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  • Genevieve Erwin

The Promises of Technology

Updated: Dec 4, 2018

Mr. Hartley, our wonderful and wise theology teacher penned these thoughts last year. Though he isn't teaching Rhetoric this year, his message is just as relevant.

I enjoy having my Rhetoric students answer and write about very open-ended questions. What is virtue? What is a role-model? How can we engage in dialogue with those whom we vehemently disagree? These are deeply philosophical questions that often have more than one answer. But they are also deeply practical questions whose answers have the power to change the way we live our lives. The question that these 9th grade students are answering this week is one of these philosophical questions: Who am I?

This question of identity is certainly a question they have dealt with before. What is adolescence but a journey, often arduous and seemingly inscrutable, of self discovery? They are dealing with this question every day. It determines the kind of clothes they wear, the music they listen to, the friends they make. They may be dealing with this question every day on an implicit level, but I find that very few young people today have dealt with this question of identity explicitly. Those who have already engaged in this type of self-reflection have often already done so triggered by some interpersonal or familial crisis or tragedy. Most young people today have not asked this question in an explicit way in an environment that encouraged deep self-reflection on their own successes and failures, vices and virtues, strengths and weaknesses. As a result of this abnegation of one of life’s most crucial questions, young people are adrift. Who am I? Oftentimes for these young people the answer is, “I don’t know,” which often leads to the nihilistic, “I can’t know.”

If you do not know yourself how can you expect to be known by others? How can you expect to find meaning, purpose, and joy in your life? The answer is that you can’t. If you never engage in serious self-reflection, if you never taken stock of your own life to think about how you have failed or succeeded in your life, you never have the opportunity to improve. So, in Rhetoric class, we ask that question: Who am I?

Why is it that we go through our lives very seldom asking these questions? How have we largely forgotten to engage in the perennial questions that have defined humanity for millennia? And what are the ultimate consequences of our collective amnesia about these topics? There are several answers to these questions but I will answer them in part. One of the major causes of our lack of philosophical musing is technology and social media; and one of the major results of our failing to ask these questions is isolation.

Technology has promised us many things: productivity, knowledge, friendship, etc. On some of these promises, technology has delivered remarkably. However, the core promises of the smartphone and social media have not only failed to be realized, they have almost certainly backfired. Let’s take some of these promises in turn.

The amount of information available on the internet is essentially unlimited. We can access lectures on anything from economics to mechanics. I used YouTube to find the best plans to build a shed in my backyard and I used it to listen to a lecture on Carl Jung’s psychology. This certainly is a remarkable feat. So, what is the implicit promise? You can know anything. This quickly morphs into: You can know everything. One of the major promises that is implicit in the ubiquity of the internet is omniscience. If our access to information is unlimited, the only limitation we have is the time we have to spend on it.

So, how has the internet delivered on this promise? Not so well. Not only have we failed to become omniscient, we have become less intelligent. Greater engagement with the internet has been well documented to decrease memory, critical thinking skills, and creativity. This is most exemplary in what is known as “cognitive offloading.” Cognitive offloading means that when we can constantly have any information accessible in three taps of our thumbs and never further away than our pocket, our need to retain information in our brains is virtually non-existent. Therefore, we naturally remember less. We can “offload” the information from our brains, because we know that it will be stored in the interactive rectangle from which we are never more than four feet away. What are the consequences of this cognitive offloading for young people? They have a far more difficult time learning subjects and remembering to do tasks. They have more trouble taking tests. They cannot think about abstract issues with clarity because the information required to do so, doesn’t actually remain in their brains. In fact, if they are going to engage in learning, their only option it seems is to more heavily engage in internet browsing. So a vicious cycle is created. This should be alarming to us. Oh, and just in case you were reading this thinking about your child’s interaction with his smartphone, chances are, if you own a smartphone (which I’m willing to bet all four dollars in my pocket that you do) you have these same problems.

Another promise that technology has made to us is one of ability. When Apple first launched the App Store, back in the stone age of 2008, after the release of the iPhone 3G, their was a popular saying you probably remember, “There’s and app for that!” Got to do a certain task? Good news, there’s an app for that. Got to make sure you wake up on time? The Iphone’s got your back. Got to find a gluten-free, vegan brownie mix with kale hidden in it? No problem, there’s an app for that. This is the promise of omnipotence. With this device, you can do anything. Again, it’s not much of a leap to go from anything to everything.

In certain ways, this promise has been realized. I don’t have to erase words on a page or cross out sentences while I type this essay which allows me to write more efficiently. I use apps on my own smartphone to use my phone as a baby monitor, photo editor, Cubs World Series ticket purchaser (I wish), and more. I am truly stunned by the amazing things my phone can do. But, inevitably these promises have also backfired. We have not only failed to become omnipotent, our productivity is on a startling decrease. Lethargy is virtually synonymous with increased smartphone usage. Since our phones are constantly giving us notifications, we are constantly distracted when we use technology to complete tasks. While I was writing this article, I received notifications from Twitter, Instagram, an email from Amazon on deals of the day, a notification that the Cubs beat the Giants (12-10, Ian Happ hit his first HR of Spring Training) and a myriad of emails. The devices that have promised us that greatest productivity have also provided us with a level of distraction that is unparalleled in history. As a result, our attention spans are sharply decreasing and our cognitive ability is shrinking. As it turns out, if you want to be a strongly productive and efficient person, there’s really no app for that.

The last promise that technology makes is to me the most heartbreaking. If you own a smartphone, you never have to be away from your friends. They can be constantly with you and you with them. In essence, this is the promise of omnipresence and it can be boiled down into this statement: You never have to be alone. What an amazing promise! We all hate loneliness, it’s one of the things we fear most. Well, now you can text, call, FaceTime, message, snap, direct message, tweet, comment, like, react, share, chat (am I missing any?) with anyone in the world, whenever you want. Say goodbye to loneliness! Except the opposite has actually happened.

This is obvious if you go to a family restaurant. The family of four sitting around a table not speaking to one another and all of them staring a screen supposedly escaping loneliness is practically a cliche now. Not only have we failed to be with everyone at all times, we are now with no one all the time. We are isolated and far more lonely than we were without smartphones. And that’s the best case scenario. The worst case is that rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide are skyrocketing among teens. So, the people who are the most heavily engaged in social media are the same people who are the most lonely, have the most trouble making new friends, feel the most isolated, and take the most antidepressants. How have we responded as a culture? By making smartphone screens 30% larger. So how do these promises and their lack of fulfillment relate to my Rhetoric students asking the question which I placed before them?

Smartphones are like anesthesia. They numb us. It’s why you scroll through Facebook for an hour and feel terrible afterwards. You're numb to the effects that it has on you, and your most likely addicted to it. Just like anesthesia makes us lethargic and sleepy and numb, our smartphones turn off our brains, they grind to a halt our productivity, and they alienate us from others. Is this an optimal situation for us to engage in the massively important task of self- discovery? Does this empower or destroy our ability to healthily self-criticize? I think the answer to this question is obvious.

There is a deeper, spiritual truth here as well. All of these promises are eerily similar to a promise humanity has heard before. There is only one being who is truly omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent. Could it be that all of these promises relate to that first promise that turned out to be a lie? You can be like God. That promise heard by Eve made the fruit so damned enticing; but one bite and the consequences came down like a sledgehammer. We walk around, sleep with, work with a little device modeled after the Fall.

Who am I? Are you enabling your child to ask that question? Have you guarded your child from the pit viper of technology and social media addiction? If you’re not sure, ask them that question. Who are you? Hopefully they will be able to deeply engage with that question; but if the research tells us anything, it is most likely they have eaten of the fruit and the bite out of an apple on the back of the device that goes with our kids wherever they go is a picture of the reality present within them.