Everywhere we remain unfree and chained to technology, whether we passionately affirm or deny it. But we are delivered over to it in the worst possible way when we regard it as something neutral; for this conception of it, to which today we particularly like to do homage, makes us utterly blind to the essence of technology.Martin Heidegger (a German philosopher), writing in 1954
Look around you today. Technology owns us. That ubiquitous nifty device we now call the smartphone is with us, 24 by 7. You take it wherever you are, including the bathroom. This technology is now more important than your wallet. It’s like a black hole; it sucks all attention into that digital ether, leaving us with not much time for thought and reflection.
Here’s a little story about my children. Years ago, I secretly laughed at the scene of kids hunched inside a train, looking at their phones. They were not talking, as they were busy looking at that little, bright screen. I was in South Korea, traveling from my hotel to a tourist area where I was hoping to find some clothes to buy.
That scene kept repeating in my mind, as I walked towards the tourist spot. I wondered, “Why were they not talking to each other on the train?”
“What was making them giggle while watching the little screen in front of them?” As we all know, South Korea has the most advanced mobile networks today. This scene I was describing happened sometime in early 2000. Mobile broadband was still a concept to me, as I was traveling as a technology journalist in this modern society. I was mesmerized by what I saw at that moment–little screens, bright and colorful; people glued to these screens with their headphones. This scene was repeated all over this place. People were all holding their phones just a few inches away from their faces. I laughed because I rarely brought out my Blackberry, which was neatly placed in its own modern dock, which was then securely hooked into my belt.
Today, we all see this same scene everywhere now. Just a few hours before I started writing this story, I was arguing with my daughter for spending so much time on this little, nifty technology. I asked her why she was on her phone all the time, she said she was chatting with her friends and classmates. I asked, “About what?” She just looked at me, baffled, and continued on with her chat, as if it was the most natural thing to do at that moment. Note that all this was happening while we were watching a movie on HBOHD channel on 42-inch Smart TV.
Meanwhile, my wife was by my side, also with her smartphone, playing a casual puzzle game. We were all having our own “screen time.” My daughter spent it on communicating with her friends, while I focused on a compelling story playing on cable TV. My wife was “relaxing,” as she would often describe her screen time with her smartphone.
Technology owns us
Technology is all around us. It powers my wi-fi connection. It provides me enough computing power to create this blog, at the speed of thought. With technology, I can create a blog post with some curated images found on free, stock image websites. I can do my own publishing, on-the-fly with a computer that is even lighter as one of my coffee table books on design. Just right next to me is this invention named, Alexa–it’s a tubular device that acts as an intelligent audio speaker but with enough computing power to connect to the Internet and to start “talking to me!” Yes, it sounds like a story out of a page from my old science fiction novels. Today’s technology is so powerful and ubiquitous that it now dictates how you would feel in the next moment.
I started writing about technology back in the late 90s when I became a technology writer for a trade publication on computers. Immersing myself in the new vocabulary of geeks, I spent my time talking to people who invented these new toys, which as a boy, I only imagined as something that won’t probably exist in my lifetime. However, as years progressed, I saw this trajectory, which we now call the Internet, followed by technologies that either powered or supported it.
Computers were boxes that translated electricity into ones and zeroes. Computers were becoming the new electronic frontier. Little did I know it was going to transform us, human beings.
A means to an end
Where are we headed with today’s technology? Is technology a tool for human beings to use; to amplify messages; or to even supplant some menial tasks that can be done by more intelligent robots, dubbed A.I (as in artificial intelligence).
Is technology a means to an end, an emerging lifestyle or a way of thinking that would propel our society into the future? Or, is technology a result of human activity aimed at improving or even challenging the status quo?
We can go very philosophical, as what this story or article quoted at the beginning. What scares me is the thought that technology is becoming too ubiquitous, that we become so dependent to the point of stressing over the absence of it.
Just think about this: when we leave our wallets at home, we usually don’t fret about it. But if we leave our phones behind, we’re lost. Today, we live in a society of people with FOMOs or “Fear of missing out.” We check our social media streams every second as if our life depends on it. We spend more time on social media than a book, because the former has an endless stream of stories coming from friends and celebrities. We also document ourselves a lot these days, to the point of surrendering our privacy in exchange for “likes” or “shares.” Our sphere of influence is now partly dictated by how many followers we have on social networks–yes, we have become followers—sometimes, slaves to this so-called modern influencers.
Our “love for technology” has pushed us to become consumers versus inventors of technology. We dress up our phones. We pay for personalized screens. We also have come to a point where most of our problems are solved by “an app,” which is short for mobile application.
Want to exercise? There’s an app for that! Want to do intermittent fasting? There’s an app for that! Want to order takeout? Yes! There are a lot of apps for that! Apps are the new, new thing. But is it?
What’s next and what to do?
I have become deliberate with my use of technology–and with my screen time. Since most of the waking day is spent in front of a screen, I now schedule my day with face-time with my work colleagues, friends, and family. One of my pet peeves–and I don’t think I am the only one who hates this–are people on their phones while eating, dating, meeting, or just chilling in a coffee shop. Why can’t we put down our phones for a 2-hour conversation with friends we haven’t seen for years? Why can’t we have an intelligent and uninterrupted conversation with our spouses and our kids within the day without screens stealing our attention? Why? Why? Why?
Well, the answer to that question depends on what you want to happen the moment you stop reading this blog. Take a break. Take a technology break. Pry yourself out of the smartphone screen trap. Focus on doing the most important task of the day without technology. Look up. Look down. Look around. Talk. Sing. Hum. Close your eyes. Think.
Sleep. No, sleep more.
Also published on Medium.