Thursday, February 14, 2013

Round One

I jumped when I heard my name in the toiletries aisle at the neighborhood Kroger. Recognition was the last thing I expected when weighing the merits of Powder Fresh vs. Clean Linen scents in aisle 6.

I turned to see an old friend, Carrie, struggling to catch my attention while at the same time wrestling a bag of kale from the reaches of her young son. I knew Carrie’d had a baby, just as I knew the extent of her recent work projects and the issues she and her husband were having in trying to find a reliable sitter. Thing is, I knew all of this despite not having spoken to or seen Carrie in over a year. Two years? When was the last time I saw Carrie…

Between the blur of Yahoo news, Gmail, e-blasts and social networking sites, we are all informed. Each of us can carry a conversation (with varying degrees of accuracy) about The State of the Union Address. Or Gun Control. Or J.J. Abrams and the new Star Wars movie. Or which of our friends just got married/had a baby/got a new job.

We live our lives little short of a click away from being a wiki-expert in nearly every subject, because information, these days, is available in spades.

By and large, this is a good thing. The majority of human history has been marked—and marred—by the power of knowledge: who has it, who has access to it, and how to keep it out of the “wrong” hands. Princes, paupers, kingdoms and empires have risen and fallen in its pursuit. Martyrs have died in its name.

Knowledge? It’s a powerful thing.

And a slippery slope.

And a double-edged sword.

And a veritable cornucopia of other well-worn clich├ęs.

Because in today’s marketplace, most Americans have unlimited access to storehouses of information. Need to know if a restaurant’s good? Yelp will tell you. Need recommendations for a t.v. show? Netflix can offer a slew of options based on your personal, previous preferences. Need to know what Carrie’s been up to? No need to pick up the phone and call, as 10 seconds spent on her FaceBook page will provide all the answers. But at what cost?

As social stewards, you and I are in the business of communication. To communicate effectively, we must therefore be informed on a variety of issues. That’s just gospel.

But while representatives of any constituency have always needed to be informed about their base, the means by which modern reps gather intel has changed, and not necessarily for the better. Because Yelp can’t tell you why certain restaurants in your district are struggling. Netflix can’t stream you a cop-drama solution to the proposed pension cuts for local firefighters and policemen. And FaceBook may tell you what the middle school principal had for lunch today, but it won’t shed light on whether or not a county-wide anti-bullying campaign is yielding results.

A face-to-face meeting will. A handshake will. Engagement will.

Friends, I fear we’ve settled for a substitution–one we shruggingly accept as “progress.” In this period of technological “progress,” I fear we are, in fact, regressing in a key area where our predecessors were forced to excel. Fellow stewards, we are exchanging first-hand experiences for second-hand data; we’re forgoing life experience for pre-packaged thought processes; we’re sacrificing engagement on the cold, hard altar of information.

And we have to stop. Because we’re losing our greatest source of empirical knowledge – first-hand experience – to Wikipedia.

To “pen” this article, I used one word-processing program, one design program, and about a half-dozen internet sites.

I didn’t pick up the phone once.

I didn’t have to.

I had all the information I needed.

SIGN OFF Deck to sign off: Engage me. Call me at XXX