Not Just Your Monthly Subscription Fee: The Price We Pay for Tech

The new (and alliteratively named) coach of the Arizona Cardinals, Kliff Kingsbury, is introducing a team policy in which players’ meetings will be punctuated with regular twenty-to-30-minute cell phone breaks. He believes that this is the best way to hold players’ attention: “You start to see kind of hands twitching and legs shaking, and you know they need to get that social media fix, so we’ll let them hop over there and then get back in the meeting and refocus.”

These are grown men who have spent thousands of tedious hours practicing a game until they’ve mastered it, and yet the four-by-two-inch screens in their pockets exert such a draw that they cannot sit still through more than a half hour of meetings.

The Cardinals are symptomatic of a culture that does not understand or appreciate the power of its own technology. Americans have a misplaced trust in many technologies, viewing them as neutral tools that are only “bad” if we use them wrongly. This blind faith reaches beyond “smart” technology, defined as the networked universe of phones, tablets, and computers that permeate modern life; just look at the people who passionately argue that the only significant cause of mass shootings is the evil intentions of the perpetrators, as if the fact that they held AR-15s or similar weapons was some irrelevant detail. But our belief that smart technology can be used responsibly is even more widespread than that, though it runs in the face of observable fact.

My editors suggested that I write an article this week on the connections between the far right and social media, in light of the tragedy in Christchurch. But in what may be a mortal sin for an opinion writer, I have to confess that I don’t have much to say. The attack itself leaves me speechless; smarter people whose job it is to research these topics will present sophisticated theories of online radicalization, of Islamophobia, of the transnational white supremacist community. I can’t. People who have been consistent critics of “big tech” might call for greater censorship or the breakup of Facebook; I’m unable to feel anything but fatalism about those kinds of supposedly easy fixes.

All I’ve been able to come up with is the suspicion that maybe these technologies that define our era, these massive networks of information and communication, are simply not worth it. The benefits are obvious: instantaneous connections with people around the world, organic and often wonderful online communities, access to more information and points of view than ever before. But the downsides follow directly from these: the ability to say whatever you want with relative anonymity, groups that create self-reinforcing webs of hatred and lies, and the replacement of authentic relationship with shallow online associations.

Everybody knows this, and everybody also thinks that their use of social media and smart technology is healthy, or at least tolerable. I did, but I can’t help noticing that when a screen is available, I find it difficult to focus on anything else for long periods of time. I am certain that my experience is not unique. We’re all in the same boat as the Cardinals, even if we don’t quite realize it. And the habit is being formed at earlier and earlier ages: a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that the average child watched three hours of television a day — and this is only for children between the ages of zero and two. Many scientists have counseled caution to parents, saying that screen time isn’t necessarily bad, but that flies in the face of common sense. As Louis C.K. — who isn’t really in a position to offer insight on anything, but here we are — once observed, the frenzied reaction most children have when parents switch the TV off is not the sign of healthy behavior.

Sure, these are children watching TV, not adults on smartphones, and Facebook is quite different than “The Muppets.” And there is of course nothing wrong with watching a great TV show or movie, but the sheer volume and scale of screen consumption makes any objection on that front a massive exercise in missing the point. Try adding up how much time you spend on your phone, the internet, and Netflix any given week.

What we consume as children, increasingly on tablets and smartphones, shapes our behavior as we get older. Writer Nicholas Carr, in his book The Shallows, argues that frequent exposure to the internet rewires our synapses to desire constant changes in images and content, making us better decision makers but far worse at language, memory, and concentration. It also makes us worse at relationships by replacing connection with networking: Americans on average report having two close friends, down from three 25 years ago, and 40 percent say they feel lonely “most of the time.” It even affects romantic life, as millenials date significantly less than their parents’ generation, Tinder and Bumble notwithstanding.  But we somehow believe that we would be basically the same people whether we had a smartphone or not.

The people who actually make these products don’t share that naivete: Steve Jobs bluntly stated in a 2010 interview that his kids had never used an iPad, and the Waldorf School system, which sets incredibly strict limits on television, phone, and computer time, is full of the children of tech workers. They know from experience that technology using a combination of simple design, user pathways with no defined endpoints (i.e. YouTube autoplay), and seemingly innocuous things like the sounds and colors and phones produce, is designed to “maximize engagement.” In other words, to be addictive.

We may tell ourselves technologies are neutral tools because we have created them, but to paraphrase Wendell Berry, technologies have their own logics. They will shape people, even though people have created them. An AR-15 lends itself to violent, militaristic actions. In the same way, on a scale several orders of magnitude larger, our constant exposure to this new technology of networked screens will shape us, often in ways we do not control.

I don’t really know what to do about this. Chucking my phone and computer seems drastic, and certainly isn’t an option. I would miss the new season of Game of Thrones, anyway. But — and maybe this is the only useful takeaway from this article — I’ve seriously started to question whether my Snapchat story and Instagram feed are really worth it after all.

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