(Hu)Man vs Machine: Ramblings on Tech
Ever since the dawn of modern tech we have been obsessed with stories of (hu)man vs machine. It has occupied the minds of writers (ie. Phillip K Dick) and filmmakers (ie. James Cameron) and has become a staple of modern science fiction. But what are the chances that such a dramatic event occurs? Some of today’s greatest minds, like Elon Musk, think it’s practically around the corner; while others, like Mark Zuckerburg, aren’t all that concerned. Call me a pessimist but I believe the battle has already begun…
From the creation of the first computer in the 1940s we have been hooked on technological growth and the impact it can have on our lives. This is a natural by-product of human evolution. After all it’s our use of tools that have made humanity what it is today, manipulating matter in a way that has pushed us beyond what every other species has been able to accomplish and into the supernatural. Innumerable benefits have stemmed from our advancements in technology: access to clean water, abundant food, shelter from the harsh environment, and the ability to speak with our loved ones over great distances. But with the creation of smartphones, social media, and AI have we gone too far? Though there are many consequences of this tech boom, I will focus on the three that have had the most impact in my own life: Tech Addiction, Social Isolation, and Continuous Partial Attention.
It’s our use of tools that has made humanity what it is today, manipulating matter in a way that has pushed us beyond what every other species has been able to accomplish and into the supernatural.
When was the last time you felt your phone vibrate in your pocket only to find it isn’t there? If you’re like me it wasn’t all that long ago. This phantom vibration syndrome or “ringxiety” has actually become pretty common. One study has shown that 9/10 undergrads have experienced this phenomenon. I’d argue that nothing shows how addictive tech has become than this. Our devices have become a part of us; a cybernetic manifestation of our bodies, of who we are.
It’s been argued by some that Big Tech (ie. Facebook, Google, etc) has programmed their tech in a way that keeps users scrolling, swiping, and clicking as long as possible. Look to Snapchat and their ‘streaks’ for an example of how this works. The ‘streaks’ feature rewards users for consistently snapping their friends on a daily basis; keeping them tied to their phones.
Moreover each ‘like’, share, or comment on a Facebook/Twitter/Instagram post releases a tiny bit of dopamine into your system, the same chemical your brain releases during recreational drug use or alcohol consumption. This drives us to look at our feeds continuously for that hit, that validation of who we present ourselves to be. The difference is, we have limited access to other addictive substances, but the use of social media is unfettered and often starts at a very young age leading to a life of tech addiction.
So what can you do to combat this? Limit your social media usage to an hour or half-hour a day, perhaps even a specified day of the week (Social Media Sunday anyone?). For something even more impactful try leaving your device at home when you don’t need it.
Take a look at your Facebook friends list, or your ‘followed’ on Twitter and ask yourself… how many of these people do I actually talk to on a regular basis? How many would I make time for if I did not have access to these platforms? If you’re like me that number is incredibly small, closer to a dozen than it is to the hundreds showing on your profiles. Now look at your feed. How much of the content conflicts with your worldview? If you’re like most people, not much. With access to more people and more information than any time in history we have become more isolated, both emotionally and intellectually, than ever before.
Though the goal of much of our tech was to bring people and ideas together, it has I’m many ways done the opposite. With the aforementioned tech addiction and the continuous partial attention caused by it, many people (especially those who have been raised with social media from early childhood) lack the skills necessary to create concrete and lasting relationships. The ability to self-edit, plan responses, and simply ignore others has become a given in communication nowadays. That carefully crafted text to the cute guy, that message you would have regretted had you sent it, ghosting someone who you have lost interest in, etc; none of this exists in real communication. Not to mention the vast amount of information that we are lacking when we choose to connect digitally (ie. body language). The ability to create lasting and meaningful relationships requires genuine conversation and genuine comprehension, and with the abundance of indirect communication in 2018 these skills are becoming less common than ever.
It is the spreading of ideas, the routing out of the bad and transformation of the good, that leads to the advancement of civilizations.
Another form of isolation that modern tech has created is intellectual. Before the advent of Facebook and Twitter we had to confront worldviews and ideas that differed from our own. As uncomfortable as this could sometimes be it played a pivotal role in generating new ways of thinking; allowing space for intellectual growth and debate. However, many platforms have implemented algorithms which, with the use of AI, directly prevent us from coming into contact with new and conflicting opinions. This kind of echo-chamber, now becoming popular in the real world as well, is of great disservice to all of us within our society. It is the spreading of ideas, the routing out of the bad and transformation of the good, that leads to the advancement of civilizations. Allowing ourselves to be secluded from those who share different ideologies than us leads to cultural stagnation and death.
So what can you do to combat this? Plan time every week to spend time with someone. Whether its a friend or family member genuine conversation will be much more rewarding than anything you find online. Also, choose to follow a page or person who disagrees with your world view, doing so will allow you to understand better the thinking of others and perhaps change your own.
Lately I have noticed an unsettling trend in my own behavior. I’ve always been a bit of a gamer and have loved losing myself in an RPG like Skyrim or The Witcher. I would play for hours, crafting a narrative for my character and tackling whatever quest the game had to throw at me. I still play sometimes, but now I can’t seem to focus on the adventure in front of me. I always end up with a podcast or YouTube video playing on the phone next to me. What used to demand my attention for hours can no longer keep it for more than a few minutes. Why is that?
Well it turns out that our brains are complex machines. One thing they do very well is predict when and how often we need to do something. They do this by tracking our habits. Unfortunately our use of social media, Netflix binging, and swiping right has played havoc on our brains. What used to rarely occupy our thoughts has hijacked them.
As an example lets imagine you create a Twitter account. At first you post something every couple of days, and maybe you check your feed once a day. As time goes on you become a more active user and begin checking it multiple times a day. Eventually you find yourself checking it constantly when ever you have a brief moment to spare. As your consumption increases your brain begins to learn and predict that you need to check your Twitter feed every 15 minutes and it leads you to doing so without even noticing. This often comes at the cost of something that actually demands our time and attention (such as a date or a meeting).
This constant barrage of information from multiple outlets leads to what is called partial attention deficit disorder or Continuous Partial Attention; the process of paying superficial attention to a large number of sources of incoming information. This is clearly hampering our personal and professional relationships as we lack the ability to focus meaningfully on any one person or event.
So what can you do to combat this? Its not easy but one way to conquer this impulse is to gradually increase the time between using the attention grabbing app or device. Do you find yourself checking Facebook every 20 minutes? Start with small changes like checking it every 30 or 45 minutes. Eventually your brain will notice the change and your reliance on your device will become minimal.
The overwhelming message of this post is to get out and live life. Be happy and build lasting relationships with the people you love. This isn’t revolutionary, and that’s the point. We’ve become so obsessed with material and technological advancement and change that we have forgotten what it is to just ‘be’. Buried under all of our tech is a way of life that we are losing. But with mindfulness and time we can remember what it was like to exist fully in the moment as relational creatures and find happiness in the world around us.
Oh and thank you for reading this post (*it’s my first*). Be sure to check back on my page for future ramblings.