[This article was written for Prophecy and is cross-posted here with permission.]
We are addicted to technology. Literally. Cognitive scientists have found the same kind of dopamine response in smartphone users checking Facebook as in gamblers pulling the handle on a slot machine, or junkies getting high.
And we know it. We now have resorts where you can pay to have your connected devices taken away from you for the duration of your stay. Many of us feel active resentment toward our smartphones. And yet the bulk of the digital technology we produce demands ever more attention, chattering away at us every waking moment. We’ve even started to invent technology to help us put away our technology.
This has consequences.
Remember that review of the Apple Watch? Our devices are making us increasingly aware of what we’re not doing and less able to engage with what we are. 20 years ago psychologists were concerned about heavy internet users sitting at home in isolated socially-awkward bubbles, alone and unable to cope with their peers. Now we’ve invented ways to make that bubble portable, surrounding ourselves at all times with a miasma of instagrammed lunches, random meetup notifications and piano-playing cats. Even when we’re there, we’re not there.
At the core of what makes us human lies self-awareness: understanding who we are as individuals, our place in the wider world, our relationships to the people and environments that surround us. But self-awareness requires reflection, and that’s the opposite of what our digital helper/minders encourage. We are prompted to broadcast our thoughts before we’ve had a chance to examine them; keep moving, keep posting, keep up – and as soon as we’ve tapped ‘send’ we forget all about it.
In exchange for our attention, we get convenience. Convenience is seductive, but it can also be dangerous.
We have wearables that track our movements and prompt us when it’s time to walk; soon we’ll have kitchens that track what we eat and tell us whether we’re doing it right, software that turns out the lights when it’s time to go to bed, sensors that tell us when we’ve got a cold.
I’m pretty sure that most of us can tell when we’ve got a cold, or when we’re tired, and we can certainly form and maintain healthy habits without constant oversight. When we outsource this kind of decision making, we let go of more than the mundane: we relinquish a bit of our self-awareness. We might even give up some of our identity by subscribing to someone else’s idea of what it means to be healthy, to live a good life. And these things aren’t easily recovered: research has taught us is that when we don’t use our skills, they atrophy and fade. Habits are easy to make and hard to break.
We are commoditising ourselves. The new currency of the digital economy is us, our information, our attention; and the more we succumb to convenience, the more of ourselves we are required to let go. Paradoxically, as technology grows ever more intelligent, it’s increasingly important for us to understand our place in the new landscape we are creating so that we can build a sustainable future. How can we do that if we don’t even understand ourselves?
Commoditising ourselves devalues our consciousness. Selling off bite-sized chunks of our thoughts, emotions and attention in the name of convenience sets us on the path to losing our grasp on the whole. Those of us who design and develop technology have a responsibility to prioritise what makes us human over the latest shiny thing. We are making the future – let’s make it a future we want to live in.