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The Sound of Silence: Where Has It Gone?

Wednesday, February 16th, 2011

Henry David Thoreau was talking about me all those years ago on Walden Pond when he said: “Hardly a man takes a half-hour’s nap after dinner, but when he wakes he holds up his head and asks, ‘What’s the news?’ […] After a night’s sleep the news is as indispensable as the breakfast.”

Every morning I wake up, roll out of bed, and check my email. Before my eyes adjust to the light of morning I have to know I didn’t miss anything while I was asleep. While I am getting ready to leave I check Facebook, ESPN, CNN, the weather, the stock market, and the entertainment news. I listen to a podcast on my iPod during my four-minute walk to the bus stop where I pick up a newspaper to read on the bus.

When I get to class I can’t go five minutes without checking something online. Every random thought that skips into my head demands immediate attention—who was that actress in Superman III? Are grades out yet? Charlie Sheen did what!? At lunch I read on my Nook or watch TV on my laptop. Later on in the study room I try to shut my laptop to focus on the text, but I can’t last five minutes without opening it up to check Facebook or to make sure I didn’t miss an important email.

The rest of my day looks similar. Between my phone, laptop, iPod, TV, and Nook, from the time I wake up until my head hits the pillow at night, I would be hard-pressed to string together five waking minutes when I am not reading, watching, or listening to something.

We live in an amazing age. Never before in the history of man have knowledge and information been so immediately accessible. Never before has mankind had the ability to instantaneously speak to anyone, anywhere in the world, at any time. Society has reaped the benefits of this newfound interconnectivity. We are able to share discoveries and knowledge in real time; to bring the best minds together to tackle mankind’s most perplexing problems; and to keep in touch with friends and family members even though we may be thousands of miles apart. Without a doubt technology has enriched our lives in countless ways. But has all this technological advancement made us any happier? I have no doubt that we are more entertained and better connected, but still I wonder: Are we happier?

I wish I could travel back in time with an iPhone. Imagine what our parents would have thought thirty years ago if we told them that one day everyone would carry a portable phone in their pocket—and that these phones would be able to play movies and music, take pictures, and even access a network that would allow you to communicate with every computer in the world. Surely they’d be impressed with our technological prowess, but would they envy our lifestyle?

I have over 600 friends on Facebook, but I can’t remember the last time I made eye contact with someone on the metro. I don’t know when I would have the time. Between the emails, the podcasts, the newspapers, magazines, books, music, movies, and TV I don’t have time for eye contact.

I am so concerned with being constantly connected that I honestly cannot remember the last time I sat in silence and thought. I’ve conditioned myself to become uncomfortable with downtime. Whether I am in line at the supermarket, or stopped at a stoplight, I find myself reflexively pulling out my phone to see what’s going on in the world.

I remember when I was a kid we had a computer that was good for nothing but WordPerfect and a Russian version of Tetris. My parents thought Nintendo was the devil’s tool and even went so far as to lock up the TV during the week. Nowadays a child living in that kind of environment would have a pretty strong case for child abuse, but back then it was normal. So what did we do? We went outside. We played catch. We built forts and tree houses. We made friends. We rode bikes. We got in trouble. We were happy.

I am grateful for technology, and I love so many of the things it’s done for the world. But nothing in life is free, and in exchange for all of this advancement it seems that we are slowly giving up our humanity. While we are learning to be responsible and productive citizens of the World Wide Web, we are forgetting how to be real people in the real world.

Over 150 years ago, Henry David Thoreau went to live in a cabin he built in the woods near Concord, Massachusetts. He lived there for two years and wrote about his experience. When explaining why he chose to live on his own in the woods he said: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” While technology has the power to enrich our lives, it also has the power to control our lives if we let it. So please, for your own sake, take the earbuds out, turn off the TV, close the laptop, put down the paper, and live.