A World Wide Web of humans, not wires

Is it possible for us to become more human with technology?

Trent M. Kays

Intel recently asked millennials if they rely on technology too much. Their response: We do, and it’s making us less human.

While technologists, journalists and other commentators may be quick to label technology human or not human, humane or inhumane, we should be cautious. Such arguments are banal and frustrating. They create false binaries and force technology users into limiting categories. The digital world is a thriving space and has taken its place as a necessary component of “real life.”

However, few can argue that the digital world hasn’t brought humanity closer in spirit and mind.

This past week, Pope Francis offered a beautifully articulate message about humanity in the time of the Internet: “The digital world can be an environment rich in humanity, a network not of wires but of people.”

While not Catholic and not in the habit of reading papal communiqués, I find Pope Francis’ message particularly relevant to everyday life in the digital age.

From a prominent public figure, this is a refreshing perspective on the digital world’s merits. One doesn’t need to look far for diatribes on how the digital is ruining everything. Bill Keller, former New York Times executive editor, once suggested social media might not even be social. His argument was more based in the ignorance of technology than actual experience.

Similarly, Sherry Turkle, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor and digital advocate-turned-detractor, wrote in 2012 that technology forces us to sacrifice “conversation for mere connection.”

These types of perspectives are specious and pedantic. Such perspectives don’t encourage thoughtful critique or commentary, instead providing fabulous one-liners that will find life on the very they media deplore. As such, locating positivity on how humans engage in the digital world is vexing. The digital age has changed how we interact — just like every technological age before it.

Still, we shouldn’t lose our humanity because the spaces in which we interrelate have expanded and become increasingly complex. It’s too easy to blame technology for our personal shortcomings. Instead, we must remember what is at the root of our technological rendezvous: human connection.

Francis isn’t the only public figure to suggest this understanding. One of Twitter’s most popular timelines belongs to the Dalai Lama.

According to a tweet from Twitter co-founder Evan Williams, he pitched Twitter to the Dalai Lama, who apparently laughed at the idea. That was in 2010. The Dalai Lama is one of the most popular public figures on Twitter with more than 8 million followers.

At the end of last year, he offered some sound advice on the use of technology to augment our lives: “It’s harmful to employ technology fired by anger and hatred. It can only be beneficial if we’re motivated to seek the welfare of all beings.”

Like Francis’ message, spirituality influences the Dalai Lama’s words. If we accept these spiritual leaders’ messages, we can understand what it means to be human.

The way humans use technology makes us unique. Certainly, it’s not the only aspect that makes us human, however, our ability to construct and employ technology has supported our rise as the dominant species on the planet. Despite our planetary prominence, our humanness doesn’t mean we always possess humanity.

As computer-mediated communication research has frequently shown, the digital world isn’t always a pleasant place. People can be cruel to other people, and thanks to recent technological innovations, this cruelty becomes even easier and more detached. Users often forget that when they communicate with other users through a digital device, those other users are human.

It’s revitalizing to experience a bit of Internet optimism. Even though recent events, like the Target security breach and National Security Agency scandal, provide us with fodder for condemnation, we shouldn’t forget that the digital age could still be one of humanity.

What if we engaged with each other online in the same way we do face to face? What if we showed the same empathy in digital spaces as in other spaces?

Our guiding belief should always be that those we communicate with don’t mean us harm. It’s possible that our message could be misunderstood. This is the nature of technology: It complicates our relationships and forces us to labor harder to be understood.

Long before the digital world we know today, “The Little Prince” author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote, “The machine does not isolate man from the great problems of nature but plunges him more deeply into them.” Knowing this, perhaps we can remember our humanity as we are further plunged into the madness of the digital world.