Are we a happier people because of technology?
That question, posed by Palmer Joss, a character in the movie "Contact," based on the book of the same name by the late Carl Sagan, is a profound one.It's also a difficult one to answer as there is no one answer.
Technology has made life more complex, yet it's also made it simpler - as anyone who used to do term papers on a typewriter and now does them on a personal computer can attest.
What Joss was talking about, though, isn't how technology changes the way things are done but the effect it has on our inner selves.
Do we become so focused on technology and the joys, or at least the perceived joys, it provides that relationships with our families and others pass us by?
This is hardly a new debate. It just seems with computers, the Internet, cellular phones, proliferation of television systems etc. there are new forums for it.
Technology provides us with options our ancestors didn't have.
The 150th anniversary of the trek across the plains by the pioneers was recently commemorated and re-enacted.
Talk about a simple life. Certainly a closer-knit life.
Parents didn't have to worry if their children were watching something inappropriate on TV. They didn't have to worry if their children were over at a friend's house watching something inappropriate on TV. And they didn't have to have a master's degree in planning to work out all the car shuffling arrangements modern parents (meaning moms) have to for family members to get to jobs and school.
Home was home for the whole family and it wasn't a hotel.
Entertainment was something families had to manufacture. They somehow had to survive without Nintendo games and movies. There are some reports that families actually read together.
But it's difficult to say the challenges for one generation are more difficult than those for another. They're different challenges. People in all ages have their own personal demons to battle. Who's to say the lust for gold in the 1840s was less destructive than the lust for material things today?
And while technology provides opportunities for people to tune one another out (thanks to headphones), it also provides opportunities to tune one another in.
How long would it have taken one of those pioneers to communicate with a relative in England? In seconds we can communicate to virtually any place in the world via e-mail or phone.
Technology is what we make of it.
More importantly, our relationships are what we make of them. Sometimes in the helter-skelter pace and competitive nature of today's world we don't take the time to strengthen them.
Just because we have TVs and computers doesn't mean we can't read together as a family.
Just because everyone has a car doesn't mean we can't take a walk together as a family or as husband and wife.
There is something magical about family ties and the bonds of friendship that things, no matter how grandiose, can't come close to replacing. Technology can enable us to appreciate those qualities.
A trip to the Internet is providing the conclusion to this column.
It comes courtesy of a book review. The book, "Drawing Life: Surviving the Unabomber," tells of the trials Yale computer scientist David Gelernter endured after he was badly injured (he lost an eye and a hand) by the explosion of a mail bomb in June of 1993. His new outlook on life is captured in these words:
"Thank God the leaves turn and acorns plop and my boy walks beside me to get the paper in the morning. . . . I have to confess that the only society I care deeply about in the end is my family and a few friends, and I am not sure whether each man cultivating his garden is not our only shot at saving the world."