Hooked on Gadgets | Surfing the Net or the Net Serfing Us?


An excellent article in the New York Times the other day – Hooked on Gadgets and Paying a Mental Price‘ – which explores the mental and relational cost of screen-addiction, plotting the story of one family who are all, in their own way, too hooked on gadgets:

Mr. Campbell continues to struggle with the effects of  data-deluge. Even after he unplugs, he craves the stimulation he gets from his electronic gadgets. He forgets things like dinner plans, and he has trouble focusing on his family.

His wife, Brenda, complains, “It seems like he can no longer be fully in the moment.”

Scientists say juggling e-mail, phone calls and other incoming information can change how people think and behave. They say our ability to focus is being undermined by bursts of information.

All of this is, inevitably, changing the way our bodies work. We are in co-evolution with our tools, and always have been.

Computer users at work change windows or check e-mail or other programs nearly 37 times an hour. The nonstop interactivity is one of the most significant shifts ever in the human environment, said Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco.

“We are exposing our brains to an environment and asking them to do things we weren’t necessarily evolved to do,” he said. “We know already there are consequences.”

It is the consequences of our deeper interaction with digital technology that continues to fascinate me. If technology is affecting the way we relate to one another, it must also be affecting the way we relate theologically, and also how we perceive ourselves as persons.

It is these themes that I pick up in ‘Other’ – and here’s an excerpt, which I hope will give a little flavour of the book – available on a nice discount at the moment here.

Despite our now inextricable reliance on digital telecommunications, combustion engines and synthetic chemistry, we are not, at our core, automata. Perhaps this is what our Sabbath should be: a day to turn off.

Writing on the limitations of technology, Ivan Illich, the radical Marxist critic of technology and education, noted that ‘only within limits can machines take the place of slaves; beyond these limits they lead to a new type of serfdom.’ Commenting on this, Aaron Falbel writes that

‘Genuinely human acts have more and more been replaced by the operation of machines, institutions and systems. Everything from procuring the food we eat to dealing with the excrement we leave behind, from birthing to dying, from healing to moving – has been designed, rationalised, engineered…’

I think these are powerful words for us to reflect on and respond to as we head further into universal wireless access and always-on connectivity. We need to be better aware of our co-evolution with our devices. We make them, but they are also remaking us – and in the worse cases this can lead to a chronic shallowing of the Self.

I have often been to Church gatherings where, in a room full of people, there is virtually nobody there. There are people in the room, but with their Macs open or their gazes focused on Blackberrys and iPhones, they are mentally elsewhere. It appears to be a kind of defence mechanism: if I were to commit to being fully present in this space I would have to be responsible for it, and deal with what is being said. But if I remove my attention a little…

It is no different to the sorts of workplaces many of us inhabit, modern offices so brilliantly satirised in Joshua Ferris’ novel And Then We Came to the End, ‘a story about sitting all morning next to someone you deliberately cross the road to avoid at lunchtime.’

Indeed, it is in these spaces, fictional or real, that I have most understood Illich’s words about ‘a new type of serfdom’. We are not surfing the net; it is ‘serfing’ us. Emails are delivered immediately, and must be dealt with now; news can be accessed in real time, and must be kept abreast of; the hundreds in my social networks can be told what I am doing now, and now, and now, and need to be told now… lest I get left behind. The result? We have no time for the other, not while we must quickly chomp down our chicken and salsa wrap. The project of building and maintaining our myriad digital fantasy selves simply leaves no time for it.

For those interested in pursuing this discussion around technology and our humanity, tonight’s Apple event is a must. 7:30pm at The Betsey Trotwood. Manjit Kumar talking about ‘The Quantum Cathedral’ and how the world’s largest machine  – the Large Hadron Collidor – may begin to affect our understanding of what is real.

See you there – remember, free beer and a book to win for those in the know!