The Human Face of Technology: A Critical Reflection

The Human Face of Technology: A Critical Reflection September 9, 2013

A recent series of iPhone ads aims to portray a very human side of that product’s technological features.  Not surprisingly, these ads cast technology in a rosy light, which challenges my often critical perspective toward a cultural infatuation with the latest gadgets.

I say “challenges” because these ads both reflect and perpetuate a certain cultural vibe, and because in my opinion they make a better case in its favor than most advertising I’ve seen.  For these reasons, I consider the narrative they present to be worthy of serious critical engagement.

By engaging their narrative, I do not intend to help them sell their product, which is a potential side effect at odds with my purpose of examining it with a critical eye, but this is a risk worth taking in order to encourage more critical observation of advertising in general.

By critiquing their narrative, I do not expect them to present anything other than a positive view of the product they are selling, and I cannot presume to hold them to standards that contradict that purpose.  But because we know that this is the purpose of commercial advertisements, that gives us all the more reason, as observers (which ideally we ought to be, rather than passive viewers), to question what a commercial is telling us – or not telling us – in order to sell a given product.

Having said all that, here, for the sake of reference (and, to be honest, a certain degree of artistic appreciation, as I will explain below), is the most recent of these ads, on “FaceTime”, which particularly has me thinking.

I actually find this pretty brilliantly presented as far as ads go.  In the span of one minute, we see a stunning variety of people, with brief glimpses into their imaginary lives that are endearing and relatable, all against a simple yet catchy piano melody that adds just the right touch of poignancy without being sappy.  We easily find ourselves liking the guy on the steps who looks around furtively before blowing a kiss towards his phone, the Chinese girls crowding in for a glimpse of the person their friend is shyly greeting, the woman using sign language, the designer in his office receiving a birthday greeting from a group of friends, the pregnant woman showing the shape of her rounded belly, the whole parade of people whose contexts and back stories we can only guess (or they could be ours).

It’s not a far step from there to think, consciously or not, how much significance is in these simple interactions – and then (still in the rosy glow of the previous thought), how remarkable it is that we can communicate in this way across physical distance through devices like smartphones.  And we wouldn’t be entirely wrong.  But like much of advertising, this tells only half the story, because like many things, the remarkable devices have a shadow side.

The following short film by Charlene deGuzman (which millions of people have perhaps watched, ironically, on their iPhones) paints a markedly different picture from the above, demonstrating how the same tool is as capable of getting in the way of those poignant moments as it is of creating them.

Comedian Louis CK makes the same point more bluntly in the first minute of this video (with a few vulgarities).

So there you have it: the mixed blessing.  Technology at once connects us and puts us at a distance.  Even the positive portrayal in the commercial, if you think about it, underscores this point: technology is not an intrinsic good, but rather is good only insofar as it facilitates, and does not inhibit, authentically human communication.

To complicate matters further, it often ends up doing both at the same time.  I think of a friend of mine whose daughter lives in Japan with her young family.  My friend is grateful for the ability to communicate with them frequently via Skype, but she is somewhat ambivalent about the fact that her little granddaughter “thinks Grandma lives in the computer.”

For a more public example, earlier this summer NPR host Scott Simon tweeted from his mother’s deathbed as he accompanied her through her final hours.  After seeing the news story, I was, and still am, of two minds about it.  It makes a difference, of course, that he had his mother’s permission to publicize the experience, and he is a skilled enough writer to pull it off with class as not everyone could.  On one level at least, he did many of us – and evidently himself – a service that many writers have offered before, by articulating a defining experience in a way that resonates broadly.  Still, I wondered if it would have been better to be fully, unpluggedly present to his dying mother in those moments and share a public reflection afterward.  His introspection on how long it had been since he’d held his mother’s hand is touching and insightful, but to picture him holding her hand with one hand and thumbing his mobile device with the other kind of ruins it.  In fairness to Simon, though, the feed (reproduced in the news story linked here) does often show an hour or more between tweets, so perhaps he knew his limits and drew the line wisely after all.

This is obviously not a total luddite’s plea to shun technology, and I would just as obviously be a hypocrite not to admit to having embraced certain aspects of it myself, even if a beat behind most of my peers (in case anyone was wondering, I’m stubbornly sticking to what I proudly call my “stupidphone”).  This is, however, a reminder to approach these technologies critically (do we even have a direct antonym to “luddite” – a quasi-pejorative word for someone who embraces all new technology uncritically?).  Unless we really go to an all-or-nothing extreme, it’s always a question of where we choose to draw the line.  And wherever we draw those lines, we do well to be discerning about what helps and what hinders human connections.

When our gadgets help us to maintain connections with people we know and love, well and good.  But sometimes you just need to put down the iPhone and be with the people you’re with.

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  • brian martin

    Another take on technology:
    And my own: I also stubbornly resist smart phones. (I say I don’t want a phone smarter than myself) But more to the point, we seem to becoming a society that has no time for sacred space, or sacred silence. The whole “Be still and know that I am God” thing takes on a whole new meaning, when one sits down to ….imagine this….silence, and prayer…and you feel the pull, almost magnetic in nature, of the internet, of your smartphone, or some other electronic gadget.
    Some people suggest that people are losing the ability to communicate effectively face-to-face, while others say we are just evolving in how we communicate. For me, seeing someone on a screen will never replace the authenticity of being in someone’s presence. It seems that it is hard to sense God in the other or even in the self if one is distracted constantly by a little machine.

    • Julia Smucker

      Thanks for your thoughts, Brian. I have the same reservations. A face on a screen is better than nothing, and yes there is a real human being on the other end, but it is more mediated than physical presence, and that is not a negligible difference.

      I was thinking about that in relation to the characters in the ad too. A group birthday greeting by phone is a nice gesture, and the man smiles – but imagine the elation if they had all burst into the office.

      For me it all comes down to that rule of thumb I highlighted above: machines only help to the extent that they make way for the human connection, the human spirit to come through. These high-tech times require constant conscientiousness lest that human spirit be obscured.

  • Ronald King

    Being born in 1947 and experiencing human interactions through different technological advancements creates within me an empathetic response which is based on the belief that each of us struggles with the crisis of death and meaninglessness regardless of which technological era in which we begin our lives. Clearly, the quality of human interaction is best when face to face but it has always been a tremendous struggle to achieve that secure and rewarding attachment and influence with others without the technology we have today. Just look at the billions of dollars being spent on psychotropic meds and psychotherapy in an effort to heal the pain of interpersonal experiences. It also seems to me that technology has influenced the expression and exhibition of our darkness for all to see and respond to. This darkness was usually hidden from expression or was acted out in some hidden and destructive passive aggressive manner. The revelation of our darkness through technological development does give us more of an opportunity for healing in face to face interactions. I have seen technology advance the development of empathy towards the suffering around the world and create more of human image of those who suffer rather than some abstract portrait which is quickly dismissed. The Berlin wall started to crumble with music being broadcast across the void.
    The images of those moments of joy in human relationships is what we all desire and it has always been there its just that we have those images more available to us now and it can reveal the spark of hope for that meaning and connection inherent in all of us. In my perception we have more of an opportunity to heal as a human family now more than ever before because our darkness cannot be hidden as easily as it was before this technological advancement. I believe we are now more conscientious interpersonally than we were when I was growing up even though it seems the opposite.

  • Having just finally gotten a real smartphone, as opposed to my 4 year old phone with the 2 inch screen, there are so many thing I can do with it and am very pleased, BUT you and the comedian are right, everyone’s face is in the phone and not really present to the realness of the moment. When my first child was born 18 years ago I would not let my husband videotape until the birth was over because I wanted him to be completely present, and I was a professional videographer then. Something is definitely lost through the presence of technology. I see my now adult child with his face constantly looking at his phone. His friends all staring at their phones and not their companions.

    And what does it breed in us? Superficiality, consumerism, a lack of quiet to connect to God. So many pitfalls in our society today to keep us off balance. I just read Al Kresta’s “Dangers to the Faith: Recognizing Catholicism’s 21st-Century Opponents” and the whole last chapter was consumerism. One wouldn’t think of it as an opponent, but it is perhaps the most potent because we do it to ourselves. Searching for happiness – THIS will make me smarter, hipper, more efficient, more connected, In reality it does just the opposite. It is like we allow the phone (in particular) to become our brains and we are lost and don’t know how to survive without it. We don’t remember phone numbers anymore, we can’t use a real map, it would never occur to us to get information by books if Google or Wikipedia stopped existing.

    I don’t really fear so much the proliferation of technology so much as the disappearance of it. What will become of us if a catastrophe happens and the power goes off? Truly, some people may not survive or thrive all because their true reasoning power, their real knowledge base was in a gadget, not in their heads.

    • Ronald King

      Marcy, There has always been something missing in human relationships and our relationship with God. Generally, we do not see the other or ourselves as God sees us and as a result there is a void within each of us which yearns to be seen and to be validated yet we have been and continue to be too afraid to speak that directly to one another regardless of what era we have lived in.

      • Julia Smucker

        Ronald, I think you’re right, broadly speaking, but I also think Marcy has some good points about over-dependence on certain technologies. It’s not that we are more afraid of honesty now than in other eras, but perhaps some of these technologies give us more places to hide from each other and ourselves and (we imagine) even God (a digital Garden of Eden, if you will), or a proliferation of new attempts to fill that age-old void that still leave us empty.

        • Brian Martin

          I would suggest that the part Ron left out is that we seem to keep coming up with new ways to more effectively do what we have always done, that is to focus on anything and everything but God. (And to interfere with us seeing God in each other.) Hard to see the God in the person I am with if my face is looking at my phone, texting, tweeting, watching videos, checking the news to see what is happening on the other side of the globe to people you don’t know while you miss the pain in the eye of the person sitting next to you, your wife, your kids, your neighbor etc.