"It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity." Albert Einstein
I remember it well. It must have been 7 months ago. Maybe more. Pre-Covid anyway. Back when life was more normal and I had an office to commute to. Funny how we take things for granted.
He was about 4 years old. Waiting for my morning train, I watched with intrigue, as he desperately tried to get his father's attention. The boy's face was lit up in excitement as he attempted to relay his joyful enthusiasm about something important. Important to him, anyway.
But father was oblivious. Absorbed in a different world. A world where his son was but a distant noise. An annoying distraction.
The boy continued to fight for attention. The most important thing in the world, to the little boy at that very moment, was receiving some level of attention or acknowledgement from his parent. Yet 'father' could not fulfil that need.
I watched as the boy grew tired and despondent. Until eventually, he gave up. Giving in to the fact that the battle was lost.
Who did he lose the battle to?
"Everything is designed. Few things are designed well." Brian Reed
His adversary was too sophisticated and expertly engineered. It knew exactly how to hack his father's attention. How to hijack his brain and stop him from cherishing the limited time he'd have to be everything to his boy. How to keep him coming back for that one extra hit of dopamine.
I am, of course, talking about our 21st century newly evolved appendage - the ubiquitous smartphone. And the vast, complex and merciless AI algorithms that lie beyond the smartphone screen.
I took a moment to glance across at my fellow commuters. Most were preoccupied in their own digital world, unaware of their surroundings. It reminded me of Steve Cutts' "Lost World" animation. If you haven't seen it, it's worth a watch.
But why did watching this father/son scene bother me so much?
Well, if I'm being honest, I seen some of my own self being reflected back at me. We often dislike in others what we don't like in ourselves. And I know there are times I've had my head buried in a screen when I should have been giving my full attention to those around me. Friends, family and...yes...regrettably and embarrassingly even my own kids.
Contemplating this set off a trail of thought in my mind. Digital technology is becoming increasingly pervasive into our everyday lives. But its also increasingly clear that it comes at a cost.
Why I Love My Digital World
Don't get me wrong. I'm no Luddite. In fact, I love technology. Heck, I even recently organised a digital conference for actuaries, encouraging them to embrace the digital world of technology. And I believe in that message - as business professionals, we can't get left behind in the digital era of opportunity.
From a personal perspective, there are many things I value and love about technology.
"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." - Arthur C. Clarke
I love that I can access information on anything in the world, at the flick of a finger, on a device I can fit in my pocket.
I love that I can connect with people at the far end of the world, almost as if they are in the same room.
As an independent person who values freedom, flexibility, and autonomy, I also value that I can feasibly carry out much of my current work from anywhere in the world.
I value that Netflix, Amazon, and Google will make accurate predictions about things I want to buy, and things I never even realised I ever wanted. These ubiquitous black box algorithms know who we are, where we are, what we want and why we want it. Our every need is, quite often, only a smartphone finger swipe away.
Finally, I'm old enough to still be amazed at the fact that I've written the draft of this article on a 6-inch device whilst sitting in my back garden with my feet up enjoying a cup of coffee.
I couldn't have imagined this flexible world of work we live in when I was at school many years ago. Yet here we are living in the matrix of digital pixels.
You get the picture. Technology makes our lives efficient, fun, convenient and connected. It makes opportunity and possibilities seem endless. It provides immense leverage, allowing us to do things we never thought possible. It adds to our lives in many ways and I for one would find it difficult to live without my many beloved devices and apps.
The Darker Side of Digital Technology
But I also have deep concerns about where some forms of digital technology are taking us. I feel it has a dark side that is becoming ever more prevalent.
For example, I'm often frustrated that "truth" seems to be increasingly difficult to uncover. Increasingly obscured by false news and emotion driven narratives that can spread like wildfire. It seems that, in some sense, misinformation, manipulation and deceit through data has become the norm and quite often the epicentre of communication.
It concerns me that my 3 children are growing up in a world where attention spans are decreasing, selfies and comparison rule the day, and technology-induced narcissism seems to be increasingly the norm.
It worries me that I can foresee kids becoming increasingly susceptible to the algorithmic perversions of the tech giants. Increasingly drunk on Silicon Valley dopamine as the incursion of manipulative technology, with their slot machine random rewards, moves further into our lives with Machiavellian precision.
The research seems to concur. It tells us that our children are taking over a world of:
- Increased anxiety and depression (technology, especially smartphone addiction, has been shown to increase rates of both anxiety and depression) (see reference 1).
- Poor sleep habits (see reference 2).
- Warped senses of reality (see reference 3).
- Constant distraction (see reference 4).
With technology as an enabler, we increasingly seem to go from one place to another in an efficient fashion avoiding the randomness of life. Jason Hrera of Bigthink describes this as a series of ‘living life in straight lines'. I can see his point. More and more, I feel that, in some ways, stochastic randomness of daily life is becoming a thing of the past as (at least in in some regards) we move towards living ever more deterministic lives based on algorithms and prediction.
Maintaining Balance and Staying in Control
So what should we do to negate some of the negative effects that digital technology can have on our lives, whilst still maintaining the upsides? How can we help to ensure that digital technology is working for us and not against us?
Here are a few things, I've personally found helpful:
1. Have a digital detox day
“There are only two industries that refer to their customers as 'users': illegal drugs and software." - Edward Tufte
Once a week (typically a Sunday) I will do my best to not use my phone at all. It gets locked away. Out of sight, out of mind.
“Device dependence is highly reinforcing, so it becomes like a drug. And in fact it co-opts the same brain systems that are indicated in addiction.” - Michael Gelb
This is a day for stepping outside into the non-pixelated world, some refer to as the real world. Screens are generally forbidden (except for the occasional photo!). Instead, hiking, cycling, and sunshine (or rain where I live), are the day's chosen indulgences.
2. Delete, delete, delete (or at least turn off notifications)
“Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.” — Anne Lamott
I suggest going through every smartphone app, especially social networking sites that require giving up your attention and asking yourself, how much richer your life really is with it. Yes, there are clear benefits. But there are also (often hidden) costs. Really think about and consider if the benefits do outweigh the costs?
I used to think I was being efficient having instantaneous access to my emails open on my computer (or on my phone whilst away from it), able to answer them as soon as the messages came through. It eventually became obvious (I'm a slow learner!) that all I was doing was valuing other people's agenda above my own. More often than not I was seeking a distraction from the more difficult (but more meaningful) work I was meant to be engaged in.
I no longer have email notifications on my phone and try to work much of the time offline in outlook. I now (try to!) strategically check my email three times per day (okay maybe occasionally more). As a result, my working days are largely focused on what Cal Newport calls "Deep Work," rather than fire fighting whac-a-moles as they make their way into my inbox.
Same goes for social media and other notifications. Life is just more peaceful with them turned off and strategically managed at predetermined times of the day.
Like a slot machine on steroids, the random reward nature of notifications is the means by which the engineers of smartphone apps and devices have exploited our psychological weaknesses. I've found that turning the tap off at the source is the most efficient way to fight back.
Life without the constant phone beep notification is good. Sure, I miss the constant micro drip of adrenaline being fed by my random reward generator. But I don't miss the wasted time and accompanying feelings of guilt.
3. Set minimum and maximum time limits
“What gets measured gets managed” - Peter Drucker
Have you ever checked LinkedIn, Facebook or YouTube for a quick 5 minute break, only to find you have gone down multiple rabbit holes and wasted an hour or more of your time?
I know I have.
Or at least I used to.
Nowadays, I set very strict limits on my social media and internet browsing usage. I actually physically set an online timer with a predetermined time when I engage in social media. Sad? Maybe. But I don't really care. If it means I finish work on time, without stress and with the feeling of having accomplished what I set out to do that day, then I'll happily make the trade. Downtime after 5pm is just more fun and rewarding.
4. Get into nature as much as possible
I like to walk, hike, mountain bike through forests and go to the beach with my kids.
When I don’t engage in these things, and have time away from technology, I very quickly find my energy beginning to dip, my mind starting to fog and my mood can veer towards irritability.
Hence I view these things, not as nice things to do if I have time, but as personal necessities and priorities, allowing me to function optimally and recover from hours spent looking at a screen.
I recently created my own secret hideaway in the countryside where weekends are about the outdoors. I help my kids build huts in the forest, climb trees, make random stuff, light fires and just potter about.
The upside? My brain gets a well-needed break from living life through a screen. My nervous system resets. My soul gets grounded. And I feel like I'm giving my kids part of the privileged relatively non-tech outdoor-based life I was lucky enough to grow up in.
5. Shut down complete.
“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.” Mark Twain
A running actuarial joke is that an actuary is a computer with a heart.
There's probably some truth to it.
My own current "computer trait" is that of having a mental "shut down complete" switch at the end of the day (idea borrowed from Cal Newport).
I've heard it referred to as a digital sunset. I like that phrase. 5pm. Computer shut down. Smart phone off. Work over. Mental shut down. Family time.
"Technology... is a queer thing. It brings you great gifts with one hand, and it stabs you in the back with the other." C.P. Snow
I think digital technology is a classic example of there being no such thing as a free lunch.
It's amazing, it really is. There are so many beneficial aspects to digital technology. So many opportunities and ways in which our lives are enhanced. Overall, I can see how my life is better with digital technology.
But there will always be trade-offs in life.
"Technological progress has merely provided us with more efficient means for going backwards." - Aldous Huxley
In many ways, I feel like we are living in a grandiose experiment where no-one knows exactly where the path will lead us.
However, I believe we can still optimise our approach and the above actions have helped me.
With all that said, I'm still to figure this stuff out. And the tech guys in Silicon Valley are often staying one step ahead of me. If you any further thoughts on keeping digital technology under control, working for us and not against us, please do let me know!
- Demirci, K., Akgönül, M., & Akpinar, A. (2015). Relationship of smartphone use severity with sleep quality, depression, and anxiety in university students. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 4(2), 85–92. doi:10.1556/2006.4.2015.010