There is no question that our lives have changed in the recent past due to digital technology. We are constantly plugged in spending a large part of everyday on our devices. Are we using our time well or wasting it and being distracted? Has digital technology made our lives better? There is a lot of evidence that suggests that it has. With the advancement of technology everything is available to us all the time. We literally have the world at our fingertips! We can find information on anything, get directions to anywhere, order anything we want to buy including food, clothes, furniture, tickets to entertainment, vacations and flights, call a cab, pay for parking, and perhaps most importantly, present ourselves however we want, and gather “friends”. However there are some serious downsides that we need to be aware of so that our use of digital technology is healthy and controlled and not that it controls us.
Social interactions have been completely changed due to the use of technology. Applicable here is the key concept of media that, form and content are closely related in media messages. Texting has become the tool of choice for communication. Whole new texting language has developed, BTW :). The aim of this seems to be that life can become simplified. Texts are quick and minimal. It is a completely accessible and efficient mode of getting a message across. But is this really good communication?
The art of conversation is becoming lost according to psychologist, Sherry Turkle. The skills of communicating, articulating our thoughts and feelings, and being good listeners are not being developed. When you are texting you do not have to make or maintain eye contact. This is an important social skill and way of connecting. These days many families spend time together but they individually are engaged with their digital lives rather than interacting. We can always be distracted by our devices, not paying attention to what is happening in real time. My mother thinks there should be an etiquette for texting. She would include these rules:
- No texting someone else while you are in a conversation with someone in person
- No texting during mealtimes
- No texting while walking outside
- No making your mother wait to talk to you while you are finishing up your texts!
- No making your mother repeat herself because in fact you really weren’t listening because you were texting!
Once my best friend and I were in the backseat of the car while my mother was driving us somewhere. We were both on our phones texting. My mother said, “girls stop texting while you are together. It’s RUDE!” I answered her back, “It’s okay mom. We are texting each other”. We all broke out laughing. Now I’m laughing while writing!
My head is always full as I attempt to split my attention between what I’m doing and the multiple notifications from my devices demanding my attention. I can be studying and involved in many different conversations at the same time. It can be difficult to keep track of everything and stay focussed. I am constantly interrupted.
By constantly being plugged in, not only are our interactions with others impacted, but so is the way we relate with ourselves. There is a loss of knowing how to be alone and the richness of solitude is not experienced and can even be feared. Turkle speaks about time for self reflection being so important for our maturation and development.
Not only has our psychological health been affected but so has our physical health. Spending hours per day on the internet has affected the obesity rate in the population and specifically causing an increase in the rate of childhood obesity. Computer use and mobile devices have negative affects on our posture which can cause all sorts of symptoms from neck and back pain, to headaches, and repetitive strain syndromes. The fact that bones in the spine are not fully ossified until the age of 23-25, also makes this important. Bones form by responding to pressure, so if you are always slouched in front of your computer more pressure is going on certain vertebras and you can form curves and blockages that are not healthy. (My parents are both chiropractors.) There was a study that showed that use of digital technology alters the actual wiring of children brains. Another study showed the use of technology caused children to loose empathy. There is also evidence that use of cell phones may be linked to brain tumour growth. Poor sleep is a problem in many people’s lives. It is recommended that turning off all devices, and in fact not having them in the room you sleep in, is best.
This being said, digital technology has definitely made our lives on the whole much better in obvious ways. Information can be exchanged very quickly. This has had great impact on the business world. Marketing can have broader reach. There are online businesses as a whole new way of doing business. Through the internet, the world has become more of a global economy and we are able to think of ourselves as global citizens.
Thinking about this topic makes me broaden my view of daily life not just to include the privileged life we live, but to look at others with disabilities, whose daily lives have been made radically better. The use of portable and affordable tablets helps with speech. Voice controlled technology to navigate smartphones is helpful for people with learning differences as well as people who are visually impaired. There is assistive touch technology for deaf people. Many other applications are available to help people with brain and physical issues.
To summarize let’s look at this issue from the perspective of McLuhan’s tetrad.
The medium of digital technology enhances our daily lives with its applications in many aspects impacting communication, learning, business, health, art, and lifestyle in positives way. It makes life convenient, easy, and accessible. These enhancements, some of which were discussed above, can in fact connect us to the broader world and to each other in interactive ways.
According to the tetrad, the original intentions of the medium can be reversed. This is seen in that the intention of digital technology to connect us also has the reverse effect of disconnecting us from one another by creating isolation, and distractions. People can have closer relationships with their digital devices than with other people.
Digital technology brings back lost senses to those that are disabled. It retrieves them or makes them possible for people to experience richer lives. Social media can retrieve lost connections with people from the past. Skype provides the opportunity to retrieve and maintain communication and closeness with people far away. Keeping family and friends close.
What is pushed aside and made obsolete unfortunately are the skills and art of personal communication and social interaction in the present moment. These include eye contact, listening, manners, empathy, and giving someone your full and undivided attention.
Life is better due to digital technology but, as Turkle comments, as we expect more from technology we expect less from each other. This affects our human interactions with serious consequences.