At the local Starbucks in my city, I see iPhones, Tablets, Macbooks and other fancy devices interacting with each other, exchanging streams of information — All this happening just in between two coffee tables. This is not a scene from the future but from our daily lives where we see humans interacting through their devices, rather than themselves. Reminds me about the ‘Removed’ campaign by American photographer who edited out devices from images and the result was bewildering with people “hooked” onto their devices, ignoring their beautiful surroundings and numerous opportunities for human connection.
Our daily Instagram feeds buzz with the ‘oh-so-glamorous’ ways of looking our best and brands unconsciously pushing us to shop for things we really don’t need or plan for the next holiday at an “exotic” location. On the other hand, I see young people who grew up with technology, empowering themselves by using it and excelling in their own ways.
If there is one category that is growing (financially) in the age of over-sharing, it is that of the digital tech companies. Given that social media has made it possible for us to update everything about our lives through our devices, advertisers and tech companies have accumulated considerable intelligence from all the data we provide them.
What this means is not only that they have treasure troves of data, gleaned from digital technologies, but it also means the limitless power to use that data. The ads we see are curated according to our interests, the news we see pops up based on our personalised interests and hence, gives a goldmine of information about our behaviours to online players. So, while they get smarter and more powerful, what’s happening to us?
Individually, we depend more on technology today than we ever did before. It has made us more capable, smarter and more productive. However, on the human values side, we are stepping back a little. For instance: We call people on their mobiles but don’t try hard enough or wait for them to take that call and make a conversation. Sometimes, we think a “Whatsapp” message will do the job. Our public identities today are entwined with our digital profiles where people recognise us more through our social media presence than our real (given) ones.
According to Kelly McGonigal, a psychologist who studies the science of self-control at Stanford School of Medicine, “People have a pathological relationship with their devices.” This shows how we are finding it harder and harder to unplug and re-connect with ourselves.
Let’s look at what the numbers say. A survey of 600 computer-using professionals revealed that 73% of them were worried if they weren’t constantly connected to their workplaces digitally. Many employees confessed to feeling “addicted” – spending an average of 23 minutes each day responding to work emails when at home, and feeling compelled to stay in touch and working while on their commute, on weekends and even on holidays.
Perhaps, the digitisation of work also indicates how organisations need to step back and understand how much work is productive and whether their employees can give their best if they’re constantly connected and stressed about work. Maybe, including tasks which are non-technical and therapeutic, such as one-on-one conversations or fun games which boost socialising or just brainstorming sessions without laptops, could be a great way to boost employee morale and relieve them from “technostress.”
That brings me to another perspective I’ve been dwelling on – whether we’re using less of our brains and relying too much on these smart devices to do our cognitive thinking? The Human Brain is the most amazing tool. But, if we rely on auto-correct for spellings, GPS for directions and allow Alexa to do our thinking and suggest what to do when we are bored, then we may have real problems with life skills in the days ahead. Here’s an example from a New York Times article which explains how the ability of young Japanese to read and write kanji has seen a drastic decline due to over-dependence on technology.
Similarly, consider these two studies on parent-child play with digital and non-digital features. One study by Anna Rosa of Northern Arizona University revealed that 10- to 16-month-olds played with parents using either e-toys or traditional toys like wooden animal puzzle. In the e-toy category, parents responded less to the child and used fewer words while communicating than in the traditional toy category. Meanwhile, Jennifer Zosh of Penn State University, and colleagues, comparing digital and traditional toy sorters, also witnessed a similar trend. For the participating kids and parents, the digital context thwarted social interactions. Again, children heard fewer words than in the analog category.
As Gerd Leonard, author of Technology Vs. Humanity, says “I believe we need to step back from an expert debate about what’s possible and how to achieve it, and start with a more fundamental exploration of purpose and meaning, and define what role we want these transformative technologies to play in serving humanity: just because we can, it doesn’t mean we should.”
Given that we are living in some of the greatest times in human history, right now is a good time to remember that the future does not just happen to us – it is created by us, every day, and we will be held responsible for the decisions we make at this very moment.
I’m not an anti-technology guy but I’m more pro-people, pro-conversations and pro-communities. In the “Shut-In Economy,” maybe, it is time for us to open up.
Bottom line? To connect when necessary and disconnect when it’s not!