For me, the two most influential arguments on this topic were presented in Sherry Turkle’s Ted Talk and Nathan Jurgenson’s Digital Dualism article. Unfortunately they did not make it any easier for me to determine which side of the debate I fell on considering that they presented opposite views on whether we need to unplug! Turkle makes a compelling argument that we need to unplug as technology is creating the “illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship.”
Consider our Facebook accounts. Don’t you feel comforted by the number of friends you have and feel a ping of excitement when you get a friend request? However, if we were to scroll through our lists of friends and ask ourselves which of these people we are actually close to, how many would that be? How would this realization sit with us? For me, and I would imagine that I am not too much of an outlier, this would not come as much of a surprise and any disappointment would be short lived as I remembered that in amongst all these people I have a network, albeit much smaller, of close friends. So is our use of technology really that detrimental to us? Have we really become too dependent on it and need to unplug?
In order to answer this question, we first have to define what we mean by dependent. Humans are reliant on a great many other tools, such as cars, power stations, medical instruments, but we would never think to question whether we should unplug from these tools. So let’s agree that this argument is not about how society would function in a post-apocalyptic, technology-void world. So what is it about our phones, computers, and internet that makes us debate whether or not to shut them off? I think it is the fear that this type of technology is eroding part of our humanity – our intimate connectedness with each other. So let’s define dependence by that and say that this argument is about whether technology, on an individual basis, is causing the destruction of our relationships.
Is it really technology itself that is to blame for the strength of our relationships or is it our personalities? There is such variability in how much people “look down” and immerse themselves into their phones and social media. Perhaps it is not technology that is causing these people to look down, but an aspect of their personalities. We all have a friend or two who cannot put their phone down and stay focused long enough to have even a short conversation with us, but I’m sure we also have lots of friends who have no trouble doing this. So is it really the technology that is influencing this behaviour or is their behaviour influenced by their personality and if you were to take the phone away from them would they not just find something else to divert their attention to? If it is our personalities influencing our behaviour with technology, then it is actually our personalities that we need to unplug from! Can we really do this and so easily adopt of new way of interacting with our surroundings? So is it technology that is the problem or how we are using it?
This brings me to the second argument that has really influenced my thoughts on this debate – the fallacy of digital dualism and how it is being reinforced by the self-help industry. Nathan Jurgenson claims that the self-help industry would like to convince us that it is the technology that we need to be saved from as it is inhibiting us from fully participating in the “real” physical world. In denying that the digital and physical worlds are intertwined in an augmented reality, we are presented with a problem – perhaps even an illness – that companies will try to capitalize on as they offer us the next solution to rid us of the technology dependency problem. There is quite a market for digital detox getaways, unplugging apps (slightly ironic!), and digital detox books to convince you that you have a problem that you need to attend to. The great thing for this industry is that we are likely to be repeat customers as we struggle to find a solution to our “technology problem.” The one thing that can threaten this industry is a change in what we view as normal, healthy technology use – removing the idea that there is a problem that needs fixing.
Our society has a socially constructed view of what constitutes a healthy digital lifestyle. We are constantly reminded of the negative consequences of straying too far from this normal and healthy amount of digital usage. Studies show a positive correlation between internet use and anxiety and depression. I do not want to dispute this correlation, but I would like to us to consider whether another factor could be at play here that is influencing this correlation. Could anxiety and depression with internet usage be influenced by a societal belief of what healthy and normal internet usage is? If high internet usage was seen as normal, perhaps these individuals would not be depressed. Could the depression people experience with high internet usage be influenced by the societal view and pressure that the internet should be used in moderation? I’m arguing that healthy internet use is not an absolute, objective concept, but a social construct that is influenced by time and place. So an individual who is deemed to spend “a lot of time” on the internet by society’s point of view may be experiencing anxiety and depression because of the tension caused by believing that their internet usage behaviour is abnormal and unhealthy.
So getting back to the debate about whether we are too dependent on technology and in need of unplugging, I would say no, we are not. I do not believe that it is the technology itself that is the issue. Technology is just a tool. What matters is how we use this tool and the socially constructed view we have of what constitutes healthy use of this tool. These are the factors that will influence our connections with others.