There's a story about an older fish crossing currents with two younger fish. The older fish makes small talk by asking, "How's the water today, fellas?" Almost in unison, the younger fish reply, "Fine," as they continue on their way. Then one of the younger fish turns to the other and asks, "What the heck is water?"
Of course, the moral of the story is that the younger fish have been so busy doing fish things that they've never noticed the most obvious element of their environment.
We're reaching a saturation point in our environment where digital technology is standard and so deeply embedded that we barely even notice it, let alone question it. We're busy doing our human things.
A question like "Why is there a screen in the gas pump showing highlights from a late-night talk show?" hardly seems worth asking. Exploring how all of this technology affects us, our families and society can seem like a quirky curiosity. Just enjoy it, right?
It's become difficult to think of an aspect of everyday life that doesn't run on ones and zeros zipping through a server in some far-off, climate-controlled room. As much as I could live without commercials while I'm pumping gas, I can't imagine life without today's remarkable technologies.
I've become absolutely dependent on my smartphone, smartwatch, tablet and laptop. And streaming music and movies. And my car navigating as its sensors help keep me safe. And Alexa turning on my lights. And Google answering my questions in a nanosecond. And artificial intelligence anticipating when I'll be low on coffee.
It goes on and on. You get the point. But we can't just swim around in this stuff without asking sensible questions. Sure, I love what technology has given me, but what is it taking? Should I be concerned that the smartphone in my pocket is apparently not convenient enough? Wearable technology is expected to grow to 489.1 million devices globally this year.
There are legitimate concerns about the effects of screen time and social media, particularly for children and teens. About half of teens report feeling overwhelmed by the daily notifications they receive. Teenagers who spend five hours a day on electronic devices are 71% more likely to have suicide risk factors than those with one-hour use.
Smartphones, laptops and Wi-Fi allow many of us to collaborate with our co-workers from home. That's awesome. But research indicates that most infidelity occurs between co-workers and begins via text and email -- avenues of communication that lend themselves to secrecy and allow intimacy to escalate quickly. That's tragic.
The average American adult reportedly checks their phone 344 times a day. Thirty-five percent admit to using or looking at their phone while driving, causing 26% of car accidents and killing 11 people per day.
There are genuine catastrophes associated with our infatuation with technology. And there's some plain puzzling stuff. Such as: 61% of Americans reported that they had recently texted someone in the same room. Over half say their smartphone is their most valued possession. According to multiple surveys, a third of Americans indicated they would rather give up sex than their smartphone. Um, what?
Does. Any. Of. This. Sound. Healthy? Can we talk about our culture's relationship with technology and take an honest look at our own? Can we learn how to enjoy the benefits of technology for ourselves and our families while avoiding these hazards?
Over the next few weeks, this space will engage the question "What the heck is water?" I hope to see you here.
Lauren Hall is president and CEO of family advocacy nonprofit First Things First. Email her at lauren@ firstthings.org.