The New Storytellers: Of TV, Apple, And A Changing Culture

Last night as I was watching an old movie, I came across Apple’s holiday commercial, which depicts a teenage boy apparently glued to his smartphone throughout the holiday season – until he surprises his family with a homemade video compilation he’s been recording the entire time.  Maybe it was because of the late hour or because I’d been watching pure, unadulterated Christmas corniness, but I loved the commercial and thought it was very sweet and very well done.

I wasn’t prepared for the amount of backlash I found on the Internet towards the ad.  Detractors focused on the fact that the ad seemed to be promoting the depersonalization, not just of the holidays, but of life in general.  We’re moving towards a less personal, more isolated future, they said.  One where rising generations won’t even be able to read, much less speak in proper (insert preferred language here).  Our children are missing out on vital parts of the human experience because of the amount of time they spend hooked up to social networking.

Which I agree with.  Kind of.

I remember something my English teacher told me in high school.  She was confused about why so many people seemed to hate the central position TV occupied in many homes.  (Remember, this was in 2010.)  “People have always had storytellers,” she said.  “Throughout most of human history, we’ve had oral tradition.  When books first began to gain a foothold in average homes, people gathered to read them aloud.  Why is everyone so surprised that TV has become so popular, and why is everyone so upset about it?”

I think one of the reasons why people disapprove of the new role technology and social media play in our society is because they’re not used to it yet.  It’s weird, when you’re used to seeing people read a big ol’ newspaper at Sunday brunch, to see them reading off a laptop, iPad, or smartphone instead.  Yet it’s still the same thing.  But humans don’t like change.  We say we do but we don’t.  

And then there’s this whole issue of children using technology.  Is their social development being stunted by the amount of time they spend hooked up to their electronics?

I would argue no.  From personal experience – and I realize that personal experience isn’t the most valid of argumentative techniques, but that article I linked to up there used it as well – my participation in social media has enriched and enabled my social life, although not in a traditional sense.  Parents, teachers, and police officers told me about Internet predators when I was little, but they never told me about Internet friends – people whom I met online and whose acquaintance and friendship I more often than not made in real life later.  I have friends from Canada, Oregon, New Jersey, England, and even The Netherlands, despite never having been to any of these places.  Of course, making and sustaining online friendships requires a certain amount of caution and skill.  Social skill?  Why, I believe so.

As for my real-life friends, I’d say a good 75% of our conversations revolve around things we’ve heard or seen online.  It’s not that increased electronics usage is making us dumber or less communicative; it’s that our entire social structure is changing.

Finally, I’d like to point out that at the end of the commercial, the boy still uses his technology to connect, in real life, with his family.  Physical human interaction is, and will remain, incredibly important, and people will seek it out autonomously (see any number of classic psychology experiments.)  I can’t imagine a future in which technology will replace real-life interactions completely, because humans just aren’t built that way.

Do I believe technology can become too intrusive?  Definitely.  Do I think social networking can have bad, even terrible outcomes, as well as good ones?  Of course.

But let’s not let our fear of change keep us from moving forward.