often that not occurs through a machine, and usually in such a way that we don’t have to view another person’s face or hear her voice or truly interact emotionally.

In October of 2015, we can just send a snippet of text from afar, possibly even anonymously, and never have to deal with the emotional consequences the recipient will show through her tone of voice or facial expressions. It’s easy to say the most horrible things we can think of, and even edit it to make it as inflammatory as possible, and never have to deal with the response as a human being.

We can even ignore the strangers, friends, or family members who are present in our physical space and find conversations that interest us more by picking up our phones and transporting ourselves to an entirely different (and more comfortable) space.

When we drive in cars, we’re supposed to put our Smartphones down and pay attention to the road. But our interaction with the people around us is still filtered through the lens of a machine — tons of metal and rubber and plastic keep us separated from each other. Cars act as representatives of ourselves as individuals and replace our humanity with yet another machine, whose communication is done through the actions of driving: speeding up, slowing down, swerving, using or not using turn signals — all these are imbued with human meaning that may not actually be intended all the time, and leads to quite a bit of lamentable road rage.

Road rage is made easier when the humanity of the person in front of you has been replaced by a machine avatar with clumsy linguistic cues. It’s easy to cut off a 2012 Dodge Ram that you don’t think is going fast enough without giving a second thought to the family of four inside that’s lost on the way to a funeral; it’s easy to honk incessantly and flip off the 2004 Honda Civic that swerved into your lane at the last minute rather than think about the exhausted woman in the front seat who just lost her job; it’s easy to forget that there’s a human being piloting these machines who is experiencing the same urgency to get to work, the same level of distraction due to personal issues, the same isolation due to a lack of meaningful human contact.

Is it also now easier to brandish a machine weapon that can be used at a distance at another person than to look them in the eye and try and put yourself in their shoes? I don’t know. I can’t imagine getting to that point. But perhaps it is. Perhaps this is the point that human beings reach when they’ve isolated themselves and dehumanized others — guns make it as easy to kill those fleshy things you don’t care about from afar as computers, smartphones, and cars make it to interact with humans all day without ever having to truly connect to them.

Given our lack of compassion for each other due to these machine wars we live in, I think it’s a good thing we don’t have the flying cars that “Back to the Future II” predicted. Imagine the destructive force of “air rage” in a place where we don’t need roads when coupled with our current lack of interest in actual human life. Better yet: don’t imagine that. Go interact with another person for a moment, in real life.

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