Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Tech Is Not Your Enemy

by Christopher Hutton 

My phone and I have a symbiotic relationship. It feeds me information, and in return, I keep its batteries charged. Both of us are quite happy living off one another for all of time. Or at least until the iPhone 6 appears. Then I'll drop that sucker like a light particle in a black hole.

Okay, I'm not that into technology, but I enjoy the freedom and access that having a mobile phone and a laptop gives me. After all, knowing what's going on in the world and among the Christian community is really key to my job. However, I also recognize that I overuse technology, much to my chagrin.

And I'm not the only one. People are observing what they believe to be a debilitating disease by which humanity is becoming subservient to its iPhones and social media. The news media have encouraged this fear, launching various editorials and columns warning against the dangers of our dependence on new technology. This is the reason that writers like Evgeny Morozov and Sherry Turkle are popular; they’re promoting a negative perception of technology, emphasizing the “fact” that it is making us less social, distracting us to death, weakening our public freedoms, etc.

For a while, I bought into these arguments as well. Having read Neil Postman, I feared what social media was doing to my brain, and that I was now with Twitter and Facebook. But as I began to actually read up on the data, I realized that just maybe, technology isn’t going to destroy my soul after all.

Throughout history, we have responded to new technology both with enthusiasm and suspicion. Socrates lamented the rise of written texts, and believed it might even lead to the downfall of society.  While it didn’t spell the doom for culture, the spread of literacy and text documents did result in a decline in the human ability to remember large amounts of information. We are no longer able to remember as much precisely because it is not as necessary as it was before.

But in an age where we have studies on pretty much everything, people have been fascinated with technology’s effects on our biology. Some of these studies are quite helpful, but there are a significant number  which make huge errors, resulting in faulty conclusions.  These bad studies are the ones that the media tend to latch onto, that get passed around the very social media they critique, and that become so prominent in culture, making it hard to distinguish what is may be a real threat to our daily life from what may be a healthy shift of technology and culture.
So, in order to overturn the myths surrounding this, let’s look at some of the biggest fallacies which are trotted out on a daily basis.

Technology makes us less social

Everyone says social media and smartphones are making us less social and by a certain metric, this is true. When compared to communities from 40 years ago, it’s clear that we are less social on a physical/local level and less involved in our local communities. Over that same period, the biggest shift in society has been the expanding influence of personal computers and televisions. Hence, sociologists have tended to assume they were the root cause. However, sociologist Zeynep Tufekci noted that the loneliness and social disconnect that is blamed on smartphones and social media existed culture-wide before the advent of these technologies.

She believes that our age of loneliness arose because of our industrialized jobs, cubicle-based careers, the necessity of long commutes, and other changes that directly create crevices in the social structure. Zeynep actually argues that social media, instead of causing our feelings of disconnect, has actually helped to alleviate them, allowing us to interact with others on a daily basis and to enjoy one another's company even when we’re unable to be in one another’s company.

Online relationships are less valuable, because you don't “really” know the person

I have a lot of friends online. Of those, I’ve met perhaps 5% of them offline. Shouldn’t the fact that I cannot relate to them in their physical presence make me wary to consider them a true friend? After all, this person is curating the knowledge they are willing to share; who knows how much of their true self they are withholding from me? How on earth can I even trust that I know anything true about them?

It is true that any of us can hide behind masks online and pretend to be what we're not. We can cultivate only the image we wish to present to the world. But we do that very thing on a daily basis in the offline world: the somber barista with a fake smile, the angry lawyer who is feigning friendliness. The internet allows for a more focused control, but the phenomenon of hiding one’s self is not new in any way.

This argument is also based in the idea of our society’s bias towards digital dualism. Digital dualism is the belief that the digital aspects of the world is are somewhat less valuable than than the physical. While this might seem a common-sense assumption, the fact is, it’s false.  We live in an “augmented reality” where our physical and digital identities co-exist in an interwoven world. You can no longer get “offline,” even by abandoning your phone and not logging on. In fact, most of what we do is now considered “online”, thus making this idea of offline/online less valid. For instance, the fact we all have credit cards and social security cards means our data is collected in a database, regardless of whether we even have our phones with us.  (If you want to read more, here is a piece I wrote on digital dualism in 2013.)

Our tech distracts us from what truly matters

Some claim that the new availability of digital devices, such as laptops and iPhones, are naturally distracting, and that their presence takes away from our relationships, with God and with others. And certainly we see those who disengage from a conversation with friends in order to turn to a community accessed through their phone. Which is why many feel the need to take vacations from Facebook or their smartphones.

But this is more about psychology than our technology. Our desire for more (more communication, more information, more interaction) drives us to use technology to fulfill that desire. The solution is not to denigrate technology, but to learn to discipline our desires in a meaningful way. The same sort of issues for which the spiritual disciplines were created by believers over the past two millenia confront us now in the technological age. By investing the same sort of discernment in our use of technology, we will make a better use of it as a medium through which we interact with the world.

There are a lot of arguments about how we engage with digital technology. Some of them  explore how tech empowers us as men and women. Others reveal how they weaken certain parts of society. But all technologies do is perform their function. Your iPhone and your tablet have no moral value; they are tools and gain moral value only according to their use. So, if you’re using your iPhone to plan world domination, then your phone is probably an immoral tool. But if you’re remaining mindful of healthy relationships both online and off, really, don’t worry about it. 
Chris Hutton is a freelance journalist who's considering a 12-step program for his iPhone addiction. When he can pull himself away, he writes on issues of Christian media and worldview studies over at his blog liter8.net. You can find him on Twitter at @chris_journo.

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