my own little world

man wearing virtual reality gaming headset

I love to learn, to do, to think something new. In fact, I make my best effort to do these things on a regular basis. A couple of days ago, a new thought occurred to me. Only this time, it terrified me. It was just like that moment at the end of The Twilight Zone episode where the realization hits too late, as the door to the alien spacecraft is closing: “Don’t get on that ship! The rest of the book, To Serve Man … it’s a COOKBOOK!”

Growing up, we had one TV in the family room. Now every member of the house has at least one, as well as hand-held devices on which to watch programming of choice in separate rooms.

If a movie were rented, it was a discussion. You got to pick the movie tonight, and Timmy got to pick it next time. But then in came Netflix, DVR, multi-channel cable and a host of other options.  Sure, no one is in the family room anymore; but it’s a small price to pay for getting exactly what we want when we want it.

Even on planes, if a movie were available, it was one movie, shown on one or two drop-down screens; your option was to plug in the bulky headphones and get the sound – or not. On our 20-or-so-hour flight to China in 1988, that movie was Moonstruck, starring Cher (showing on continuous repeat there … and back). Now, most flights have individual screens on chair backs, allowing you to choose from hundreds of shows, movies or music channels. You have but to plug in – and instantly tune out the people around you.

Family vacations by car? If the radio were on, it was usually your father’s choice or your mother’s. As kids, you wound up listening to a lot of music you wouldn’t have chosen otherwise, but you knew a lot of music history. On today’s road trips, each passenger is safely nestled away under hoods and hats and against pillows, donning headphones connected to personal devices and apps that pump only – and exactly – what we want to listen to. Don’t like something in your own mix? Just swipe it into oblivion.

Speaking of car trips, we no longer need even bear temperatures that do not suit us. No more cracking your window a hair if your wife’s feet were cold and she wanted the heat higher.  Now, we can just set the temperature for our half of the car as we each like it, right down to the degree.

Don’t like the opinions or interests of someone online? Unfriend. Unfollow. Hide. Block. And lickety-split – you can restore the soothing equilibrium of a digital world that looks, talks and acts exactly like you 100% of the time.

I read just last week that Amazon is planning to launch a new customizable novel program, where a user will answer a hundred or so questions about what they want their reading experience to be like, and an algorithm will write an entire book based on those criteria. So if you want a story about a tall, dark and handsome elf with mother issues who goes on a quest to find true love with a mermaid, and which has a classic “happily ever after” ending – your wish will be Amazon’s command. Click-click-click what you want, and in two weeks, you can enjoy a story you basically wrote for yourself to read.

The upward arc of technological advancement allows for a truly customizable and individualized experience for nearly everything. It’s nothing short of miraculous. “Welcome to Planet You.”

But that is precisely the realization that terrified me:

The more we indulge our own preferences – the more our ability to compromise dies.

The more we indulge our own preferences – the more our ability to compromise dies.

Think about that. I mean really think about it.

Consider the implications of a world where the inhabitants no longer possess the character, the skills nor the desire to compromise with the others around us. Imagine the personal and interpersonal ramifications inherent in a society that no longer remembers how to share common experiences, to listen patiently to differing viewpoint, to find solutions for the greater good rather than only what’s good for me in this moment.

Maybe you don’t see it the way it struck me when I envisioned it all recently. But it gives me a good dose of the willies.

And, so what if it’s true? Technology is going to move ahead whether we like it or not. Are we simply doomed to some Orwellian fate? Or is there something we can do about it?

One thing I have learned is that worry serves no purpose other than to waste otherwise good moments. So I had to get the initial terror in check.

But I am also convinced that we always have a choice.  I cannot choose for a society, or even for a single other person. But I can choose what I myself will do, how I will live, right now.

How are we to increase our patience if not by allowing ourselves to engage in – and then stick with – situations that require us to wait or have our own desires postponed, even unmet? So choose to wait. Consider those traffic jams a blessing and not a curse. Silently thank those honking people around you for keeping you human and allowing you a chance to develop that virtue of patience. (No, I’m not being facetious.)

Likewise, how are we to hone our ability to compromise if we never detach from our customizable experience? So choose to unplug. Find ways to engage in group activities that require consensus. Form a movie night group. Join a book club. Watch and read things you don’t like, and consider them learning experiences. Find out why the person who chose that movie or book likes it so much.

On road trips, try going back to * gasp * playing one radio, even if that just means taking turns on whose iPod is plugged in for a stretch. And again, use the opportunity to have conversations and to learn more about the person who’s chosen that artist or genre you don’t particularly understand or gravitate toward.

Listen to opposing points of view without censoring or debating. Learn the beauty in simply listening silently or saying “tell me more ,” rather than giving in to pointing out the logical flaws as you see them or expounding on why your own viewpoint is the right one.

Make it your goal to create shared experiences with others, rather than always giving in to isolated or individually-tailored ones. Being mindful is the first step.

Enjoy technology for all the many positive opportunities it allows. But don’t allow yourself to be customized at the expense of patience and the ability to compromise. As I said in my last post, there is great value in technology; but we are each responsible for our own humanity, character and self-control.

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