On Technology

Let’s be real for a second, here. When is the last time you went twenty-four hours without touching your phone? Without answering a text or scrolling through social media? When is the last time you truly went “of the grid” to be alone in nature or spend time with your loved ones?

My guess is, it’s been a while.

I have developed a love-hate relationship with technology. In so many ways, technology is truly incredible. I can appreciate the fact that it allows me to stay in touch with my family in a different part of the country and talk to friends overseas. It can help lonely individuals find a community or learn a new skill. Technology is enabling people in rural places opportunities that would’ve been impossible just a few decades ago; it is literally saving lives and opening the doors for children across the world. It is the reason I can share these words with you right now, and for that alone I am grateful.

If technology were suddenly stripped from my life, I have no doubts I would feel its absence. But our world has become so dependant on technology, so much so that most of us can’t imagine leaving the house without our phones. Sometimes I question whether or not this is a good thing, whether or not this kind of dependency is truly healthy or if it will have detrimental effects in the long run.

Sometimes I just want a break. A break from the constant distraction of notifications and the subconscious fear of missing out, of the awareness that comes with being connected and the constant expectation of a reply. Sometimes I just want to go somewhere without my phone for once, to get a little bit lost and find my way back home with nothing but my wits and a map. Sometimes I don’t want to hear about the latest disaster in Syria, or the drama going on in the United States. I just want to exist right here in this moment with you. Is that too much to ask?

Whether or not we like to admit it, technology changes things. Sometimes this change is for the better, sometimes for the worse. In a recent study done at the University of Chicago, researchers investigated the effects our phones have on our brains when they are present but not in use. They had participants complete a series of problem-solving questions with their phone sitting on top of their desk, hidden in their bag, or left in another room. The results were shocking: those who had their phone with them in the room performed more poorly than those who had been asked to leave it elsewhere.

The mere presence of one’s phone actually has the ability to diminish the brain’s capacity for focus, critical thinking, and creativity.

It seems impossible, doesn’t it? Such a small, inconspicuous device can’t possibly have such an effect on us. But science has just proven to us they can. The researchers called this phenomenon “brain drain.” You have a limited attention span; when your phone is present, a portion of this limited resource is devoted to stopping you from picking it up and mindlessly scrolling through Instagram or checking your emails. Your brain is subconsciously aware of the fact that you may, at any given moment, receive a notification, so it is constantly searching for one.

When your phone buzzes or beeps, it lights up the part of your brain responsible for pleasure and you get a hit of dopamine. You got what you were looking for. You matter. It is easy to get addicted to this cycle if we are not aware of what is happening. We are only beginning to understand the consequences of “brain drain” and the effects it could be having in our schools, in our work and daily lives.

These days, I have an increasing appreciation for people who can engage in a full conversation without once reaching for their device. It is one thing to be on high alert for an ailing parent or a child at home who might need your help. It is yet another thing entirely to be scrolling through your Facebook feed while you’re having a conversation with someone. If you find you’re too busy to look a person in the eyes to see how they’re really feeling, maybe you need to ask yourself about your priorities.

Just as your phone can diminish your ability to concentrate, it can reduce the quality of your interactions and the richness of everyday life. Life is a series of ordinary moments made extraordinary by the people we spend them with and the beauty of the simplest things. If life truly is a miracle, maybe we need to start acting like it.

By leaving your phone face up on the table or keeping your eyes glued to a screen while you speak with a loved one, you lessen the value of the moment you’re sharing. You are sending them the message that there are people you are thinking of elsewhere, and you consider these potential notifications to be more important than what they have to say. You are telling them you don’t really care, whether this is your intention or not.

We’ve all been guilty of this at one point or another in our lives. I can recall so many times in my teen years when my mom came home from a meeting, and I couldn’t be bothered to put down what I was doing for thirty seconds to give her a proper hello. Yes, there are times when we are working and we are in the flow and we don’t want any little interruption to break that. Yet even in these times, I think we can pause for a moment to acknowledge someone who might want to speak with us. If you explain to someone you would like to give them your full attention but you are doing important work at the moment, they are usually willing to come back at a later time. More importantly, they know you care.

I was listening to a podcast recently; the host had spoken with someone who worked with Morgen Freeman over the period of a month. The host asked the man what made Morgen Freeman so special. The person responded that Freeman had “the ability to make each person he met feel like he hadn’t seen them in many years.” In other words, he knew how to show up and be present for others, to let them be seen and heard.

We have a tendency to get caught up in our own little worlds and take so much of life for granted. Especially people. When we are young and naive, we never truly appreciate all our family does for us. When we are older and busy, oh, so busy, we often forget this invaluable truth yet again. Family is everything, and people are important. More important than any measure of success we could possibly stand to achieve.

What is the point of reaching the top of the mountain if there is no one with you to share the view?

If you are living away from friends or loved ones, yes, please do send photos and texts and FaceTime. When someone you care about wants to know about your day, please do respond to their message. But there is a fine balance to be had, one between staying connected with those closest to us and being obsessed with this supercomputer we all carry around in our back pockets. It is a balance I think we need to find again.

Put down the phone, for once. Leave it in another room. The next time you’re having a conversation, look that person in the eyes. Speak with someone you think you know and let them prove you wrong. Collect memories. Ride the bus and people watch. Sit in the park and people watch. Just people watch, in general. It’ll be much more entertaining than TV, trust me on this one. Forget about time. Go on an adventure. Sleep under the stars. Sit around a campfire and roast marshmallows and exchange stories with your favourite people in the world.

Just live a little. Life is short. And people are worth it.

For more information:

Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity

Why We’re All Addicted to Texts, Twitter and Google