In these days of fast-paced technological progress, I often hear people say that technology is disconnecting people from the world around them. Of course, there’s plenty of evidence to back that opinion up, including my personal favorite, the story of a woman who walked directly off a pier while scrolling her Facebook feed on her phone. She even held her phone above her head to protect it once she was in the water!
Extreme, and albeit comical, examples aside, overall, technology’s benefits and potential to connect people far outweigh its potential for disconnecting them.
In 2013, the Pew Research Center found that favorite uses for Facebook were sharing information with many people at once, seeing entertaining or funny posts, and learning about ways to help others. With technology’s help, we can bring relationships together that would never have occurred in the past. (Think Uber Pool, AirBnB, or EHarmony.) We can connect to long-lost friends and stay up-to-date with people who live across the globe. And that little rectangular device in your pocket or purse is a huge enabler and connector; you can pick it up at a moment’s notice and call, text, or message someone you haven’t spoken with in years.
I love all of these devices and applications, but the way technology has enabled me to connect to people is far more personal.
When I was four years old, I lost all my hearing to spinal meningitis. Throughout my childhood and young adulthood, I wore hearing aids to communicate, which didn’t work all that well. They never fully allowed me to hear or understand speech. (I’ve come to consider the technology in hearing aids a legacy technology like Windows 98.)
In my early 20s, I received two cochlear implants – technology that has been nothing short of transformative for me. Today, I can hear, communicate, and connect with the world around me – but the learning curve for using this technology has been steep.
Cochlear implants employ electronic technology, bypassing all of the ear’s natural functions. A small array of electrodes is implanted in the cochlea, and a tiny computer processor and microphone are held to the head with a magnet. Sound enters a software program that converts it to electronic impulses that are sent through the magnet into the electrode array in the cochlea. The ear’s hammer, anvil and stirrup – the mechanical parts of the ear – go unused. The mind has to adapt completely to a new way of processing sound, not unlike a user adapting to a new software or computer system.
Adapting and learning can be challenging, but the potential for connection and increased efficiency is enormous.
When I first got the cochlear implants, my speech recognition was at zero. I had no ability to communicate other than lip-reading in one-on-one situations or through sign language. But today, eight years since my first cochlear implant, I have about 85 to 90 percent speech recognition. Technology is what enabled me to connect with people like nothing else. If it weren’t for the cochlear implants, I might never have launched TekTegrity. Cochlear implants have given me the confidence that I can hear and understand my colleagues and peers, and the gift of being able to hear my children call me ‘Daddy’.
When it comes to technology connecting people, most stories might not be as extreme as mine, but there are plenty of parallels. Technology can be used as a tool to disconnect people or connect them, but that really depends on how we choose to use it.
 Smith, Aaron. “Pew Research Center’s Internet Project survey, August 16-September 7, 2013.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C., http://pewrsr.ch/1dm5NmJ, accessed 5/7/15