iPhones, laptops, PlayStations, Smart-Watches – you name it, we have it. We have evolved into a generation that is obsessed with our technological devices, such as our phones for example. A generation that must have the latest technology, gadget or model. A generation that if we were asked too, couldn’t live without many of these items listed above for even a day. They have become central to our lives. But we rarely think of the consequences attached to relying on these devices. Sophocles once said; “nothing vast enters the life of mortals without a curse”. Within the context of this post, he couldn’t have been more accurate if he tried. It isn’t my intention to portray technology in general as one big negative aspect, not at all! This year alone the internet and modern-day communications technology has helped keep millions of people connected in a time of dire need. During the Coronavirus pandemic the internet has helped people go that extra mile, whether that be to raise awareness for a certain cause and donate via sites like GoFundMe, to connect with family and friends around the globe, or simply those neighbours next door! Technology and online banking’s creation of contactless payment has potentially saved thousands of cashiers and customers lives; not having to deal with change, notes and the life-threatening virus that continues to spread exponentially across the globe, causing severe illness and millions of deaths to-date. This is only a speckle of the great ease that technology has brought to our lives, but we can be so unaware and naïve of the flip side, the side I wish to highlight throughout this blog.
Egan (2017) believes that in the case of the iPhone, the only advancement that we have seen so far is that we have lost the art of daydreaming. I believe that we have lost a whole lot more. Over the years, we have mistakenly assumed that things we now do on the internet or through a smart-phone cannot be done any other way (Shapin, 2007). The intellectual argument made by Shapin (2007) is that it tends to make society exaggerate the impact of such technological innovations. People went haywire when TomTom released the first ever portable map/navigation system. Hedge (2019) describes this invention as “an innovative map delivery service”, which it was. Now, we’ve moved even further along the line of invention to having Google Maps at the swipe of a screen on our smartphones. But I must pose the question, what was wrong with the original map? Whether one used a map or a TomTom, they were still going to reach their destination. So, was this invention really that innovative?
Before, my Father would lecture my siblings and I for being so lazy and dependent on our devices, “What if your phone runs out of battery one day? Where would you be then?” Fast-forward a couple of years, I now see my Father putting his destination point into his phone before he even steps foot into the car, if he’s driving into Galway City or even up the motorway to Dublin. As a labourer who travels nation-wide for work, these are places he once knew like the back of his hand not so long ago. My Father, along with many other people who were once incredibly independent, has fallen into the lazy trap of technology, allowing it to have wiped simple navigation skills from his mind.
Is technology a threat to our intelligence? Has it subconsciously dumbed us down? If it is, it’s only going to get worse as we purchase more and more digital devices than ever before. In the UK alone, 10.3 million consumers purchased at least one new digital device as a result of spending more time at home this year because of the pandemic (Telecom TV, 2020). Frischmann (2018) believes we may be making ourselves dumber when we outsource thinking and rely on supposedly smart tech to micromanage our daily lives for the sake of convenience.
A Personal Threat
The technological threat runs deeper than the devices themselves, but rather within the apps we interact with. While many apps and services are ‘free’ on the internet, you question how people like Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, and Larry Page, Co-Founder of Google, make their billions. In the Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma” (2020), Tristan Harris, a former Google employee, reminds us of the classic saying – “If you’re not paying for the product, then you are the product.”
Every time we pick up our phone, it is monitored. Every time we open a certain page or app, an account is taken of it. Anytime we click onto a link, our data is collected. The aim of the Artificial Intelligence (AI) game is to find out our interests and use them as a tool against us, to get us to keep using our phones and interacting with what these companies can profit from. And so, all of this data that we’re pouring out all of the time is being fed into these systems that have almost no human supervision, helping them make better predictions about what we’re going to do and… who we are (The Social Dilemma, 2020).
To get our attention we are sent a simply notification. The minute our phone beeps we are sucked into the vortex of distraction; we drop everything we’re doing to see if someone texted us, mentioned us in a comment, etc. For example, do you ever find yourself scrolling through Instagram and you come across an advert in your feed of the exact same pair of shoes from last night that you were debating whether or not to buy? You might think that this is a coincidence, I assure you it is not. Essentially, these big-name companies like Instagram, who are a part of Facebook, get paid by other companies to advertise their name/product within their app/service. Instagram knows you have an interest in this certain product through use of AI, ‘cookies’, and other personal data gleamed from its other sources (Facebook), so it advertises it to you, hoping you will buy it. This keeps those at X shoe company happy and keeps them paying the likes of Instagram millions of dollars each year to continue advertising their products. As Askin Raskin factually states; “advertisers are the customers. We’re the thing being sold” (The Social Dilemma, 2020). But to what extent does AI stop its monitoring? The danger point is when computers can overpower our weaknesses – when algorithms can sense our emotional vulnerabilities and exploit them for profit (Thompson, 2019). With barely any human supervision, I doubt it will be long before we see this happening, that’s if it isn’t happening already unbeknownst to us.
The Danger to Young People
Not only is this new digital age affecting our intelligence and our personal security, it is also affecting the wellbeing of our youth. Evidence suggests that moderate use of digital technology is not intrinsically harmful and may be advantageous in a connected world (Przybylski and Weinstein, 2017). And that’s great! But it’s not always the case… Research shows that children, preteens, and teenagers are spending massive amounts of time on digital media and those with more screen time have been shown to have increased obesity, reduced physical activity, and decreased health (Rosen et al, 2014). This study examined the impact of technology on four areas of wellbeing – psychological issues , behaviour problems, attention problems and physical health (Rosen et al, 2014). Technology and digital devices are no longer just targeting the individual, it’s targeting a whole group of people – the future of our world.
As we let ourselves morph into this new digital life we are losing sight of what is important in our lives. Even though we are being told that as a species we aren’t as competent as we once were – we continue to ‘dumb-down’ using devices such as the TomTom and Google Maps. We have experts like Tristan Harris warning us of the security threats from social media apps and other services online, yet we don’t limit our use or terminate our accounts. We are watching our children become more anxious, develop behavioural difficulties and suffer from significant weight gain, but we’ll still buy them that Xbox for Christmas. We’re our own worst nightmare. For a world full of such great scientists, innovators and engineers, we have let our inventions get the better of us, letting them drag us further and further into this digital black hole.
“Technology… is a queer thing. It brings you great gifts with one hand, and it stabs you in the back with the other.” – Carrie Snow.
- Egan, T. (2017). The Phone is Smart but Where’s the Big Idea? [online]. New York: The New York Times Opinion Pages. [Accessed – 20th November 2020]
- Frischmann, B. (2018). Is Smart Technology Making Us Dumb? [online]: Scientific American. [Accessed – 25th November 2020]
- Hedge, Z. (2019). TomTom launches Auto-Stream: A revolutionary map delivery service for autonomous driving [online]. Kent: ioT-now. P:1 [Accessed – 25th November 2020].
- Przybylski, A., Weinstein, N. (2017). A Large-Scale Test of the Goldilocks Hypothesis: Quantifying the Relations Between Digital-Screen Use and the Mental Well-Being of Adolescents [online]. URL: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0956797616678438 [Accessed 2nd December 2020]
- Rosen, L.D., Lim, A.F., Felt, J., Carrier, L.M., Cheever, N.A., Lara-Ruiz, J.M., Mendoza, J.S., Rokkum, J. (2014). Computers in Human Behaviour, Volume 35 [online]. Pages: 364-375. [Accessed – 2nd December 2020]
- Shapin, S. (2007). What Else is New? [online]. New York: The New Yorker. [Accessed 4th November 2020]
- Telecom TV (2020). URL: https://www.telecomtv.com/content/digital-platforms-services/uk-adults-purchased-up-to-21-million-new-digital-devices-during-lockdown-39498/ [Accessed – 2nd December 2020]
- The Social Dilemma, 2020 (United States), [Online] Jeff Orlowski, United States: Exposure Labs, Argent Pictures, The Space Program. [Viewed – 18th November 2020, Netflix].
Aisling McDonagh is currently an undergraduate student on the Bachelor of Sciences (Applied Social Sciences) Degree Programme at the National University of Ireland Galway