The Personal Cost of Computer Technologies
I came of age in a time before Google.
I remember the day I signed up for my first email address in my senior high school computer lab. Pickings were slim as I combed Yahoo for a pithy name. I settled on “benchfan” (my grade 12 boyfriend chose it; he was in a fledgling band called, you guessed it, Bench) thinking nothing would become of this strange computer mail. As it turned out, “benchfan” would serve me for nearly a decade, through several years of university and beyond.
The Growth of Computer Technologies
My first email experiences were astoundingly memorable. An early romance budded by way of after-date messages. I recall the thrill of sitting in front of our downstairs family computer, heart pounding, waiting for that assured good night message. Back then, getting an email was like Christmas morning.
How things have changed. Today, email is our great nemesis, the volume crushing. With 200+ messages a day, “Inbox Zero” — the mythological pursuit of processing every message every day — is as fleeting as the tinker fairies of my daughter’s imagination: cute, but unreal.
Our earliest computer technologies, once boxy stationary items, have shrunk to the size of a palm and can travel with us everywhere. Where, at one time, people demanded raises when an employer required round-the-clock access via a BlackBerry, now this kind of availability is an unwritten rule (and employees have to provide their own device!). Employers are to blame for their lack of boundaries, and we are for our complicity.
We are always on, never off. Constant access isn’t a blessing anymore.
Like most 21st-century humans, I am burning the candle at both ends. When I feel the world spinning too quickly and have a moment’s respite, I don’t look up, I look online.
My children are little. Every night I am awakened multiple times to feed a baby, rescue a sippy cup, or comfort a little one after an unsettling dream. When not writing, I spend my days bent low cleaning linoleum, shoveling sand and mopping messes. It’s beautiful and thankless work. When the last child is finally quiet in their bed, it is all I can do to fling myself on the comforter and type in the words: “Netflix.” But, as grace would have it, I am not a single mother. I have a partner, and our relationship requires nurturing, especially in these exhausting years with young charges. Of course, there are nights when we extend each other permission to check out and watch a show. But our relationship feels the gap, and if we are not careful, that gap widens into a canyon. Our consumption requires intention.
How do you view the Internet? As a tool? A looking glass? An escape route? We use the Web for many reasons but, increasingly, especially with the adoption of smartphones, our engagement looks more like compulsion than intention, and compulsion, by definition, “is an irresistible urge to behave in a certain way against one’s conscious wishes.”
“Technology is not just a tool, it’s an inducement,” says Albert Borgmann. “And it’s so strong that for the most part people find themselves unable to refuse it. To proclaim it to be a neutral tool flies in the face of how people behave.”
I tap the Facebook app because, well, that’s what I do. This indifference to an obviously compulsive behavior lets a day slip quickly by.
Defining Our Approach to Digital Technologies
How does the Internet serve you? Is it connecting you — truly — in ways that bless and enliven your life and the lives of others? Is it a tool that helps? Do you learn and act more because of it? Is it displacing burdens that you should not want to be rid of? Are your engagements online helping make you who you want to be? What can we learn from mining our past about relationship, human nature, efficiency and the imagination? Is more information making us dumber? People once had less to read, fewer things to play with (stick and box), which seems to have led to a wider imagination. Teens wrote epic novels (Frankenstein, anyone?) and engaged in deeper conversation. Is more and faster information making us smarter or is it working in the reverse?
In the 1980 film The Gods Must Be Crazy, we follow a small and happy tribe as they hunt, cook, gather, and eat. All the while, they play and laugh, chattering in a wide range of melodic “kloks.” In contrast, a few miles away, a labyrinth of highways stretch as far as the eye can see, smog hangs thick in the air as we watch a woman, dressed in a robe and curlers, jump in her car to drive 20 feet to deliver some letters to mailbox before reversing at record speed back to her driveway.
Which seems more civilized?
Our technologies, while aiming to make our lives easier, have, in effect, made them more complicated. And we carry our complications with us. But this has not been an overnight story. It has been a long progression, one with many creators, advertisers, and willing adopters. And it is a global story.
How we view our computer technologies directly impacts how we value and interact with them. If we desire to cultivate a more meaningful existence in our media-saturated world, we must define our approach. Since the late 1990s we have embraced email, cell phones and Google with wild abandon but our habits and disciplines have not caught up. Clarifying our use of the Internet will help us to know when to stop.
A Volume Vortex
I have already mentioned the little known fact that there are more pieces of online information than there are grains of sand on Earth. Sometime in 2012, God passed the baton to Google.
The Internet is many things. At its best, it is an unprecedented source of information and a communication enabler. At its worst, a narcissistic mind-number and a portal for predators. Above all, the Net is a volume vortex.
“There’s just too much of everything out there,” laments actor Suzanne Pringle from Montreal. “I feel as though I’m living in a landfill teeming with objects and ideas, and millions of people are scrambling to make piles of things to make their mark, and quickly, because in a moment, more ideas and objects will be dumped by the tons on our heads.”
Joshua Fields Millburn echoes Pringle’s sentiments. Half of the blogging duo The Minimalists, he recently disconnected his high-speed Internet at home. Millburn, an essayist by profession, realized his productivity was waning. He felt he could do more meaningful things than spend spare time online — he swapped his go-to online fillers for exercise, writing, and strengthening his existing relationships.
“This doesn’t mean I think the Internet is evil or bad or wrong (obviously it’s not) . . . The Internet is not evil, just like candy is not evil. But if your entire diet consists of candy, you get sick and fat fairly quickly. Thus, I don’t keep bags of candy at home, just like I don’t keep the Internet at home anymore either.” Instead, he posts, reads email and even schedules frivolous Googling while connected to Wi-Fi for an hour at his local coffee shop.
Having social media on your handheld is like living on a cotton candy mountain. With every juicy morsel of information available at our fingertips, abstaining is a near impossibility, even for the most disciplined among us. (Even though I am completely immersed in this research, it took me about three weeks, and a Herculean load of self-talk, to get me to delete my Facebook app, again.)
The information on the Internet, like a vortex, is a mass of whirling air: ever-changing, ephemeral, entirely ungraspable. In the time it took to read the last sentence, Facebook added 118,000 new updates and the Huffington Post added 18 new stories. We can’t keep up.
But Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains tells us that our focus on the medium’s content — the words, the apps, the websites — blind us to its deeper effects.
“We’re too busy being dazzled or disturbed by the programming to notice what’s going on inside our heads. It’s how we use it that matters, we tell ourselves. The implication, comforting in its hubris, is that we’re in control . . . What both enthusiast and skeptic miss is . . . that in the long run a medium’s content matters less than the medium itself influencing how we think and act . . . Media work their magic, or their mischief, on the nervous system itself.”
Computer Technologies’ Effects on Us
How often have you flipped open your laptop to look something up only to find yourself, 20 minutes later, on some random site — unable to remember why you opened your browser in the first place? That’s the vortex. So, while disconnecting our Internet at home may be step in the right direction, we must see the forest for the trees.
Our computer technologies have rewired us. Volume management is only a step in the right direction. We are not the same people anymore.
Experts say that multitasking is a fallacy. One cannot do more than one thing at a time; instead, our mind rapidly shifts from one thought or task to another. As I type these words, I have six books open on my desk and 19 tabs open on my MacBook (really, I just counted). My mind, as you might expect, is switching gears many times a minute. I’ve now closed the lid on my laptop and picked up one of those books: Smarter Than You Think, by Clive Thompson. As I settle in, somewhere along the fourth page, something shifts. I begin to feel the wheels moving in my head, drawing my thoughts forward, like a train’s gentle rocking, picking up pace.
Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park is a complex, challenging novel read by millions. A recent collaboration between Stanford neurobiologists and English postdoctorate student Natalie Phillips suggests that complex novels such as Mansfield Park can activate key brain areas. The group of researchers at the Stanford Center for Cognitive and Neurobiological Imaging took brain scans of several literary PhD students as they read a chapter from the book. First they were asked to read for fun, then more critically. Critical reading created a significant shift in brain activity patterns on MRI scans, increasing the activity of the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for executive function. Executive function is responsible for more than just attentive reading; this brain function helps moderate how you divide your attention, use your working memory, and generally direct your brain power. It plays a powerful role in decision-making.
Avid long-form readers, especially those who began these types of intellectually challenging habits early on, have more cognitive reserve. Now, consider this: the average person who conducts 90 percent of their reading online spends no more than two minutes on a webpage.
As I have engaged more and more online, I have shared Nicholas Carr’s uncomfortable sense that something has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, and reprogramming my memory.
I can remember the first time I wanted to Control Z something in real life. I was painting a canvas when, all of a sudden, I made an unfortunate brushstroke. “Undo!” my mind raced, “Control Z! Back up, back up!” But, instead, I had to embrace the mark and carry on.
Behavioral psychologist Ellen Langer, got the idea to study mindfulness and mistakes in a similar moment. She says, in interview with the Harvard Business Review, “[I was painting and] I looked up and saw that I was using ocher when I meant to use magenta, so I started trying to fix it. But then I realized I’d made the decision to use magenta only seconds before. People do this all the time. You start with uncertainty, you make a decision, and if you make a mistake, it’s a calamity. But the path you were following was just a decision. You can change it any time, and maybe an alternative will turn out better. When you’re mindful, mistakes become best friends.”
It’s not surprising to think we should be able to Control Z our lives when we spend the lion’s share of our lives in a space where such things are possible. Not even Marshall McLuhan, the father of communication theory, could have foreseen “the feast that the Internet has laid before us: one course after another, each juicier than the last, with hardly a moment to catch our breath in between bites,” as Carr vividly describes.
Ninety percent of adults and teenagers own smartphones, and the number is rising steeply every day. Thanks to our digital technologies, our attention spans have decreased from a span of 12 minutes to 5 in just a decade. If a website doesn’t grab us in 30 seconds or less, we click away.
The new media has restructured our experience of the old media, says Read Schuchardt. It’s under the conditions of multitasking, where you get to be two people, two places at the same time, that gives us the thrill that all media and all portable media allow us to do whatever we want, whenever we want. The problem is, when you have been given the pleasure of multitasking, even the divine pleasure of reading — no matter how great the content — becomes mono-tasking, a kind of punishment.
We’re remapping our minds, byte by byte.