Amazingly useful and powerful technologies are available to make our everyday lives easier. However, their powers don’t naturally align themselves with our interests, and we read every day about various abuses and unexpected consequences: cars make us fat and lazy, television makes us stupid, and social media distracts us and depresses us. The miracles and disasters that our inventions cause suggest that one of the key challenges of this digital age will be to achieve a more healthy and balanced relationship with our technology. Despite not having enough information or experience to propose solutions to large-scale problems like climate change or disinformation, I can share a paradigm that helps me manage my personal relationship with technology.
Overall, technology has a pragmatic purpose. Every machine was made to carry out some goal, whether it be facilitating some difficult task or making us more comfortable and content. So it seems to me that one should take advantage of a technology when one would benefit from its services and leave it alone otherwise. But this gets more complicated after a technology incorporates itself into a culture. Then it begins to assume other roles of a cultural or symbolic nature. Sometimes technology is even used not as a means to an end, but rather as an end in and of itself.
Here’s a personal example. Upon turning 16, I got my driver’s license and faced the decision of whether I should buy a car (that is, try to convince my parents to buy me a car) or not. The costs of driving are high: aside from the monetary cost, I would have to maintain the car and buy gasoline, as well as risk an expensive accident with every drive. On the other hand, I wouldn’t take advantage of the benefits very much, because I can easily get to wherever I need to go on my bike, with the added benefit of getting exercise. That’s why I don’t have a car. It wasn’t a difficult decision. Clearly it wouldn’t have been worth it.
My grandparents often ask me when I plan on buying a car (and the answer is always “notime soon”). For them, it doesn’t matter that my bicycle is good enough to get me where I want to go. The car has become an American symbol of coming-of-age, not just a tool for traveling. It’s something that all teenagers should have. Although the symbolic value of a car is an important aspect of my culture, for me it wouldn’t be worth spending thousands of dollars to enjoy nothing more than a feeling of maturity.
It’s not like I’m a caveman or against technology in general (as some of my peers have assumed, knowing that I don’t have a car). I like watching TV, I use a computer, and in fact I maintain my own blog on which this entry appears. But the management of my relationship with technology doesn’t only consist of choosing which ones I should use and which ones I should forego. Even the devices whose benefits outweigh their costs have disadvantages. On my computer, I’m distracted by my email, a messenger app, and the vast ocean of entertaining content called the internet, and the bright screen can hurt my eyes and keep me up at night. So I only use the messenger to communicate with my parents so that my friends don’t distract me, I have time-limits on the websites that distract me most, I usually keep the screen in black-and-white and on very low brightness, and I always turn the device off completely before 10 at night. Many disadvantages can be eliminated or minimized through self-restriction.
The consequence of not imposing such limits and losing view of the purpose of a technology is gradual slippage into abuses or harmful habits. Many of my classmates say that their parents bought phones for them so that they could get in touch during the school day, but rarely does one see the devices used to this end. Instead, they are used to surf social media and the internet or play videogames, even during class. Without restrictions on my computer, I would probably ease into similar behaviors (I’ve certainly done so in the past before I had restrictions). It’s not that I never enjoy a videogame or an aimless wander through the labyrinth of the internet, but because of my limits I don’t do this in excess.
I also recognize that sticking to strict rules can be too inflexible, and that it’s sometimes worth changing them. For example, in the past I limited my correspondences with friends to email because the asynchronicity of email communication distracts me less than chatting using a messenger. However, when I created a philosophy club, I realized that very few of my peers check their email regularly, so I would have to use a messenger to get in touch with club members. I broke my own rule, and now I use a group chat for the club. But I didn’t break it completely, since I still don’t allow myself to chat with my friends unless it pertains to the club, and I tweaked the settings to make sure that the chat messages don’t interrupt me with notifications.
I will probably have to form various other compromises in the future. Fewer and fewer people use email, and in college I might have to decide whether or not to continue to forbid myself from chatting with friends at the cost of inconveniencing them by making them only send me emails. And when I enter the job market, it might be advantageous to be more active on social media (at least on sites like LinkedIn) so that my potential employers find something when they look me up on the internet.
I would synthesize my paradigm with these three pieces of advice:
Pragmatically weigh the costs and benefits of each new technology before deciding whether or not to use it
Recognize the disadvantages and temptations of each technology that you use and look for ways to limit them in advance
Carefully reevaluate self-imposed rules every once in a while, or when they seem too restrictive (or too loose)
There’s one more idea that I want to address, but it’s more of a speculation, and I can’t propose a solution if it’s a real problem. In the book Sapiens, the author Yuval Noah Harari describes how the agricultural revolution, despite being the source of an amazing technology, caused one of the worst declines in human quality of life. Over the course of generations, humans began to depend more and more on cereal plants because whenever they came up with a way to cultivate them more efficiently, believing that their innovation would create a surplus, the population just grew until the surplus disappeared. They were unable to return to the old hunter-gatherer lifestyle since they already had so many children that only a huge harvest of cereals could feed them. The life of the new farmer was horrible: they carried out back-breaking physical tasks on a daily basis and suffered from sicknesses that resulted from their less varied diet, not to mention the increased incidence of contagious diseases that prospered in concentrated populations. It was a trap that, despite resulting in a better quality of life for us thousands of years later, caused much suffering in the short term.
I wonder if something similar is happening with our technology nowadays. We create machines and strategies so that we can do our jobs more effectively thinking that it will leave us more leisure time, but we just raise the bar and we can’t return to the old life that is less productive and less connected. Of course, we won’t have to perform strenuous physical tasks, nor will we suffer from more pathogenic diseases, but examples of emotional and health problems resulting from our new technologies are already coming out in the news. I don’t know if this is happening, and I wouldn’t know how to combat it if it is. For now, the only thing that I can do is try to take advantage of technology and minimize its externalities in my own life.