In a well-known parable, a group of blind men encounters an elephant. Each man touches a different part of the elephant and receives very different tactile feedback. Their later descriptions of the elephant to each other disagree, though each individual’s description is accurate and captures one portion of the elephant: a tusk, a leg, an ear.
Humans often have only partial information and struggle to understand the feelings and observations of others about the same problem or situation, even though those feelings and observations may be absolutely accurate and valid in that person’s context.
Our relationships with technology are similar: Each of us relates to technology in a unique, highly personal way. We lose or cede control, stability, and fulfilment in a million different ways.
As Leo Tolstoy wrote in the novel Anna Karenina, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Take back control
In the same vein, the road back from unhappiness, the path to taking control over technology, and, by extension, the path to regaining freedom of choice takes a multitude of steps that are different for each of us. The steps nonetheless carry some common characteristics that we can all use as a basis for rediscovering and re-entering real life.
Here’s an excerpt from Your Happiness Was Hacked: Why Tech Is Winning the Battle to Control Your Brain—and How to Fight Back by Vivek Wadhwa and Alex Salkever:
The refrain we commonly hear is that we need to unplug and disconnect. Conceptually, this recommendation may feel good as a way to take back total control and to put technology back in its place as a subservient, optional tool. But using technology is no longer a matter of choice.
If you were to apply for a white-collar job of any kind and inform the hiring manager that you refuse to use e-mail, you’d get a swift rejection. Our friends share pictures digitally; no longer are printed photographs of the soccer team or birthday party mailed to us. Restaurants that use the OpenTable online reservation system often will not take phone calls for reservations. Even the most basic services, such as health care and checking in for a flight, are in line for mandatory digitalisation. Yes, we can opt out of those services and businesses, but if we do, we lose out.
Unplugging wholesale is not an option. Nor for most of us is it an appropriate response to life in the age of technology. The question then becomes how to selectively unplug.
How can we set better limits? How can we control our environments at work and at home, and the environments our children live in, in order to make them a bulwark against assaults on our freedoms, privacy, and sociability?
Understanding the Dependence
I first visited China more than a decade ago, before the era of wireless data connections and ubiquitous broadband. I found that I could not book ordinary hotels in advance and that catching a taxi was a nightmare because no one spoke English. I needed to have the concierge write my destination on a piece of paper to hand to the taxi driver.
When I visited again in 2016, I found that the technology landscape had changed. Everyone had a smartphone with fast information transfer. Booking hotels was easy, as were finding online restaurant reviews and catching cabs.
Communication was easier, not because more people spoke English but because real-time translation applications had become so good that the Chinese people could hold slow but functional conversations by uttering a phrase into their phones and playing back the English version. This trip was less fraught with stress and uncertainty, thanks to modern technology.
The smartphone became a way to help me make the most of my journey and spend less time on the drudgery of logistics and discovery. I felt more in control, better able to navigate, and more mentally free to experience and be present on the trip rather than worry about where I would stay or eat.
And whereas using Google Maps in our hometown takes us away from the present and reduces us to watching the blue dot and remembering a lot less about the journey, the map and general online knowledge are an enormous help to the traveller who visits the hinterlands of China, where navigation is more challenging.
In almost every case with regard to our use of technology, the context matters. The nuances of context offer special challenges in building smart strategies for healthy technology use and in shifting our interactions with technology from toxic to measured and beneficial.
This is the first of a two-part piece on how we can make technology more beneficial for humans