Digital media and technology are ubiquitous today, which means we are presented with an inexhaustible series of messages and opportunities to be entertained and informed. The resulting state of information intensity is generally considered to be a major benefit of living in our age, and to some extent even necessary to modern life. This being the case, what are the ways that we actually use this technology? At a high level, there are three broad categories of intention behind our use of technology, and they are not all good for us.
A common use for media and technology is to distract ourselves from the present moment. In an uncertain world, the chance to be distracted from our worries and the pressures of life is often welcome. Media and technology can provide us with a temporary escape from reality, but like with addictive drugs, the pressing concerns of life don’t disappear — though when we are distracted with Twitter or Netflix they may fade into the unnoticed background for a while. Distraction (and remedy to boredom) is perhaps the worst use of technology because we pay for it with our most valuable asset —time– and we get little of value in the exchange. An example of this negative outcome from technology is Internet AddictionDisorder (IAD), recognized by the Chinese government as a major threat to its youth population. On a smaller scale, how many of us are guilty of spending time in essentially pointless browsing of the limitless possibilities of the Internet, or of compulsively checking Facebook and email? Is the compounded effect (and opportunity cost) of this pattern of behavior really in our best interest?
Substitution is another common use for technology, where the stimulus we get from devices becomes an all-too-easy substitute for real-world interactions. It is clear to see the potential downside of this trend: What happens when we begin to feel that we don’t have to physically engage in the world anymore because technology engages for us? Why build relationships when you have hundreds of ‘friends’ on Facebook? Why learn to cook when with much less effort you can watch professional chefs cook impressive and exotic food on TV? Why explore your own neighborhood when you can see the whole world from your computer? Why take the time to travel to visit your relatives when you can click a screen and instantly see them on a Skype session? The answers to these rhetorical questions are obvious – since nothing beats having real food to eat, real hugs from friends and family, and real wind in our faces as we explore the world around us. Digital is easy and instant. While real is better, it takes more effort.
The digital tools we use are only representations of the real world and are no substitute for it; though the promise of virtual access to everything from our devices can pull us in like a magnet. I often wonder: Will we be able to teach our children to consciously choose the real more often than the virtual?
The third and most potentially valuable use for technology is Extension. Digital technology can extend our mind’s reach and give us access to information and perspectives never before available. This is very useful when used to further our efforts to reach into the world and to do new things. What possibilities are open to us when Google puts the known facts of mankind at our fingertips? For ‘Doers’, technology can help us to do more and explore more and accomplish more. For those of us actively engaging with the world and building things, technology can amplify our results and sharpen our senses.
The down side is that by relying on the extending abilities of technology and media, we may end up inadvertently reducing our own native abilities and our own experience of life.
Perhaps it is a remnant of our hunter-gatherer past, but I crave the joy of occasionally being lost. Being lost is one of life’s most pleasant, exciting (and increasingly rare) experiences. Can you remember a time when you didn’t know where you were or how you were going to find your way back home? The beauty of getting lost is to explore, and to be found again. What do we lose when we all have a GPS in our pockets and always know within 3 meters where on the surface of the Earth we are standing? In terms of our the way our minds develop, how will a lifetime of GPS affect our children’s ability to navigate naturally– by sense and memory alone?
How To Get Even More Value From Your Technology
Life is uncertainty, and what we lose by constant connection to media and technology is probably not worth the bargain. A good compromise is to create spaces in your life where you leave the technology behind: Spend a whole day (or a week??) without your cell phone. Go camping with the kids in the mountains without a laptop. Turn off the electricity to your house for an evening, and sit with the family around the light of the fireplace — doing so will likely be one of the most memorable evenings of the year.
Technology is a great and potent force in our lives, and has grown to be indispensable in many ways. Even so, what we can gain by turning it off once in a while may be larger and more important than what we got from having it in the first place.
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