“Technology is a way of organizing the world that man doesn’t have to experience it.” Max Frisch

My laptop, tablet, smart phone and Fitbit.

My laptop, tablet, smart phone and Fitbit.

Have you ever heard the term “couch potato?”  It describes people who spend a lot of time sitting and watching that ghostly blend of bluish grey light, images and sound that is TV. There seems to be a hypnotic attraction about television.  Those who watch it often seem to be virtually in a trance.  No wonder my mother called TV the “boob tube”.  The worse part of the whole experience is that people, me included, have a terrible time pulling away from it.  I get “hooked” on a show and cannot miss the ending… then an ad comes on for the next show and suddenly I’m anticipating the next episode.  Many consider TV to be the technology primarily responsible for fat and unhealthy people in the Western world.  This problem is being exacerbated by the internet with all its connective technologies like smart phones, lap tops, and tablets.  And don’t forget watches… yes even watches!

So, does Max Frisch have a point?  Does technology take us away from experiencing the world? Yes, it does.[1]  Some examples of technology’s disruptive properties go back to the invention of modern transportation.  When people traveled by foot, or even horse and wagon, they were truly experiencing a journey– they heard and smelled things; they talked to people; and if they walked they got some exercise. Compare travelling by foot with travelling by train, plane or automobile where you might never meet a soul, except fellow passengers, along the route. The telephone also took away the need to meet people-face-to-face.  In fact, face-to-face communication is becoming quite rare. Hell, young people today text one another while sitting at the same table! I do have concerns about the ultimate outcome of our increasing dependency on technology, especially communication devices.

Elizabeth Renzetti in the Globe and Mail (November 23, 2013) cites two studies in the United States that showed “40 per cent of people say they’re lonely, a figure that has doubled in 30 years”.  The cause of this epidemic of loneliness is not acknowledged, but I have my suspicions.  Part of the problem is surely related to some societal changes – there are more single parents than ever before and an aging population leaves more people living alone.  However, I believe that the pervasive use of technology is a major culprit.

It has become obvious that the outcomes of our communication technologies are rather paradoxical.  We’re more connected than ever… with our smart phones we’re always within reach of family and friends.  People who use Facebook have hundreds, even thousands, of “friends”.  When I was growing up a wise man once told me that you should count yourself lucky if you have as many good friends as you have fingers on one hand (that’s 5 by the way).  You’d think with all this ease of connectivity that we’d feel lucky, and take great comfort in this constant communication.  Yet, we do not feel all that lucky or satisfied.  It seems that more we are “in touch” with people, technologically, the less connected, on a loving/friendship level, are our actual experiences.

The article by Renzetti goes on to cite another study from the University of Michigan – “On the surface, the researchers wrote, Facebook provides an invaluable resource in fulfilling the basic human need for social connection.  Rather than enhancing well-being, however, these findings suggest that Facebook may undermine it”.  I think part of the reason for this result is based upon our expectations – we naturally think the more we communicate with someone, the more we’d feel close to them.  Yet it is simply not the case.  I, for one, do not get much pleasure in “Skyping” or “Facetiming” people… sure I see the faces and hear their voices but it somehow feels hollow, superficial.  At best, I feel “in the loop” and informed but, at the same time I long even more spend time with those same people.  After these technological encounters I definitely do not walk away with a sense that I’m closer to these people in any meaningful way.

There’s an old Zen saying that sheds some light on the role of technology: “Technology makes major improvements to the minor needs of people”.  I firmly believe that modern technology provides major improvements to only certain parts of our lives (medical health, in particular).  Communication technologies, as an example, enhance our access to information but as for our major needs, things like self- actualization, friendship or love, it does not help very much.  There is no substitution for having life-changing experiences, or spending time, with a loved one.  In fact, technology may even interfere with our personal connectivity.  We have less meaningful personal contacts because we are fooled into believing that we’re already in frequent contact with others through various technologies – that’s the crux of the paradox.  The actual impact of our amazing communication devices is counter-intuitive.  We should feel more connected, yet we feel less so.  The result is there are more “lonely” people, not less.

There may even be even greater pitfalls to our over-reliance and extended use of technology.  In the book “Last Child in the Woods” and “The Nature Principle”, author Richard Louv argues that the decreased exposure of kids to nature is leading to an increase in many childhood disorders.  He cites new research which indicates that direct contact with nature is essential for healthy physical and emotional development in children. The pervasive use of technology, be it TV or tablet computers, among children takes them away from experiencing the outdoors. There is a proven addictive quality to these devices which, like most addictive things, only increases with their use. Hell, I even know adults who play video games at every chance and rarely step outside their home except for work! This same phenomenon was hinted at by philosopher Søren Kierkegaard over a hundred and fifty years ago.  He wrote “The highest and most beautiful things in life are not to be heard about, nor read about, nor seen but, if one will, are to be lived”. The reasoning behind his statement, at the time, was probably more about simply experiencing beautiful things -  if nothing else, this is very important for the spirit. But another lesson, given what we now know, may be that it is necessary for general wellness… ensuring that people, especially kids, avoid the life of a couch potato is an urgent health issue!

The answer to curing the negative impacts of technology may be as simple as periodic retreats … going “off the grid”, as they say.  To cure the emotional loneliness caused by too much time on technological devices, and not enough time in nature or  with people (in the flesh), it may be necessary to go “cold turkey” once in a while…or at least at regular intervals like all evening or weekends.  It was Thoreau who wrote a similar prescription in his book “Walden – Life in the Woods”.[2]

“Not until we are lost, in other words, not until we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations”.

What is interesting about Thoreau’s quote is that it represents the exact opposite of what the promise of technology leads us to believe -  i.e. that the greater access to information and communication will make us feel more connected… creating a kind of utopian “global village” that Marshall McLuhan predicted.  However, as I’m arguing, it doesn’t work in meaningful ways. Before the onslaught of modern, ubiquitous technology, Thoreau already recognized the need to get away from it all and get lost in nature. This is the way we can stay in touch with our deeper selves and truly appreciate our myriad relationships.  Definitely food for thought... and a good reason for pause in our head long rush into a technologically dominant future.

[1] However, it doesn’t prevent us from experiencing it.

[2] Check out articles on “Forest Bathing” (taking long walks in a forest – called “Shinrinyoku” in Japenese) which highlight various benefits on this activity: there is research evidence that one’s immune system is boosted; and, stress levels, depression and anger are all decreased. These beneficial effects seem to be due to “phytoncides’ (essential oils from trees). See Nathalie Atkinson’s article titled “Vitamin T” (“T” stands for tree) in The Globe and Mail (Jan. 27, 2018).