We are on the verge of a crisis much more dangerous than that of obesity.
In fact, it’s much more dangerous than that of smoking, or alcoholism, or anything else that threatens our physical health.
It’s likely been a driver in the rising global rates of depression, particularly among men.
This is the widespread deep existential crisis we face as a result of the pervasive acceptance of the demi-god technology.
This is the Technostential crisis.
That’s a big claim I know, but bear with me. The above threats are huge issues we need to address. But there is a good argument to be made for focusing first on living a rich life, before we focus on living a long one.
Our inability to deal with the challenges of technology is not a novel concept. Disney brilliantly tackled the issue in their popular 2008 film Wall-E. The film, set eight hundred years in the future, depicts earth as a desolate wasteland, and the few remaining humans, who occupy a space station, as obese flying-chair bound automatons.
Their immobility having resulted from a technological reliance that has spanned generations and generations of life in space; and the physical distance from earth in which they live is a metaphor for our own isolation from nature.
“People are unable to walk, their faces are glued to screens every waking hour; they are in a very real way slaves to their gadgets.”
Even more worryingly, the relationships to their individual pieces of technology have all but dissolved any relationships they have had with other human beings. People are unable to walk, their faces are glued to screens every waking hour; they are in a very real way slaves to their gadgets.
Sound familiar? This is as relatable as dystopia gets.
The genius of this movie is that we can all feel – to some degree – that it has a certain familiarity to our own lives. We have a nagging sense that this could be the natural result of the continuation of mankind’s current trajectory.
Our viewpoint however should not be so basic as to label technology as inherently evil. It should be that we need to redefine our use of technology in order to better serve a positive human experience–one that is rooted in a healthier use of both our bodies and minds, one that recognizes our nature as social creatures, and our need for challenge, autonomy and expression.
But is this how we are using technology? I’d say clearly not.
How does technology impact us?
When we consider the dangers of technology it is easy to focus on the extreme examples.
We tend to think about how technology can create biological weapons, accidentally generate super viruses, clone animals, or cause a nuclear apocalypse. But these are not the immediate worries we face. It is the more covert forms of technology that could potentially cause the most damage to the human experience. The reality is that we’re letting the apparently harmless technologies govern our lives. And the trends that are arising as a result of this are harrowing.
“When an individual questions if their life has any inherent purpose, this is called an existential crisis.”
When an individual questions if their life has any inherent purpose, this is called an existential crisis. It can materialize for a number of reasons, but generally does so when people are depressed, feeling alone, are searching for meaning, feeling dehumanized or are simply dissatisfied with their lives.
What is clear is that our inability to monitor and bring out the best of technology so that it cultivates human flourishing, is resulting and will result in widespread technostential crises.
But isn’t this all just a natural part of of cultural evolution?
All technological innovations have unintended consequences.
Usually, the more significant the change, the more significant the consequence. To this degree, it only makes sense that our rapid developments in technology will bring about huge repercussions.
In fact, the success of technological advancements, often comes at the hand of the suffering of the individual. When humans moved from nomadic hunters to farmers, there were some immediate benefits – better protection against dangers such as predators or the weather for example. However, the average farmer was forced to work much harder than the average forager, and had a notably worse diet. These were just a few of the unintended consequences.
So what is technology doing to us?
Former head of the American Psychological Association, Martin Selgman, has said that someone born today is ten times as likely to develop depression at some point in their life as someone born 50 years ago.
The underlying reasons are complex, but the general belief is that today’s youth are born into a system that doesn’t foster the type of psychological skills we need to ward off depression. The integration of technology into daily life is without a doubt one of these systems. In fact, many studies suggest that those youth who spend more time on social media are less happy.
Complicated, yes. But here’s a closer look at some of the ways in which this occurs.
It dilutes our sense of meaning
This is for a few reasons.
First, meaning is derived from experience and to a certain extent, struggle. We have biological triggers that move us to action, that allow us to derive meaning through struggle. This is how we have survived for the last hundred thousand years.
One of these biological triggers is the release of dopamine in response to stimulus, whether it be humorous, sexual, violent or whatever. The problem is that with overexposure, such as with violent media, we become numb and begin to undervalue what we experience in day to day life.
It perpetuates disconnect from the body
There is a lot of new-agey spiritual talk about being ‘grounded’ and ‘being mindful of your body.’ While this may not resonate with everyone, it’s important to know that it’s not just esoteric rhetoric. It’s incredibly important.
We live in a time in which the majority of our problems are solved by logic rooted in the prefrontal cortex. Technology creates jobs that require less physical effort and more complex reasoning. But the balance has gone too far towards a purely mental focus, the idea of ‘living in our heads’ is one that is becoming equated with anxiety and discontent.
Another outcome is that we have all sorts of diseases relating to being stagnant, and our inability to express ourselves physically ultimately results in an inability to express ourselves emotionally. Psychosomatic therapists have recognized this for centuries, but as materialists we have associated the body with the primal and the mind with the civilized.
It Elicits Stress and Anxiety
There are dozens of studies that have shown the anxiety inducing effect that technology has. In fact, the term Technostress has been long been used in academic circles; with researcher Craig Bord calling it “a modern disease of adaptation caused by an inability to cope with new computer technologies in a healthy manner.”
The internet is an obvious example as one technology that fosters this through constant overstimulation. What often results is what psychologists call ‘analysis-paralysis’ – the inability to make decisions because we over-analyze the results and therefore an action doesn’t take place.
It is the unfocused mind that worries about the future and the past, and as Harvard Psychologist Daniel Gilbert suggests “the wandering mind is an unhappy mind”. Technology fuels the fire of this wandering mind, and the result is anxiety.
It weakens our psychological resilience
As touched on earlier, technology removes our need to struggle. While this takes away our sense of meaning, it also weakens our ability to adapt to stress and adversity – what psychologists call ‘resilience.’
Resilience is not blind optimism. It is cultivated when someone is able to effectively deal with both positive and negative emotions. What is needed in such situations is level headedness, and the ability to take everything in stride and not get too hung up on either the highs or the lows. A stoic attitude is reflective of resilience.
Technology, particularly the internet, is fuelled by the promotion of emotion-inducing stories. An article or news piece which goes viral will either elicit strong positive or negative emotions. Repeated exposure to such extreme content is likely to foster emotional instability.
It’s also important to reiterate that when all our problems can solved with just the click of a button, we end up being conditioned not to work through difficulties.
So where are we heading?
The unfortunate reality is that humans will always take the path of least resistance (homeostasis) in order to conserve energy.
There are dozens of other worrying effects of technology that span far further than the reach of this article. Our ability to experience empathy, damage to our social and emotional intelligence, superficial relationships, an inability to be present, and living life through a social media lense are all ways in which technology challenges the human condition.
But is there a possible prevention?
There is hope that cultural attitudes towards technology will change enough so that we may to some degree manage to curb the above issues. However, with the great financial incentives of billion dollar companies, this is unlikely to be met without great resistance.
Societies which engage in simplicity, such as the Amish, Inughuit, and Kenyan Maasai, have reportedly been significantly happier than individuals in technology-laden societies. But to expect us to retreat to a monastic way of life is unrealistic. Our only option is to go forward and make better choices as individuals. It is even likely that the very technology that creates our problems, may be the source of the solutions.
“We may not be able to unplug from a digital world, but we can pick and choose our vices.”
We cannot have complete autonomy over the environment we live in, but we can frame our experience within it. Formal education will likely always lag behind our personal interests, but this is the role that having strong personal values, philosophy, and even meditation can play.
We may not be able to unplug from a digital world, but we can pick and choose our vices.
We may not be able to leave work without checking our emails, but we can detach ourselves from Facebook.
We may be on the verge of a technostential crisis, but we can choose to live a life more in line with our biological desires – one of autonomy and one rooted in health and physical activity.