Dr. Frankenstein might have warned us about embracing tech too quickly.
Computer scientist, Georgetown professor, and author Cal Newport recently wrote a New York Times op-ed that has received a lot of attention: “Steve Jobs Never Wanted Us to Use Our iPhones Like This.” As the title implies, Newport’s argument is that, instead of using our phones as tools to accomplish tasks, they have become our constant companions and are contributing to some negative outcomes. Similarly, long-time tech investor and evangelist, Roger McNamee, wrote an article in Time Magazine, “I Mentored Mark Zuckerberg. I Loved Facebook. But I Can’t Keep Silent About What Is Happening,” in which he laments what Facebook has become. If we step back and reflect for a moment, we can see that some cautionary tales about these new technologies are already familiar to us.
Perhaps the comparison is too grim to say that Steve Jobs’ and Mark Zuckerberg’s tech innovations are like Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, but there are at least some disturbing similarities. What was meant to be a testament to the power of science, technology, and human ingenuity to improve our world instead are examples of the law of unintended consequences. This is also playing out, albeit more subtly, like the a plot from every Michael Crichton book (e.g., Jurassic Park, Westworld). While there are certainly many benefits of our technologies, here are just a few examples of those unintended consequences:
- Distracted Driving – In 2016 alone, 3450 people were killed in auto accidents due to distracted driving, with cell phone use being one of the leading causes.
- The Russians Hacked Our Democracy – It’s difficult to tell the extent of the damage, but our intelligence agencies have ample evidence that the Russians used troll farms and social media to sow discord and influence our presidential election in 2016.
- Governments Use Facebook as a Weapon – In countries such as the Philippines, governments can “weaponize” Facebook to further their political ends and target those who they consider threats. Through the use of propaganda and fake news, they can foment segments of the population to turn against those viewed as “enemies of the state.”
- The Proliferation of Fake News – In its infancy, many technologists predicted that the Internet would lead to more informed and educated society. However, the accessibility of the Internet and social media, the ease posting and disseminating misinformation, and our tendency to engage and pass along more extreme content form a combustible combination. Fake news proliferates, making it difficult for us to discern fact from fiction.
- The Increased Polarization in Our Society – Many pundits predicted that technologies such as the Internet would lead to a more democratic society. Yet, there is strong evidence that America is becoming increasingly polarized. Filter bubbles, made possible by the Internet and social media and facilitated by smartphones, might be a contributing factor.
- High Cell Phone Users Are More Sedentary – Smartphones have become so compelling that we have a hard time putting them down. People who are on the smartphones a lot tend to be less physically fit, with the possibility that they are forgoing physical activities to instead spend time on the phone.
- Cyberbullying Can Increase the Risk of Self-Harm and Suicide – Sadly, there have been a number of high-profile teen suicides directly linked to cyberbullying. A large study on the effects of cyberbullying found that it increased the risk of self-harm and suicide by 2.3 times.
- Social Media Use Might Contribute to Feelings of Loneliness and Depression – While there is still room for much more research on this topic, a number of studies have found high screen use is correlated with negative mental health outcomes. It’s difficult to prove how much high social media use causes mental health issues versus the other way around. Still, at least one experimental design study found that when college students reduced their social media use, they felt less lonely and depressed.
A Healthier Connection to Our Phones?
We need to have a healthier connection to our technologies, especially to our phones since they go everywhere we do. One such approach is a Mindful Engagement with Technology (MET). With MET, we judiciously and purposefully use our technologies, especially our phones, for specific goals. They are a tool to be used for accomplishing tasks. We have a purpose in mind, use our phone for that purpose, then we put the phone away. The premise is that, through a Mindful Engagement with Technology, we can be happier and more productive. In essence, we can get our needs met through MET.
Most of us tend to use our phones habitually and reflexively as we mindlessly check them. In effect, they often function like portable parasitesthat are quietly leeching away our attention, productivity, and happiness. For the most part, we don’t even notice. But that’s how parasites work. In my next blog, I’ll go over some of the ways we can use the Mindful Engagement with Technology to meet our needs more effectively. Through a wiser use of our technologies, we gain more from our screens without so many of those downsides.