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 fulfillment 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.”
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 reentering real life.
Excerpted for Wired magazine 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 BERRETT-KOEHLER PUBLISHERS
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 digitalization. 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 Our Tech Dependence and Addiction
Vivek first visited China more than a decade ago, before the era of wireless data connections and ubiquitous broadband. He found that he could not book ordinary hotels in advance and that catching a taxi was a nightmare because no one spoke English. He needed to have the concierge write his destination on a piece of paper to hand to the taxi driver, praying that he didn’t end up in the wrong part of the city.
When he visited again in 2016, Vivek 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 with Vivek 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 Vivek make the most of his journey and spend less time on the drudgery of logistics and discovery. He 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 he 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 traveler 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.
There is no defined category for technology addiction, but psychiatrists have been debating whether internet addiction is a real malady. It was not added to the latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the diagnostic bible of mental health professionals around the world. (Online gaming is a subsection of the gambling-addiction section in that publication.) But a working definition of internet addiction serves as a useful lens through which to view most technology pathologies. In an article on the topic, psychiatrist Jerald Block broke down internet addiction into three clear subtypes: sexual preoccupation, excessive gaming, and excessive or uncontrolled e-mail or text messaging. This article was written in 2008, so Block probably had not taken account of social media, then not yet in broad adoption. Social media, online shopping, and video watching would be additional subcategories today.
Regardless of the category, Block’s enumeration of the phenomenon’s negative influences is relevant to nearly any form of addiction or technology pathology.
The first is excessive use, sometimes associated with a loss of sense of time or an (occasionally fatal) neglect of basic needs such as food, drink, bodily evacuation, and sleep. The second is some form of withdrawal, including feelings of anger, irritability, tension, or depression when a device is not available or when there is no (or limited) internet connectivity. The third is tolerance of and willingness to make alterations or purchases to accommodate the addiction. The tolerance may be to acquiring better computer equipment or more software, to spending more hours of use, or to spending a great deal of money. The fourth is the negative psychic repercussions stemming from arguments, lying, lack of achievement, social isolation, and fatigue. According to the research cited earlier, the repercussions include depression, anxiety, and loneliness.
With these negative influences in mind, we can propose a simple set of questions to ask ourselves in deciding how to create a more mindful and conscious engagement with our technology. Does our interaction or use of the technology make us happy or unhappy? There are many derivatives of this question: Does it make us tense or relaxed? Does it make us anxious or calm? The answer may be “both,” and that is OK, but we should consider whether, on balance, an interaction leaves us with good or bad feelings.
Good Tech or Bad Tech: Engagement by Design
One way to address the overall question of how a technology affects you is to go through the following exercise. It is a classic decision-framing exercise, not magic; but being able to count, visualize, and weigh effects and considerations is immensely helpful in undertaking it.
Here is what you do. Write down a particular activity or technology at the top of a sheet of paper. (It is definitely best to do this exercise on paper.) It can be anything relating to screens and technology. Draw a line down the middle of the paper. On the left-hand side, list all the positive things and benefits that you feel this technology or technology-driven behavior brings you. On the right-hand side, list all the negatives.
Ask yourself: Should you remove Facebook or Twitter from your phone? Should you install an application such as Slack on it? Should you ban screens from your bedroom? Should you turn off the internet on Sundays and after 8 p.m.? Should you lock your phone in your car’s glove compartment? If you consume porn or online gaming, should you completely ban it from your life in order to restore balance? These are some of the decisions you will want to make.
The refrain we commonly hear is that we need to unplug and disconnect. But using technology is no longer a matter of choice.
You will also want to examine the secondary effects. For example, Alex has until recently used the music app Spotify to play tunes during his runs and workouts. On its face, this seems to make sense. Research has shown that music can positively affect motivation to work out. Alex really liked the feature on Spotify that matches his running pace with song beats of the same pace.
Then he started to pay attention to how much time it was taking for him to manage Spotify during workouts and how much time it was taking away from the workout. Though not the majority of it, the time was considerable. For example, in a standard weightlifting and calisthenics workout, Alex was spending about three minutes per session to manage songs. In a thirty-minute session on a busy day, that was 10 percent of his time—for no good reason. It was dead time due to technology.
Listening to music on Spotify is surely a net positive: Providing an endless selection of tunes with infinite playlists, it opens up rich new worlds. The service also makes sharing with friends very easy. It allows Alex to expose his children to Bach, Mozart, John Coltrane, and Celia Cruz, all from one easy screen, the same screen from which they hear music by Nicki Minaj, the Gym Class Heroes, and Kendrick Lamar. But this example shows the importance of consciously designing the style of our engagement even with a technology application whose use is, by and large, positive.
We can efficiently analyze our interactions with technology, and evaluate their effects, through six questions. The answers can be as simple as a mental checklist, and they are usually obvious and intuitive. It can even be useful to list positives and negatives explicitly.
The questions to ask yourself about a technology or application are as follows: Does it make us happier or sadder? Do we need to use it as part of our lives or work? Does it warp our sense of time and place in unhealthy ways? Does it change our behavior? Is our use of it hurting those around us? If we stopped using it, would we really miss it?
In engaging with technology, we should actively and consciously lean toward the contexts and uses in which we find the technology behavior to be largely beneficial and satisfying. Though simple, it’s an approach that any of us can make work, simply by asking ourselves relevant questions—and being honest about the feelings and other effects the technology raises in us.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
VIVEK WADHWA is a distinguished fellow at Harvard Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program and a distinguished fellow and professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s College of Engineering.
ALEX SALKEVER is the former technology editor of BusinessWeek.com and vice president of marketing at Mozilla. He advises companies around the world on how to adapt to rapid technology changes.