An article surfaced on Cracked.com sometime in February (I think based on comment dates) by David Wong titled “7 Reasons the 21st Century is Making You Miserable“. It’s since made the top of Digg as well as making the rounds throughout the blogosphere. The premise of the article is that modern technology is making us miserable, lonely people. Despite the sad subject matter, it’s humorously written and worth the read.
Overall, I think Wong makes some good points. The overarching theme is one of technological isolation.
Captured in Wong’s “#3. Texting is a shitty way to communicate.” the Internet creates the tendency to rely on text-based communication over communicating by phone (better) or in-person (best). This is likely due to the control text-based communication affords — if someone calls you and you answer, you fit your life to their demands. If they email you, you can email them back whenever and put their demands on your schedule. Additionally, we have greater control over what we say in a text-based world, which means that we can shield our emotions better (among other things). Ironically, despite the care people put into wording emails and text-based communication to only say so much, the article goes on to point out how terribly inefficient text-based communication is. I can’t argue with this in the least as I’m daily confronted with my own preference of email over phone calls (even when I recognize the inefficiency) and see horrendous miscommunications resulting from loss of tone, misreading, etc. As Wong notes in his related “#4. Online company only makes us lonelier.”:
There’s a weird side effect to [living in Text World], too: absent a sense of the other person’s mood [experienced through body language and tone of voice], every line we read gets filtered through our own mood instead.
As I’m learning right now in Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness, our brains inevitably filter feelings about the past or present (or whatever) based on our current mood. How much more amplified is this when the only communication inputs we receive are text-based?
Continuing my out-of-order analysis, Wong lists the related problems of “#1. We don’t have enough annoying strangers in our lives.”, “#2. We don’t have enough annoying friends, either.”, and “#5. We don’t get criticized enough.” These all relate to our enhanced ability to pick and choose the people with whom we associate over the Internet. The Internet has an amazing power to bring like-minded individuals to the same table where they all reinforce each other’s beliefs, congratulate themselves on their insights, and chide anyone who disagrees with them. This happens big-time in the blogosphere from what I’ve seen. For examples, just find any established political, health, or finance blog. The problem here is that we are empowered to surround ourselves with people who never challenge our beliefs or make us uncomfortable. Change is uncomfortable and the price of sound ideas is constantly holding them to the fire to be tested. How do you do that if you effectively surround yourself with yes-men?
The flip-side benefit, of course, is immense: the Internet enables people with uncommon beliefs to find other like-minded folks.
Also, anyone who has spent any measured time on Internet forums can attest to the wide abundance of annoying people that you simply cannot escape. If you spend any time on forums (and even if you generally avoid them, they are still a fact of Internet life you’ll inevitably encouter), you will encounter annoying people who are nothing like you. Even when you can mute certain forum members, you still can’t completely isolate yourself from people you don’t like.
I’ve got little to say about “#6. We’re victims of the Outrate Machine.” It is probably part of the human condition for us to want to see/read about misery. It makes us feel better about our lives, after all. Sad, but true. So that we see all sorts of gloom and doom sites on the Internet? That’s just par for the course. The only difference is that people with crazy ideas (Conspiracy theorists) are now empowered to find each other and then self-reinforce within their group their own bizarre viewpoints. But perhaps like the abundance of porn apparently reducing violent sex crimes, maybe the ability for wackos to find each other and exchange high-fives about their strange theories will reduce the likelihood of domestic terrorism. Hard to say.
Finally, Wong’s “#7. We feel worthleses, because we actually are worth less.” reminds me of this huge graphical “how to” guide titled “How to not fail at life.” The gist of both Wong’s observation and the humorous graphic guide is that human beings are not hardwired to exist in isolation, doing everything for ourselves, and nothing for our friends. When our friends only exist in digital form, there’s just only so much we can do to engage them. It’s like the 20 birthday messages you get via Facebook. All these people see it’s your birthday and write on your wall. Does it make us feel better? Maybe. It’s possible it makes us feel worse — after all, this sort of communication takes so little effort and is so transparently prescribed as to feel hollow and worthless.
There is probably more to say here, and I’m very skeptical that overall we aren’t incredibly better off thanks to the communication empowered through the Internet. However, Wong’s points are well taken and stark reminders that technology affords us the ability to isolate ourselves, be lazy friends, and pretend to have a “real” life and “real” friends, when in the end, most of our online buddies will disappear just as soon as we stop posting on our forums or blogs or facebook pages. A balance needs to be struck between realspace and our virtual worlds.
Here’s Wong’s conclusion:
It ain’t rocket science; you are a social animal and thus you are born with little happiness hormones that are released into your bloodstream when you see a physical benefit to your actions. Think about all those teenagers in their dark rooms, glued to their PC’s, turning every life problem into ridiculous melodrama. Why do they make those cuts on their arms? It’s because making the pain-and subsequent healing-tangible releases endorphins they don’t get otherwise. It’s pain, but at least it’s real.
That form of stress relief via mild discomfort used to be part of our daily lives, via our routine of hunting gazelles and gathering berries and climbing rocks and fighting bears. No more. This is why office jobs make so many of us miserable; we don’t get any physical, tangible result from our work. But do construction out in the hot sun for two months, and for the rest of your life you can drive past a certain house and say, “Holy shit, I built that.” Maybe that’s why mass shootings are more common in offices than construction sites.
It’s the kind of physical, dirt-under-your-nails satisfaction that you can only get by turning off the computer, going outdoors and re-connecting with the real world. That feeling, that “I built that” or “I grew that” or “I fed that guy” or “I made these pants” feeling, can’t be matched by anything the internet has to offer.
2 replies on “Is Technology Making us Miserable?”
Two things come to mind: In Jacques Ellul’s book on propaganda he talks about how increased news of world events (outside of ones immediate social sphere)through mass media lead people to feel out of control of their lives, because they are continually presented with circumstances that are outside of their control. He also writes of the irony in technology–that it is supposed to be this source freedom for us all, but it constantly needs regulation, so humanity is less free (law-wise) than ever in our history. Take the car for example, how many traffic regulations need to be implemented so people know where to stop, how fast to go, what lane to drive in. Medieval serfs had more freedom. It’s fascinating to think how these dont’s and do’s must play on our thoughts and our feelings. Ellul wasn’t against technology persay, but I think the question is fair to ask where is the line drawn? At what point does our creation become our master?
I think much of the problem associated with new technology is that there is no reference point for how to deal with it. In other words, there’s no heuristic model of etiquette, or a basic understanding of how the technology works or where it comes from. Many assume that if it is new, it is inherently good and necessary. Public education does a poor job at teaching people how to learn about technology, and how to retain basic human qualities. We are losing our penmanship and our basic communication ability whilst acquiring a plethora of new communication means. Nobody masters any particular one, and few bother to think about what they write; communication simply becomes knee-jerk emotional reaction. When one learns a bit of history and some computer basics (which you don’t get unless you are either a CS major or just really interested) a computer is just a little magic box that does cool stuff. Technology is a double-edged sword, and it’s potential for good equals it’s potential for evil. If we don’t actively engage technology with a skeptical eye or have an understanding of how it relates to our personal psyche, society, and the entire world then we risk it being abused by the few to control the many. Anyone with a basic understanding of technology’s role in the world will know that Internet neutrality is key to preserving the free world and democracy.