Addiction to technology is identified as a dark trend of the coming years. Everywhere there are articles and posts and YouTube videos about how we need to spend less time on our devices and how our children need to spend less time on their devices….reading articles, posts and YouTube videos. On one telegram thread I follow, two months have been devoted to us sharing articles about how we should not be sharing articles, which is why I am in a position to share these articles, by the way.
I am pretty certain I am addicted to WhatsApp, or at least to a couple of conversations on WhatsApp – every time I hear the ping, I can actually feel the dopamine being delivered to my hungry brain. More broadly, AI has been accepted at a whiplash speed right into the heart of our homes, and we are not always as perturbed as perhaps we ought to be by what is effectively a Stasi dream sitting in our kitchens. Reports of Alexa laughing spontaneously and ignoring commands are met more with fascination than horror.
What to do?
Honestly, I have no idea. It seems to me that we are swimming in a new sea and we are going to have to orient ourselves through trial and error as humanity has always done and will always do. We look at the evidence, take a course of action, see what goes well and what doesn’t, correct (or not) and so on. Its how we evolve – it is slow, but we are still here. I am confident that the emerging understandings about tech’s dark side, and the dedication of some very active and influential groups (like The Centre for Humane Technology and Joytech) to using tech to enhance rather than dominate will keep our collective navigation on a straighter course.
Time and Choice
However, I am concerned about the gap created by the slow speed of our human adaptation and the lightning speed of technology because what falls through that gap is choice. In observing my WhatsApp addiction and my gradually eroding attention span, what has struck me most is that I am failing to exercise choice in the way that I used to. Technology’s speed, efficiency and dopamine hits are short-cutting my ponderous (by comparison) internal process of: information in….digesting information…registering my response….choosing whether I will respond with the first version, or whether I will consider further and dive deeper…..make the choice….response out.
What used to look something like this:
Now looks more like this.
Our responses to anything are chosen, our reactions are automatic and mechanical and it is this part that I am most interested in. How do we operate in the virtual world – which is effectively our ‘real’ world now – and be in a state of responsiveness rather than reaction? How do we continue to exercise choice when all the technology we use is designed to push us down a particular path, is designed to make choices for us?
Our Last Freedom
I don’t believe that the answer is to switch off – although I have switched off my WhatsApp notifications (just now, while I’m writing this, lets see how long that lasts!). I think maybe our only leverage is to take back our version of time instead of being dictated to by technology’s version of time. If I feel I have time, then I can go back to the first process. Its when I feel like there is no time that I am frantically trying to keep up with my latest sense of smiley face/frowny face/angry face reaction. In fact, when I feel that I have time, I realise that more often than not my chosen response is absolutely nothing at all – the bliss of that is indescribable….clean, open, empty space in my mind and body!
As well as the quote above, Viktor Frankl also said that no one can take away man’s last freedom: the freedom to choose his or her own attitude given any set of circumstances. I wonder if technology may be something that really can take away that last freedom unless we take back our own rhythms, our own understanding of time? Because it is in the speeding up that we lose our ability to choose. Choosing may well be our last freedom and if we are not to lose it, we must take back what it requires: breath, time and a little interior quiet.
I am starting with switching off notifications – not for the whole day, but for the first two hours of my working/waking day. In that time, I can consider what came in the day before, the night before, the week before and I can breathe a little bit more easily. I also realise that the amount of time I spend reading articles, posts and watching YouTube decreases with the time available to do it – an obvious point but one worth making.
My fight for the last freedom is about time.