Watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.
Face it; Boomers tend to be instinctively apprehensive about modern technology. Innovation makes us uneasy -- especially when it threatens to interfere with human connection as we know it. People texting instead of talking, phones buzzing mid-conversation, tweets a twittering in ways that make little sense to a generation still trying to conquer the TV remote.
It's a topic I recently wrote about in "Needing to Connect During the Age of Anxiety," which describes our culture's dependency on electronics and the withdrawal when deprived of it. I raised concern for our youth -- many who have grown attached to these devices from an early age -- and their potential difficulty attaining and sustaining genuine interaction. For us older folks, it's not just the new gadgetry that unnerves us, but the fast pace with which they are used and the constant attention they get. Instead of making Boomers feel more connected and tuned in, this techno-activity turns us off, foreshadowing the loss of real-life connection.
Whitacre's project is reminiscent of other times when voices joined people together. - Vivian Diller
While it is understandable that we cling to the "way we were," Eric Whitacre's TEDTalk, "A Virtual Choir," inspires the opposite. It reminds us that innovations are not only mind-boggling, but mind-opening -- and can foster the very kind of meaningful contact we hold so dear. By bringing lone voices together from more than 50 countries around the world (as far as Lebanon, Kazakhstan and Madagascar) and empowering this unified chorus through social media, Whitacre creates a kind of virtual community that even the most Kumbayah of Boomers could never have imagined.
It was not simply Whitacre's musical composition, the purity of the individual voices, or the quality of the overall performance that were impressive, but rather the disarming emotional experience the whole process evoked. Whitacre himself described being deeply moved as he first viewed the results, saying "I couldn't believe the poetry of all of it... these souls on all their own desert islands sort of sending electronic messages in bottles to each other." When the video went viral, it had a million hits within the first month -- Boomers, no doubt, among them.
Instead of the image we typically conjure up -- of individuals, isolated and cut off, sitting alone in front of their laptops -- this project created a very different one. Here are eager voices joined together using one international language in harmony. It was the experience of watching these young singers being part of something bigger that brought tears to my eyes and warmth to the coldness so many of us attribute to the tech world.
But my reaction to this TEDTalk went even further. You see, Whitacre's project reminded me of some of the other ways my generation has warmed -- if not embraced -- technology as a means to connect to others. How many Boomer parents now keep in contact with their kids in ways we never did with our own moms and dads? Remember the once a week calls from the pay phone in our college dorm? These have morphed into back and forth texts, sharing postings on Facebook and photos on Instagram.
And, how about the ease with which we now keep on top of the health of our aging parents? Mobile phones in the hands of their caretakers allow us a lifeline to elderly family members, especially in case of emergencies. While many of us still choose old-fashioned face to face visits with our parents, those anxious trips to check-in on them have been alleviated by the availability of virtual connection.
Then there is Skype -- something most Boomers were convinced was beyond their skill set. Yet once we got the hang of it, the app became the download of choice, especially for grandparents living far from their children. Now we can share our grandkids' precious moments -- their first steps, Christmas mornings and birthdays -- from anywhere in the world. Members of my family (at one time spread out between Boston, Buenos Aires and Beijing) came together for our very first Skype Passover. We managed to do the entire service with multiple laptops set up at the ends of our dinner table. "How is this night different from all other nights?" was an easy question to answer on that particular holiday!
Whitacre's project is also reminiscent of other times when voices joined people together. In the days after 9-11, artists of all ages from around the world connected through their music -- Springsteen, McCartney and U2, to name a few -- helping millions feel safe during a time of enormous anxiety. Some of these very same voices were heard more recently during the telethon following Hurricane Sandy. And, remember the updated and simulcast version of "We Are The World?" From the young voices of Beiber and Blige to the older ones of Bennett and Streisand, celebrity musicians came together to help raise funds for the victims of Haiti's earthquake. In 2010, it was a technological feat that now, looking back, seems so simple compared to the "Virtual Choir."
So, while Boomers may angst over the lack of one-on-one, flesh-on-flesh contact, we can't dismiss the advantages that technology has brought us, not only by providing novel forms of connecting, but offering new opportunities for the greater good. Instead of holding on to our past and clinging to the ways of our own generation, it may serve us well to look forward and benefit from what the next one has to offer.
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Vivian Diller, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She serves as a media expert on various psychological topics and as a consultant to companies promoting health, beauty and cosmetic products. Her book, "Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change" (2010), edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances.
For more information, please visit my website at www.VivianDiller.com; and continue the conversation on Twitter at DrVDiller.