High Tech; High Touch

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | Nov 15, 2008

"Combining high tech and high touch is not easy. Technology always seems to take precedence."
Edward M. Hallowell

I have been pondering the advantages and disadvantages of electronic communications. Most of us can hardly navigate a day without the abundant use of technological tools. A few weeks ago we closed our offices for a day because we were installing electrical upgrades and our computers would not run without electricity. 

The airline system in the entire country was recently degraded because of a computer glitch in Atlanta. Large companies lose millions of dollars per minute when the computers are down. 

Expressing the limitations of technology, Aldous Huxley commented, "Technological progress has merely provided us with more effective means for going backwards." 

And while we have become enormously dependent on technology which enhances just about every part of our lives, researchers now tell us that technology can be a huge detriment to healthy interaction between people. 

Edward M. Hallowell describes this growing problem in "The Human Moment at Work"(Harvard Business Review, Jan-Feb, 1999). He defines 'the human moment" as "an authentic psychological encounter that can happen only when two people share the same physical space." He believes "it has started to disappear from modern life — and I sense that we all may be about to discover the destructive power of its absence." 

I could give many examples from my own experience which would illustrate the truth of Hallowell's concern. I always sense something of huge importance is missing if I try to debate or disagree with someone over the phone or via email. Technology enables us to connect but without eye contact, an occasional smile or nod or even an eventual handshake, too much communication is omitted. 

Not long ago I received an email from an individual who requested a meeting. The note came while we were in the middle of starting up our new academic year. In order to buy a few weeks of grace time, I emailed him a note saying I would be back in touch with him after the dust settled on the new year. He graciously replied that he would look forward to connecting with me in January, 2009. I meant to say the new "academic" year. Fortunately, I sent him a quick message to clarify what I meant. 

Hallowell says "the human moment has two prerequisites: people's physical presence and their emotional and intellectual attention...Physical presence alone isn't enough; you can ride shoulder to shoulder with someone for six hours on an airplane and not have a human moment the entire ride." 

Technology simply makes face to face interactions unnecessary. Even before these tech tools were available to us, business leaders spoke of "MBWA," i.e. "Management by Walking Around." They realized the importance of person to person connectivity. How long does it really take to walk from office to office with coffee cup in hand and share a valuable human moment with our friends? 

One CEO said, "High tech requires high touch." Banks know the value of ATM's but with those machines they are losing touch with their customers. I can actually send an email message to all of our students and employees and yet be able to look any of them in the eye with a warm, personal interaction. 

"The remedy is not to get rid of electronics but to restore the human moment where it is needed," Hallowell suggests. "People need human contact in order to survive." 

I guess that's why John Tudor said, "Technology makes it possible for people to gain control over everything except technology." 

The human moment applies to all human exchange, not just at work. We need it in our families, our churches, our civic organizations, our schools, our communities. Everywhere. 

"For a list of all the ways technology has failed to improve the quality of life," Alice Kahn observed, "please press three." 

Think about it.


Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, PA 
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