We love to reminisce about how technology has changed, remember how we used to wait for a song to come on the radio to record it for a mixed tape? Remember pagers? In my 33 years, it feels like there has been a seamless transition from greasy pay phones to smartphones that now track your every move, pulse, and intention. What did we do before Uber?? We ask each other, and that’s a good question. I recently had a meeting with someone who was traveling for business without a phone, he had to turn around and go back to the hotel because his cab driver couldn’t find the coffee shop where we were meeting. Pre-smartphone era issues. He explained that the initial freedom from no phone (less distractions, more focus) quickly turned to inconvenience at not having the technology he had become accustomed to.
Without question, technology/smartphones have improved our lives and made many things much, much easier. But recently, I’ve been mulling over the potential negative impacts these extensions of our hands may have on us. Even still, maybe ‘negative impacts’ is the wrong term to use. When we choose to be on our devices we miss opportunities to do something else, with screen time often averaging around 2-3 hours per day, per person, what are the opportunity costs?
When my niece picks up her iPad in the middle of a beautiful day instead of going outside to use sidewalk chalk (what I did when I was her age) what is it costing her?
When I scroll through Pinterest before going to bed instead of reading a book, what is it costing me?
Does the fact that I always have something to read or look at when I’m waiting in line mean I will eventually lose my ability to wait patiently with nothing?
I don’t have the answer to these types questions, and often the answer depends on your personal preference, but I was happy to find an article that helps articulate many of the issues I’ve been thinking about. The article is a Q+A with Cal Newport about his new book, Digital Minimalism. Below, I’ve pulled out a few excerpts that have resonated with me:
Newport doesn’t deny that the technology we use is both useful and imperative. (He is, after all, a professor of computer science at Georgetown.) The problem in our current digital world, he argues, isn’t about utility, it’s about autonomy: tech greatly improves our life, right up until the point where you stop using it intentionally and unknowingly fall into manipulative black holes—on your phone, on Slack, in your inbox—that are specifically designed to be addicting.
The theory is that with thirty days of abstinence, you’ll be able to figure out when tech stops being useful and starts being problematic. With that extra time, you’ll not only re-discover the meaningful leisure activities you left behind when scrolling through Instagram became a national pastime; you'll also get a better sense of the values and goals that matter to you. Then, you can intentionally add back the digital tools that’ll enhance, rather than distract from, the things you want. (For instance, maybe Facebook is the most effective way to keep in touch with far-off family, or Twitter is the best, most up-to-the-moment source of news—but you should at least press pause long enough to reevaluate if that’s true.)
I don't fear missing out. I fear not giving enough attention to the things that I already know for sure are important.
As someone who works in Tech and has opted in to the ‘new iPhone every year’ plan, I don’t intend on abandoning any devices any time soon. I would however, like to be mindful of ways to ensure that my time is spent the way I chose, in a way that gives priority to the things I value most.