What Einstein Can Teach Te’o…and Us

Albert Einstein once said:

“I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots.”

Today, social media and social networking is king. They are the lifeblood of connection for people all over the globe.  Einstein would call them “anti-social.”

And, I think he would make a good case in doing so.

Now, before you begin dismissing crazy Albert and his strong words, keep a few things in mind. First, he was arguably the most brilliant scientific mind that ever lived; he was the guy who gave us E=mc2. Secondly, Einstein left this earth way back in 1955 but even then, he had a sense of what was coming. This was around the time that about half of all U.S. households had a television. This was a time when folks went out on their front porches, into their backyards or crossed the street to talk to their neighbors after dinner or after a weekend barbeque. Meanwhile, their kids played baseball, rode bikes, played freeze tag and in general, ran free in the neighborhood because there was nothing much to do inside. All the socializing and fun was outside, interacting with live people.

This is how I remember my childhood in the 1970s, perhaps the last great decade before technology overran our world.

Today, 99 percent of all U.S. households have at least one television.  Roughly 80 percent of all American homes have a computer and of those homes, 92 percent have Internet access. Simultaneously, obesity rates continue to skyrocket, along with anti-social behavior from teens and young people that often results in violence. Children, adolescents and adults spend many hours each day staring into a television, computer, laptop, Xbox, Wii, iPad, iPhone or….

You get the picture. 

There’s no question that technology can be and is used for good and that it has served us well in many facets of life. After all, you wouldn’t be reading this blog if it wasn’t for technology and the Internet. But nearly sixty years after his death, I believe Einstein would be turning over in his grave in this virtual and digital age. Video games, wi-fi and high-def have become part of the America lexicon, while God, family and faith are slowly disappearing from our lives. There isn’t much we cannot do anymore without the click of a mouse or the touch of a screen. 

As a tool, technology is an equal-opportunity provider – it entertains and informs, but also distracts. What are the things from which we are being distracted?  The very things Einstein feared we would lose.

Reality. Each other.  God.

Too often, we now seek “reality” in television shows and the Internet, where we watch people do ridiculous and often self-destructive things that not only damage their own self-esteem, but the self-esteems of those who watch. We now have millions of Americans spanning two or three generations that know more about American Idol and what’s trending on Twitter than the U.S. Constitution or the history of their country. Important issues of the day are often lost on many Americans, regardless of age, because they are uninformed. They either don’t care or they would rather tweet, text or hang out on Facebook than expend additional energy to educate themselves about those things which affect their lives, the lives of their families and our world.

We have millions of young people who meet friends and set up dates by tweeting, texting or video chatting. Gone largely are the days when teens meet for the first time through friends at the shopping mall, the movie theatre or the Homecoming football game.

It’s frightening how much teenagers and young adults depend on technology to socialize and form relationships today. They don’t touch or sometimes even see those with whom they are interacting. Many times, people in the virtual world don’t even exist – they’re merely conjured by people who wish to perpetrate sick games on others.  You’d have to be living under a rock to not know about the hoax and saga of which Notre Dame football player Manti Te’o was recently a target. Some say he was naïve and maybe he was, but Manti’s story has illuminated the fact that far too many of our young people are taken advantage of and brutalized because they rely on technology rather than human interaction to form relationships. The results can be tragic.

If Einstein were alive today, sitting around yacking it up with Te’o while he was claiming to have a girlfriend for a year that he never met, I can imagine Einstein saying “Son, you need to go out and talk to actual living people. There are plenty of pretty and intelligent girls walking around right outside your door that would jump at the chance to spend time with you. Go out and talk to people!”         

As they spend hour after hour in virtual worlds, I believe many of our young people’s minds are being dulled like a lawnmower blade rolling over a bed of rocks. What can we do about it? For those of us who are parents, we have an awesome challenge to ensure that our children don’t become the “idiots” of which Einstein spoke. We also have to challenge ourselves to set an example by using technology appropriately and in moderation.

We all make choices of how to spend our time. I will be praying for myself, you and for all that we choose human interaction over technology, and that we will choose God over the false gods of the “reality” and virtual worlds.

Catholic Review

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.