I was in a Wal-Mart the day before Christmas Eve, buying a gift card to give as a Christmas gift. I realized, as I looked at the display, that “gifts” have come a long way just in my adult lifetime, thanks to technology. There were gift cards available in this one central location for at least half a dozen major stores and restaurant chains.

Thanks to modern technology, you can give the gift of downloadable music, grant a shopping spree at a store you’ve never visited, and – if you order online at Wal-Mart’s website – you can even send a store gift card to someone without ever leaving your house, much less visiting theirs. It’s possible to do all your Christmas shopping remotely, if you plan ahead, and you can even do some at the very last minute. The FTD website was offering delivery on Christmas Eve only the day before, and they offer a variety of gift baskets, candies, cookies and other treasures.

All of this went through my mind as I stood next to another man, whom I assumed was thinking something similar as we stood by the endless supply of anxiety-free, effortless, commercially packaged virtual gifts arrayed before us. I had to excuse myself as I reached in front of him for something. He looked at me and held up a card.

“Do you see a card in this?” he asked.

I looked at the cardboard sleeve. There did indeed seem to be nothing inside of it. “Might have been stolen out of there,” I said. “Probably best to pick another one.” Gift cards are activated at the register for that reason, to prevent theft. I imagined that the shoplifter, if there was one, would be fairly disappointed.

The thought of technology robbing us of our humanity stuck with me as I shopped the store aisles. I just couldn’t get the idea out of my head. I spend a lot of time in front of a computer, writing for a living. My recreation, when it doesn’t involve my family, almost always involves computers or other technology – computer games on my Blackberry or my laptop, perhaps a console game, maybe a DVD or, more often, a streamed movie from my Netflix account.

I wonder sometimes how much that constant connection to technology divorces me from the people around me. I’ve watched people walk past me in public places, and been amazed at how “connected” they are in their disconnection from each other. Every second person is talking on a wireless phone, or madly texting away with both thumbs as they focus on the device before them. Every third person is listening to an iPod or similar music device, the music a tiny shadow of what’s playing through the earbuds as it leaks to me and the outside world. I’ve watched other writers in coffee shops, sitting hunched over their laptops, sometimes lost in their own heads, sometimes seemingly starved for human contact and engaging strangers in conversation. What all these technologically advanced citizens of the modern age have in common is that they’re here, but they’re not. They’re skating across the surface of a world in which they take only the most superficial part. They’re present, but they’re not listening – not to you. They’re talking, but they’re not talking to anyone you can see. They’ve become spectators, of a sort. They’re living their lives remotely, connected to someone or something a world away while their bodies go through the motions of living in the here and now.

During a performance of the “Blue Man Group” my wife and I watched in Toronto, the performance-artist-musicians made a telling point about the modern age: In large numbers, we go to Internet cafes, where we sit in silence and ignore the people in the room with us – for the purpose of talking to other people who are not in the room with us.

As I fought my way through the crowds of last-minute shoppers on the day before Christmas Eve, I wondered how many of them were already somewhere else. Technology is a wonderful thing that connects us all and makes the world smaller than ever … but in some ways, it’s as if we’re astral travelers in a technologically facilitated ether, ghosts in a shell of our making who never truly talk to or interact with other human beings around us.

The same stranger ended up behind me in the Wal-Mart checkout line. “I found it,” he said, holding up the cardboard sleeve. “I looked inside. It’s in there.”

“Must be pretty flimsy,” I said.

“Yeah,” he nodded. “Everything’s getting cheaper.”

I nodded. My mind was already a world away, and my fingers were brushing the keys of my Blackberry, wondering if I’d gotten any messages.

“There’s one thing that does hold its value,” the stranger said to me. He held out an evangelist’s tract. “Would you mind if I gave you this?”

Broken from my reverie, I looked down at the little booklet. “No…” I said. “No, not at all.” I reached out to take the tract. “Do I look that bad off?” I asked.

“No,” he laughed, shaking his head. “Just the opposite.” Then he tried to give the cashier a tract, too.

I chuckled to myself. I left the store feeling just a little more connected to the people within 20 feet of me. I felt just a little more … human. That stranger and I had shared a perfectly mundane conversation. But the point was, we’d talked to each other. We’d dealt with the here and now, instead of a virtual world connecting us to people miles and even continents away. That stranger, that random evangelist, had helped me to see just a little bit of my own humanity – a humanity that I, like so many others, willingly suppress out of devotion to modern technology and its accoutrements.

I hope, in relating this, I’ve helped to do the same for you. Merry Christmas.

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