Recently, and for no apparent reason, a man gunned down a random college student in the middle of a crowded rail car in San Francisco.
You know what's even more unsettling?
There were no Good Samaritans. According to surveillance video, no one responded when the gunman drew his weapon. In fact, no one noticed at all. All of the passengers were so distracted by their smartphones that it took a gunshot to rouse them from their digital torpor.
Not since John Harley and Bibb Latane studied the murder of Kitty Genovese in 1968, coining "the Bystander Effect," have we seen such an egregious example of the absolute uselessness of eyewitnesses to a crime. In the case of Kitty Genovese, The New York Times reported that 38 people witnessed her attacker assaulting her before any one of them took enough responsibility to call the police. In San Francisco, these eyewitnesses didn't even get to the point of making a moral decision about whether or not to intervene. Even if they had wanted to save the college student's life, they weren't aware enough of what was transpiring around them to recognize that one of their fellow human beings was in life-threatening danger.
Could this be even worse?
While what happened in San Francisco is an extreme example of lives lived through a digital haze, it is an instructive example nonetheless. It ought to cause us all to evaluate how much of life we're missing by keeping our noses in our devices. Could it be that what promised us a more efficient, enjoyable and connected life is actually delivering a disengaged, desensitized, defrauded life instead?
Like me, you've have probably chuckled at the viral videos of texting gone wrong; the woman walking into a mall fountain, the man not noticing the black bear in the street in front of him until he practically steps on it. You've seen public safety campaigns warning teenagers of the perils of texting and driving, and you might have even heard of recent research suggesting that too much technology can lead to depression, anxiety, and addiction.
We know that teenagers often find their identity in pictures they post on Facebook, and some adults might even feel neglected if no one "likes" their Facebook status. There's a growing trend among habitual technology users of "sleep-texting," sending messages during the night without knowing what or to whom they are typing, and we all know the person who lost their job because they couldn't keep their digital mouth shut or the politician whose career was snapped away in the speed of a tweet.
We used to be critical of politicians who over-simplified complicated policy issues by cramming them into 45-second sound bites on prime time television. Now, partisan fires are stoked in cyberspace with 140-character tweets about issues that would take a semester-long college course to understand properly. We've seen the reshuffling of the Middle East and the collapse of once-impenetrable dictatorships because the masses were moved to action through Facebook statuses and Twitter hash tags.
Particular outcomes aside, the Tweetification of social discourse cannot be good for the world, and it's worrisome to consider that the sociological ramifications of the digital age may only become apparent after it has reshaped the human experience irrevocably.
I recently heard of a group of friends who pile their phones in the center of the dinner table during an outing, with the understanding that the first person to grab a ringing phone will foot the bill. Not a bad idea, but a troubling sign of how absolutely out-of-control our technological obsessions have come.
Now, don't misunderstand me. I once scheduled an entire church service on Facebook, once led an effort to reach millions of people through an online advertising blitz, and serve presently as an executive at one of the world's largest providers of online education. I'm no enemy of technology, and I recognize certain goods that have come with the advent of the information age. I agree entirely with thought leaders like Dr. Timothy Dalrymple who recognize the promise of technology in the practice of faith, and like Dr. Dalrymple I've touted my own optimism about the future of Christianity in the digital age.
However, I fear we've become all but oblivious to the risk involved in so thoroughly digitizing our lives. The truth is that too many men and women are living half-present in the real world, and half-absorbed in the three-inch world of their smartphone screens.
Progress and innovation often come hand in hand, yet they are not the same. Innovation without moderation can lead us to lives of digital dissipation. It's hardly progress if we live out distracted lives in a world filled with people who are never truly present or attentive with one another.
People of faith are called to be like the Good Samaritan. Yet you cannot be a Good Samaritan - you're missing out on opportunities for embodied love and service - if you're so absorbed in your gadgets that you fail to notice the people who need your care.