Tuesday, April 3, 2018
Technology and Intentionality
One of the products of the pace of technological change for the last 150 years is that we have lost any ability to critically reflect on its impacts. New technologies, from the automobile to television to birth control to the internet and smart phones, have radically reshaped society. They have done so faster than society has been able to thoughtfully assimilate. Instead we see one of two responses.
One is the unreflective embrace of technology. This is the norm in our day. Talk to a teenager about their relationship to their phone and they will typically view it not as something “good” - that would still show some level of examination – but simply as “the way things are.” “All of my friends are using it in these ways. Of course I should as well.” While it is easy to mock this impulse, it is exactly the same for most adults. They are presented with an item that has some benefit, however marginal or invented, and they will feel they have to have it. We might call this approach “technophilia” - an unambiguous embrace of the new.
Yet while this is problematic, the opposite impulse is no better. Technophobia, a fear of or refusal to adopt all technologies, is equally unreflective. I remember hearing two men inclined toward this view in the midst of a heated argument about a very basic economic fact, a number which would take a quick Google search to find. They spent ten minutes debating, not the ideas behind it, but simply whether the fact was A or B. Without thinking about it, I offered to look it up online for them. Both refused, grumbled about how it was “too easy” for younger generations, and then went back to yelling at each other.
The reason both of these approaches are problematic is because technology is always a mixture of good and evil, of solution and problem. Human beings have both God-given ingenuity meant to shape and improve the world and sin-wrought idolatry which warp what they create. Rather than simplistic embrace or rejection, what we need to do is to critically examine our lives with technology.
That is harder than it first sounds. In the first place, it means we will have to cut against the cultural grain in both directions. Most of society falls into one of the two errors. To be critical, we must challenge both the impulses of the Luddite and of the Silicon Valley elite.
In what follows, I'd like to suggest three concrete questions we should ask about each significant piece of technology in our lives. Along with these questions I'd also suggest a practical way to help discover the answer, since it isn't always apparent. I should say as well that I do this as someone who is not always good at this myself. I don't have the answers – truthfully, I've been reflecting on these questions because I know how poorly I've done at critically engaging them. That said, I hope that they will be helpful to you.
What Are The Benefits?
First, what are the benefits of a given piece of technology? What are they actually contributing to our lives?
Of course this includes the tangible benefits. A piece of technology might provide entertainment or comfort or convenience. However, staying at that surface level is not enough. It's easy to name surface benefits because the advertisers will gladly supply them. The real question is how much those tangible benefits actually lead to an improvement in life.
One way to measure this is to ask how much your life would be hindered if a technology were removed. For instance, dishwashers save us time. I can actually measure how many minutes a day I would have to spend hand-washing my dishes if I didn't have a machine to do it for me. Other effects are less concrete but still real. Many people have found that e-readers increase how much they read, but it isn't because we read faster. Instead it seems for many that the convenience of the device and the way it integrates into habits other technologies (i.e. smartphones) have ingrained simply makes us more likely to flick through a few pages on a screen than in a printed manuscript.
Another way of measuring benefits is in terms of how effective technologies actually are at delivering what they promise. Often this has a chastening effect on the listed benefits. When asked about the benefits of social media, we easily say it connects us with and provides affirmation from other human beings. Yet virtually every study finds that whatever small dopamine hit of relationality we feel does not impart a lasting sense of being connected and often actually increases feelings of loneliness and isolation.
This measure of effectiveness must also be weighed in the context of our particular lives and what we are looking to gain. Take exercise equipment. It is very effective at providing one sort of benefit, that of making exercise more efficient than it would be without such aids. However, often that is not the benefit we are seeking. I sometimes buy such gear not to make my exercise more productive but as an attempt to make myself exercise to begin with. At least judged by the largely unused gear in my closet, it doesn't seem very good at this task. The same is true of other pieces of technology. Because of the internet, I have at my fingertips all the great works of literature throughout history. Yet if I never read them, I shouldn't count that as a benefit that actually applies to my life.
To get a sense of all this practically, one useful tool is mindful reflection on the range of choices we have in a given situation. Take a segment of time and an activity we fill it with. Then ask, “Is this the best way I could be filling this time?”
I want to be careful here – I don't mean “best” in the sense of “most productive.” There is something about capitalism that makes us want to measure everything in terms of dollars or labor-hours. Rest, entertainment, diversion – those are all appropriate uses of time. The real question is whether we might be doing something better in that time to achieve our goal.
To use a perhaps-too-easy example, imagine you habitually spend an hour or more in the evening watching videos on YouTube. That is in a sense providing you a benefit – it is combating boredom and giving you a sense of pleasure. However, it is not the only way that hour could be filled. It could also be spent reading a novel, or walking outside, or playing a board game with your partner. We tend to only measure the decision as “watch videos or sit and stare at the wall,” which obviously pre-determines things. Once we train ourselves to be mindful of the array of choices available, however, we might well decide that we could find greater benefits spending time in some other way.
What Are The Costs?
Without meaning to, we have already been discussing costs in the above. Cost and benefit are two sides of the same coin. The idea of examining our range of choices is really just another way of weighing what economists call “opportunity costs” - what you miss out on in any given decision. Here, though, I want to focus on other sorts of costs that technology also imposes.
Socrates, in the Phaedrus, objects to the (then) newfangled technology of writing. His reason is that, by putting knowledge in books, we confuse the process of learning with that of accumulating facts. He saw books as a great enemy of dialog, which he insisted was the true way learning was achieved.
Of course, most of us disagree with Socrates' conclusion. He underestimated the benefits of writing, particularly in the way it gives us access to knowledge our immediate conversation partners might lack. However, he is not wrong about that cost. There are many in the world who consume information without reflection or understanding, and the written word certainly has aided that process.
Many such costs of technology are invisible. A more modern example might help. It is often observed that the world has lost the sense of neighborliness and local community which characterized past eras. That is largely a result of a few technologies – the television, the air conditioner, and the automobile being perhaps the primary culprits. When considering whether to install an air conditioner, people in that era didn't consider they were incrementally encouraging the end of front porch conversations with their neighbors. They simply wanted to be comfortable in the summer. What was lost wasn't realized until long after the fact.
Naming such costs are not arguments against the technologies themselves. That is the mistake of the technophobe, and we'll discuss that more in a moment. The point here is simply to remind us that we need to get a sense of what our technological choices are sacrificing when we make them – sacrifices that are otherwise easy to overlook.
Of course, some of these costs are only apparent in hindsight. I have a much better sense of how television affected society than I do Snapchat or driverless cars. That said, there is a practical way to try to get at some of these costs: temporary fasting.
I do not by “fasting” mean the spiritual exercise where we give up something good to focus on prayer. Instead I mean a sort of pragmatic fast as a means of experimentation. When we cut something out of our lives, what takes up the time instead? What changes about our lives as a consequence?
I recently heard someone who was obsessed with following the news make a striking observation. He would constantly be checking Twitter and news sites for fear of missing something, and the justification he gave was that there was just too much to keep up on in the world. After a week-long vacation during which he fasted from media, he commented that as he reengaged with the news, he actually got a better sense of what had happened and, more importantly, of what was significant in that week. The hourly drip of new stories had dulled his ability to pick out what was important from what was just happening; by seeing what people were talking about a few days later he had a much better sense of what mattered.
Realizations like this are the aim of such a fast. Someone I know personally who fasted from their constant media consumption actually found much of the anxiety they had been struggling with disappeared. Another person commented that they were sleeping better because they stopped watching television right before bed. These results will vary from person to person – that is part of the point. The goal, though, is to help us be able to name things technology takes from us or does to us without our ever realizing.
What Are Appropriate Boundaries?
Once we have a modest but real sense of the first two question we can then engage with the third, which is also the most important – what are appropriate boundaries to set around technology? How can we use them to maximize their benefits and minimize their costs?
This is where the technology hater, who perhaps appreciated some of the above critique, needs to be corrected. As much as our appreciation for technology should be chastened, that is not the same thing as saying it should be rejected. That would have its own significant set of costs. Instead, the solution to abuse is proper use.
Take our phones, as they are perhaps the central object of our modern lives. There are many benefits to phones – conversations with distant friends, Facetime with the grandparents, opportunities to find information, audio books to continue learning on long commutes. There are also costs – lack of presence with those around us, a feeling of distractedness, the availability of wasted or ill-spent time, and an unhealthy inability to escape from work or social pressure. For us to maximize the former and minimize the latter requires not just naming those realities but also engaging in strategic reflection and intentional planning.
That is the third practical tool – making such intentional plans. This can be done intuitively at times, but the best place to start is by consciously examining what you discovered in the first two practices and then figuring out a few practical changes to your life. Do we watch television instead of interacting with our families? Move meals back around the table and turn media devices off. Do we stay up too late playing games on our phones? Set a bedtime for our devices that is earlier than our own. Are we disconnected from our relationships because of the time we spend on social media? Host some friends for a meal every week and make sure to stay disconnected during that time.
My point in all of this is to suggest that our problem with technology is really a problem with intentionality. We run our lives on the default settings, and that always leads to suboptimal results. Society only reinforces this by regarding a deviation from those settings as strange, and those few who do deviate often do so to the other extreme, keeping us from finding a place of thoughtful balance. Yet that is the best way to live in the world – a place of balance. A life examined (although given his earlier comments Socrates might object to my appropriating his famous quote) and structured to seek the good. This is one of the great challenges of the modern world, but also one of its great necessities.