Technology: When it harms more than it helps

Think we’ve come a long way since our early ancestors who lived in caves, roamed the wild, hunted for animals?

Do you want the good news or the bad news?

The good news is we have evolved. The bad news is, we haven’t changed much.

How have we evolved? We’re better clothed, for one, from running half naked to being covered in animal skin to donning fashionable clothes (especially in London - everyday’s a fashion parade in the streets!). We’re better tooled. From sticks and stones to mortar pestles to sleek, chic coffee machines (everyone can be a barista from the comfort of their home or office!).

How have we not changed much? We rely on invention to better our lives and in the process, isolate ourselves one from another. We keep to ourselves as much today as men and women in times past.

Pic credit: The New York Times

Pic credit: The New York Times

What exactly do I mean by invention, isolation and seclusion?

Have you ever wondered what happened before the invention of newspaper? How was news disseminated?

You nailed it - word of mouth. Word gets around in the local town, in public squares and market places. To spread a message to a distant town, it’d require a runner or messenger to travel by foot for days, weeks, months even. Or use messenger pigeons (also known as homing pigeons because they only work in one direction - they always fly home. To send a message, you first send the pigeon (perhaps by train) to the other person. When you need to send an urgent message to that person, you attach the message to the pigeon and let it go - it’d fly straight to that person). When word gets to the distant town via a runner or pigeon, it’d further spread by the local word-of-mouth.

Newspapers developed in the 17th century as information sheets for businessmen. By the early 19th century, many cities in Europe, as well as North and South America, published newspapers.

With the invention of newspaper in the 17th century, human interactivity has dropped significantly. While waiting for the bus or train, people would read their newspapers. No one was talking to each other while they wait. Everyone had their eyes glued onto something, keeping up with the times, but not keeping up with their neighbors.

Pic credit:  www.london.gov.uk

Pic credit: www.london.gov.uk

What about the current 21st century?

We haven’t changed very much either. We’ve simply replaced one invention with another. Newspapers to smartphones.

From Google search to the rescue while having a conversation with a group of friends and we disagree on the facts of a particular topic we’re deep in discussion or argument about, to general search for the best place to have lunch, plan a upcoming holiday, the fastest driving route to get from point A to point B, play the piano at age 50 or simply to learn more about a particular topic of interest - the internet is undoubtedly ubiquitous to our everyday living.

Technology has changed the way we interact with each other. Without it, we could be striking serendipitous conversations with our neighbors; and by neighbors I mean someone in close proximity with us at any given time in any given space. With it, we tend to look at our smartphones (read the news or Kindle, watch a cat video, listen to podcast or audio books, watch YouTube or Facebook videos). We’re constantly looking at our phone screen to fill our time as we wait.

A fine line threads between using something versus being addicted to something.

A 2017 experiment carried out by MIT professors in two business schools in Italy and France made students give up their smartphone for a day. Most of the students felt a certain degree of anxiety. They didn’t know what to do with the extra time, from eating breakfast to riding on public transportation.

There’s a distinction between harnessing the power of the internet for our use and not being addicted to the endless stream of entertainment the internet offers in the form of Instagram stories; Facebook live; YouTube videos; Netflix, Amazon on demand, HBO movie streaming; or using our smartphones as an excuse to avoid eye contact or conversation with the people around us while we wait in line for food, the bus, train or between appointments.

How can we stop using our smartphones as an escapism or excuse for not interacting with another human being in the flesh, and more importantly, family or friends whom we’re meant to be spending time with which we neglect or deem unimportant when we choose to interact with our phones instead?

Yet another fine line threads between needing to post on social media to update your followers or fan base for a lifestyle or project you’re working on versus being excessively hooked onto the endless dings of notifications that demands your constant attention as to the likes and comments you’re receiving for your posts.

I speak on this firsthand as I recall my cycling across America in 2014. The entire expedition had been funded by family and friends and I was posting updates on social media every two hours or so, at every gas station rest stop or roadside cafeteria meal stop. I was riding with a buddy, Derek, and sometimes accompanied by my camera crew Tom and Sam. In reviewing video footage of the entire journey as captured by my camera crew Tom and Sam, I noticed something I wasn’t particularly proud of - I was constantly on my phone, and when Derek, Tom or Sam talked to me, I would offer quick responses in between having my eyes and fingers glued on my phone. My phone was never far from my hands. It was almost like a fifth limb. Looking back at my addictive relationship with my phone, I was regrettably disrespectful of Derek, Tom and Sam by not giving them my full attention when speaking with them.     

Gratification comes through dopamine, and I wonder why interaction with a human being in the flesh isn’t as gratifying as the “ding” of notifications on our phone.

Could it be that in this age of convenience and fast, casual connections (as opposed to deep, meaningful relationships), where it’s easy to fill our time simply by scrolling our smartphones and looking at what our friends or strangers are up to - what they’re having for breakfast, lunch and dinner, where they’re vacationing, what interesting things they’ve discovered - we’re so used to commitment-free views that we’ve adopted this attitude in anything and everything we do? Commitment becomes an uncomfortable topic to broach and zone to be in, it’s hard to make long-term plans because who is to know what tomorrow will bring?

We are undoubtedly scratching on the surface of a deep problem plaguing our society and young minds today, as a 2017 study looked at the rise in depression and suicide among teens in recent years. Suicide rates, particularly among girls, rose 68% between 2010 and 2015. Though there is no definitive conclusion, and merely a speculative deduction, the authors of the study found a correlation between mental health issues and “new media screen activities”. About 48% of those who spend between four and five hours a day on their phones (which is a lot of time by any measure) had thought about suicide and made plans for it.

Silicon Valley insiders have told the BBC that tech firms, including Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitter, deliberately engineer their platforms to foster addictive behavior.

Aza Raskin, the inventor of the infinite-scroll feature that allows you to endlessly scroll down websites, said: "It's as if they're taking behavioral cocaine and just sprinkling it all over your interface. And that's the thing that keeps you coming back and back."

The more I’ve been researching on the topic of depression, the more I’ve come to notice a pattern: obsession leads to addiction and addiction leads to depression.

Obsession → addiction → depression.

But more devastatingly, technology contributes to “continual partial attention”, in that we aren’t fully focused, and without focus, we can’t grow in our mental capacity. In the long run, this could lead to lower IQ (gasp!).

We’ve covered a lot of topics here, from new tech to social media to addiction, depression and now lower IQ?

This beckons a deeper look, so we will, in the next post. Stay tuned.