Balancing Beauty and the Technological World

Last week, I went stargazing.

I live in New York City, so I couldn’t see many stars, unfortunately. But as my eyes became accustomed to the shades of the night, a few dim specks of light emerged from the seemingly endless fog. As I breathed in the crisp late April evening, I felt present. I was there.

In today’s society of constant connection, I find that I often forget to take time out of my day to appreciate my surroundings. I’ve passed away numerous hours clicking through an endless loop of social media websites — Facebook, to Twitter, to Pinterest, to YouTube, back to Facebook. Subway rides are filled with podcasts, music, audiobooks. I rarely have to experience boredom, but I’ve also let precious moments slip by without notice.

In spite of my reflections on presentness, I really enjoy my career as a web developer. Coding is a creative activity that allows us to build tools greater than ourselves — and I’ve been interested in computers and technology for as long as I can remember. Even my elementary school assignments were typed in Microsoft Creative Writer. So how can I balance my love of programming with a feeling that the way that we consume technology is just not right?

The Problem with Instant Access

When I was in college, I dated a guy whose Blackberry was almost an extension of his arm. We would frequently eat meals together, as couples do, and he would often get distracted upon receiving an email. “Hold on,” he would say, “This email is time-sensitive.” In retrospect, I’ve realized that it was in fact the conversations that were truly time-sensitive. I’m 100% sure that all of the emails were still there once our face-to-face conversations were over.

The topic of our networked society and its effects is common among modern research — such as social psychologist Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together (2011). According to Turkle, interactions like the aforementioned are prevalent. Turkle, who works at MIT, says in an interview, “The idea that we should put each other on pause as though we were machines in order to attend to those who are not present has become commonplace. It needs to be examined. I don’t think that is how we want to treat each other.”

Furthermore, the ease at which we can interact on a surface level often reduces the urgency with which we seek out deeper interactions. Turkle states, “We Facebook-friend people who do not know their commitment to us and similarly, we are unsure of what commitment we have to them. They can, in fact, be more like ‘fans’ than friends. But their presence can sustain us and distract us and make it less likely for us to look beyond them to other social encounters. They can provide the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship, without the demands of intimacy.”

Many agree with the idea that social networks actually distance us from meaningful relationships. In fact, if you visit Google and type in “social media creates,” the first autocomplete hit is “social media creates isolation.”

Appearing Alright

A relatively recent story that really stuck with me is that of the tragic suicide of Madison Holleran, a 19-year-old track runner at UPenn. Madison took her life in January 2014, by jumping off of a nine-story parking garage. A recent article published in ESPN magazine illustrates that Madison’s social media pages “concealed her reality.” The article reads:

THE LIFE MADISON projected on her own Instagram feed was filled with shots that seemed to confirm everyone’s expectations: Of course she was loving her first year of college. Of course she enjoyed running. Her mom remembers looking at a photo on her feed and saying, “Madison, you look like you’re so happy at this party.”
“Mom,” Madison said. “It’s just a picture.”

As we maintain our Facebook and Instagram accounts, we generally only share the positive aspects of our lives, the parts we want to broadcast. This creates a problem when we start to contrast our lives — and all of the problems within them — and the seemingly-perfect “lives” that our friends display. We begin to feel alone in our mixed emotions; we forget that sadness, like joy, is universal.

The ESPN article compares this phenomenon to Instagram itself:

With Instagram, one thing has changed: the amount we consume of one another’s edited lives. Young women growing up on Instagram are spending a significant chunk of each day absorbing others’ filtered images while they walk through their own realities, unfiltered. In a recent survey conducted by the Girl Scouts, nearly 74 percent of girls agreed that other girls tried to make themselves look “cooler than they are” on social networking sites.

I’m not preaching against Instagram — I have fun documenting as much as the next person. But I think we should work a little harder to spread awareness that Instagram real is not real real. And we should remember that anything in excess is dangerous; social media is no exception.

Being Responsible Consumers

Like I said before, I love technology.

And I love my job, as a web development instructor at The Flatiron School. The opportunity to teach driven adults to empower themselves is so rewarding — the best way to renew someone’s excitement about life is to give them a superpower, and I feel like coding is that. It’s problem-solving, innovating. It’s fun.

Another company that we frequently work with is DoSomething.org. DoSomething.org describes itself as “one of the largest global orgs for young people and social change, our 3.6 million members tackle campaigns that impact every cause, from poverty to violence to the environment to literally everything else.” In my opinion, the organization uses the power of technology and social media in the perfect way — to extend its reach and inspire people to impact positive social change.

While discussing this topic with a friend the other day, he pointed out an interesting phenomenon. On the F train in Brooklyn, there’s a point at which the train comes above ground. If you look out the window, you can see the Statue of Liberty. And the kids do — while the adults always pull out their phones.

Just like anything, consuming technology (even for us engineers) is all about balance. So I’m issuing myself a challenge: to notice one new thing each day. Feel free to join me :) We can strive for a future full of innovation — but let’s try not to forget beauty.


Originally published at computerwalksintobar.com on May 13, 2015.

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