Column – Technology has done much good, but may be our undoing

Published 5:03 pm Tuesday, January 2, 2024

We are — young and old— beset by electronic distractions. 

You need only walk into a restaurant and look around. It’s not just teenagers who are staring expressionless into a cellphone. In fact, it’s becoming ever more rare to find two dinner companions talking with each other for more than a few minutes before one of them pulls out a phone.

Most of us have become at least a little addicted to the things. Just let someone ask a trivia-type question, and one or more people will grab their phones and begin searching for information that a decade ago didn’t seem to matter all that much. We’ve become accustomed — or is it addicted — to having instant information at our fingertips, and sometimes what we find is even helpful.

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It’s not an evil impulse that directs us to search for information. It’s a very natural part of being human. We are, at root, a curious species, craving more and more information, some of it important to our well-being and some of it unimportant or even destructive of the same. 

Coupled with that is our desire to communicate with other humans. That craving long predated electronic technology. It goes back to cave drawings, and far more recently, the written word, tediously scripted on papyrus or animal skins.

And then came German inventor Johannes Gutenberg and his world-changing device, the printing press. Knowledge, heretofore a caged bird, was released to fly among the masses who had but to learn how to read to absorb vast amounts of it.

It’s electronics, however, that have ushered in the modern age, and everyone living today has seen a portion of that revolution.

We’ve had radios and television for as long as most of us can remember, and yet we didn’t seem terribly distracted by them when we oldsters were growing up.

There’s a fairly simple reason for that. When we were children, there was a radio, but only one, in most homes. They were expensive and the program offerings on them were limited. Thus, the whole family might gather to listen to an episode of Dragnet, Jack Benny or Gunsmoke. Radios also filled a business need. Ours was tuned daily to WRVA in Richmond every day so our parents could hear the hog market at noon.

Then came television, and again, there was only one, and you were a lucky family if you had that one. Having only one TV was like having one radio. It required compromise and cooperation. Thus, on Sunday nights, the children were allowed to watch the Roy Rogers Show because it came on at 6:30 and was over in time for our parents to see Ed Sullivan’s “Reeealy Big Show” each week.

Electronics continued to dictate the norms of group activities until the late 1950s when transistor radios began to offer teens an escape path. They could tune into their favorite radio station (AM only at first) and listen to Elvis or Chuck Berry and later, the Beatles, away from the often-critical ears of parents. 

Little transistor radios weren’t terribly expensive. They sold for about $15 in the mid-1950s. That translates to about $150 today. Most of us found a way to raise the money to buy one, and it often became our constant companion.

Then came the Walkman and other electronic digital devices and, in time, the internet, inexpensive computers and cellphones.

And now the beast that is unfiltered information has been fully unleashed through social media, which is probably the most misnamed phenomenon ever, because there’s nothing social about it. Anti-social media would be a far better name.

It’s not the world we old folks grew up in. It’s not even the world our children grew up in, but it’s the world we now have. 

There’s a lot that’s good about the digital world, but somehow we have to come to grips with its negative aspects before it permanently damages a significant portion of the human race.

NOTE: Rocky Edge, a longtime reader, felt I was unfair by noting in the Dec. 13 Short Rows that the old Tastee Freez had eventually closed, having run afoul of changing times and restaurant regulations. The column didn’t make clear that the troubles began after Mrs. Virginia Ward had sold the popular eatery in 1995. That was after she had opened the business and successfully run it for four decades. My apologies to Mr. Edge, who is the late Mrs. Ward’s son.

John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is