Behind the screen: On humanity and its place in technology

Krizette Chu of Manila Bulletin’s Panorama asked me to do an opinion piece on how I thought technology changes the way we deal with people. Being a young parent, I wrote about iPad parenting (it’s benefits!) and building resilience. This is an excerpt of the piece. The full article can be found online.

So it took me about a year to claim a piece of paper from the government. It was an Occupancy Permit for our home, which merely proves that the structure we built and live in really belongs to us. Now I’ve always believed that happiness is relative. And to tell you the truth, this was the happiest I’ve been over a piece of paper. In retrospect, it made me wonder about the entire government bureaucracy. That when you enter city hall, all your hopes and dreams are tucked away underneath a 10-foot pile of blueprints and permits. It amazes me how employees can make sense of this mess. But then I realize that the acumen they have for finding a piece of paper is inversely proportional to their knowledge about computers.

Now I’m no armchair activist, but paying numerous visits to a city hall has perhaps earned me some right in becoming an unpaid consultant for business process: First of all, why are there barely any computers in sight? We’ve managed fly-by photos of Pluto, but can’t computerize a process where the delays are mostly spent waiting on a couch.

But yes, Virginia, there is a silver lining! The agony—and the ecstasy that we can derive from such experiences. Of being able to defend against several waves of attacks in Clash of Clans while waiting for the official signatory to come back from an extended lunch break. Of being able to finish a 10-hour audiobook in two days while driving in traffic-laden Manila. So it’s a conundrum really. We buy better cars so we can drive in worsening traffic. We decide to work from home and the Internet is shitty. And there’s the rub. We’re connected. But we pay the consequence in terms of time. We start asking existential questions such as “Is listening to a book still considered reading?” Or “Is playing an online game with strangers the same as playing in a park with strangers?” Or “Is the two-hour traffic jam worth it just to see my friends when there’s always our Viber group?”

Javier with iPad

To tell you the truth, I’m still coming to terms with all of this. Remember when the pager was the in-thing? That was a decade and a half ago. Now we have smartphones. It’s going to change 15 years from now. So, as of this moment, let me share three “truths” that I’ve come to accept:

I believe in “iPad parenting”
Have you seen the studies posted on BuzzFeed, Mashable and all those “viral” websites talking about how iPads ruin kids? Do you believe them? I’ve never been one to toot my horn on my personal Facebook page about “iPad parenting” but when it gets down to the nitty gritty of it, all I have to say is that I’d rather have my 2 1/2 year old son sitting still with an iPad so he can eat a full meal than pay for it later at 2AM when he tries to wake my and my wife up asking for rice.

Yes, yes I admit — in public I do feel a bit of guilt when I pull out the iPad in a restaurant. I suddenly become aware of the heads slowly turning our way; the casting of judgemental eyes. But then again, what do they know? “Studies show that so and so technology is bad for your kids.” But really, how long have smartphones and tablets been around to reinforce long-term behavioural studies on children as they grow up? Remember, decades ago when science said butter was evil? TIME magazine published a retraction — on the front page evil saying it’s fine, eat all the butter you want.” In the same way that my grandfather thought that my dad’s Beatles album was “demonic” I believe we shouldn’t set the same standards, at least with certain things, to our children. At the end of the day, it’s us living in their world now. I believe in teaching resilience. But part of resilience is all about being able to adapt. So yeah, have that iPad in your baby bag. Just in case.

I’d rather get into a fist-fight than get trolled on the Internet
Think back for a minute. Are there old sayings from the past few decades that may not be as applicable today? Well I’ve got one. bring yourself back to when you were about 5 or 6 years old. Bring yourself back to the playground. Or the school grounds after classes while waiting for the bus. Bring yourself back saying “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me!” It’s what our parents used to tell us — those magic incantations we spewed out at bullies. A shield of words against peer pressure and the qualms of childhood resilience. Aren’t words more powerful? Bruises heal. But words cut deep.

How many times have we seen articles on Facebook reporting teens undergoing depression or committing suicide because of online bullying? Aren’t words more hurtful? Don’t they create emotional scars? It’s come to the point where, if you have your pre-teen child playing online games on the XBOX, you’ll have to shut off the volume of the microphone because random strangers are spewing expletives while playing Call of Duty — “WHO THE F*CK IS THIS NOOB?” “C*CKS****R!” “GET OUT YOU PIECE OF S**T.” What do we do when the bullying happens in our very home, in our own children’s rooms, through thin air? As a parent, how are we informed?

Definitely, bullying has taken a new form. It’s different – the fact is, trolling the Internet doesn’t even require one to have grudges. It’s the sheer anonymity that makes the plotting desirable. I was listening to an NPR podcast about online bullies who have made 180 degree changes to their lives there’s a sweeping consensus that trolling with hate stems from one’s own self-loathing. And if we actually do take a look behind the screens of our iPads and smartphones, we’re not looking at a bully twice our own size cracking his fists. We’re actually looking at someone that quite resembles our very own selves. And they need help.

Strangers will help strangers
But then of course, there’s the other side of the spectrum. Anonymity doesn’t always beget hate. The Internet has opened up many avenues for people to help one another. From crowdfunding sites like KickStarter, to Reddit communities like /r/RandomActsofPizza where strangers can send pizza deliveries to other strangers who can’t afford dinner or /r/Vagabond which serves as the “Digital Home for Vagabonds and Houseless” there’s a lot of love going around. Shakespeare once said (through Portia, from The Merchant of Venice) that ‘the quality of mercy is twice blessed – it blesses he who gives and he who receives.” When I was younger and without the wonders of the Internet and a smartphone, my independent world revolved around how far my dirt bike would take me. My world revolved around memorising facts indulging my teachers in the art of the didactic. When the Internet opened up and Wikipedia became a global phenomenon, knowledge all of a sudden became a commodity. And, if you are like me and follow most of what goes viral on the Internet, we’ve come to that point where what has become important to us is the challenge of understanding other individuals – their culture, their sexual orientation, their politics. Acquiring knowledge is easy. Empathy to others is this generation’s challenge.

It’s still human
There was one thing I failed to mention about my frequent trips to city hall. Despite the surmounting number of permits and forms to be filled, there were always helping hands that knew how to sympathise. Every so often a city official would look at me — haggard, sweating, downtrodden. Like I’ve really lost this battle of back and forth attrition. And they would tell me “it’s ok, let me help you fix this.” Turns out it’s not that bad at all. And it’s an experience I would never get if I were in front of the computer. It’s all about empathy.

By Jayvee Fernandez

Jayvee Fernandez is a tech enthusiast, EAN certified SCUBA Diver and underwater photographer based in Metro Manila, Philippines. His photos and videos have appeared in various international and local publications including Random House Germany, Discovery Channel Canada, and CNN.

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