There is a pervasive condition that’s infiltrated our lives, and I’d go as far to say that at least 95% of the people you know have it. Most people aren’t aware that they’ve contracted it from somewhere- it probably came into their lives so early and so subtly that they just accepted it without knowing what was happening, or what would happen because it did. In their ignorance, the condition has gone unreported, considered benign, and in that time it has grown. I’ve been seeing increasingly severe symptoms of it over the past decade or so, but I think that in the near future things are going to get a whole lot worse. What is this insidious disease, you ask? Why, you’re staring at it right now: it’s called technology.
Okay okay, that’s a bit dramatic. But I’m actually being quite serious here. Twenty, or even ten years ago, our parents and grandparents didn’t have any of the issues that young people face today. There was no such thing as cyber bullying, the most convenient way to contact someone was through landline or in person, and the kind of entertainment people carried around involved marbles and packets of cards. Today, people (especially young, tech-savvy people) face a very different kind of problem.
Have you ever woken up early in the morning because some idiot’s sent you a text? Do you keep Facebook open, repeatedly checking if you have any new notifications? Have you ever felt frustrated that the internet’s stopped working? These are all symptoms of hyperconnection. What that basically means is that we’re always in touch with other people, at all times, in all places. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing- in fact, it’s quite remarkable. A hundred years ago, it was practically inconceivable to imagine being able to Skype with your cousin in Indonesia, or to instantly receive an email from anywhere in the world. But being so rigged up to technology has its own dangers, and I’m worried that no one’s aware of what’s happening to them.
RadioNational’s “All in the Mind” had a look at some of the adverse effects of always being available, and the perils of becoming too reliant on technology. Lynne Malcolm, the presenter, has a look at some of the psychological disorders that can develop from having a phone in your pocket, from maintaining a sense of general anxiety whenever your phone goes off, to narcissistic personality disorder. It’s an engaging and important edition of the show, and well worth a listen to. You can download the audio from their website.
Another group of researchers are concerned that always being “switched on”, especially during our adolescent years, is literally changing the wiring of our brain. Being constantly connected to Facebook and twitter, to SMS, to email, might be training our brains to relate to human beings in a different way, as well as receive instant gratification from electronic devices. And that opens up a whole new world of problems, such as diminished attention spans, difficulty learning, and the inability to relate to people offline.
But I think our reliance on technology goes a little further than just keeping in touch with our social circles. Something I’ve noticed is that, whenever I’m waiting for something, I’ll whip out my phone and play a game to pass the time. I do this in restaurants, in shops, in the kitchen, at my girlfriend’s house, even in the toilet. For some reason, I’m having increasing difficulty spending even a minute or two just sitting down doing nothing- I feel like I always have to keep busy, always have to be doing something (even if it’s as unimportant as unlocking a new blade in Fruit Ninja). And I’ve seen other people do it too – my Dad recently figured out how to read e-books off his phone, and when my family went out to lunch together, he spent a large part of it staring at a tiny screen.
More and more often I’m seeing people’s attention spans receding. It’s getting harder and harder to sit all the way through a video on YouTube, let alone watch a full-length movie. Even when a group of people are standing right next to each other, if there’s a lull in the conversation, someone (or many several someones) are likely to whip out their phone to check their newsfeed. It’s almost as if we’ve lost the ability to sit down and do nothing for more than a few minutes.
Does anyone else see the problem with this? Technology has become so pervasive that it has become part of our ordinary lives, used every day, sometimes every hour. How did our predecessors live without all this convenience? Once during a blackout, my brother got so bored that he declared that there was nothing to do and went promptly to bed, even though it wasn’t yet 7pm. The world has changed so much in the last decade- I can barely remember what life was like before broadband, and that really, really worries me.
But last week, my martial arts club headed into the wilderness for seven days, and part of that involved leaving all electronics switched off (excepting torch lights and alarm clocks). No mobiles, no iPods, no computer access or phone calls… And while I was there, I didn’t miss it at all. In fact, it was only when I returned to the city that I realised how unnecessary it was – the radio was playing some crappy pop music instead of bird calls, I received a handful of texts about nothing in particular, and I had about twenty Facebook notifications and emails.
At one point, I turned to my friend and said, “Why do people need all this crap? Right now, there are people who are dying for a new Facebook notification, who can’t wait to upload photos or to comment on a YouTube video. Why do we have to care so much? Why do we have to be so connected all the time?” In a very straightforward manner, he turned back to me and said “You don’t have to if you don’t want to.”
And I realised he was absolutely right. My life would not be improved in any noticeable way from keeping my phone switched on at all times, or from compulsively reading every email I received. I hadn’t received anything life-changing in my absence – barely anyone had noticed I’d left. But it took time away from all the nonsense to realise just how unnecessary it was. And having been temporarily freed from that illusion, I considered it a huge waste of time and energy. If only people realised how much more there was to life than their Xbox’s and iPads!
So here’s my challenge for you. Turn off your phone, right now. Sign out of your facebook/twitter account. Disconnect from some piece of technology you’ve been using for three whole days. One day is probably just enough time to go through the withdrawals without appreciating any of the benefits. A week is probably a little overwhelming to imagine. Three days is an excellent starting point, and if you discover on that third day that you never really needed your tech, then good for you! But trust me, it’s manageable, and unlike compulsively checking your email, this will change your life for the better. And in the week I was offline and disconnected, nothing bad happened to me. I didn’t miss out on a job offer or get withdrawn from my degree – in fact, barely anybody noticed I was missing. The world will keep spinning if you stop trying to control it for a little while. Just try it, and see what happens. There’s so much to gain, I can’t even begin to tell you how much.
If a couple of days seems like too big a sacrifice or too daunting a challenge, try it for a couple of hours or in different situations. Try leaving your phone in your room while you have dinner (at home or with friends). Try turning it off overnight, or leaving it in a draw during the day. It’s a small sacrifice, but the effects can be surprising. For instance, one study shows that even having your phone with you during mealtimes can disrupt the way you relate to the people you’re eating with.
There’s a whole lot more to be enjoyed in life than the screen you’re staring at right now. Go take a walk, enjoy the spring weather, and remember that human beings did not evolve to sit in front of a computer all day. We’re athletic, curious primates with a whole world to enjoy. So get out there and enjoy it!
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