Is Technology Keeping Us From Reality?

shutterstock_559695454
According to the Pew Center, 95 percent of Americans use a cellphone as of 2016. Screens are becoming ubiquitous and taking up more and more of our attention. SHUTTERSTOCK

This article, along with others to help you begin the journey toward a more fulfilling life, is featured in Newsweek's Special Edition: Mindfulness.

Before speaking to Michael Harris, one can't help but expect the leading thinker about technology's corrupting influence on our collective psyche to be slightly "damn kids and their computers" about the whole affair. But one would be wrong: There's no grizzled hatred of technology for technology's sake, no longing for the good old days before smartphones, when you practically had to know origami to read your newspaper on the train. Harris has likely logged more time in front of a screen than most of us, and it's his knowledge of just how deep the rabbit hole goes that makes him such a valuable scholar of our unique position as screens are becoming ubiquitous and taking up more and more of our attention.

"I was working on a magazine in 2012, and I was one of those people with three glowing rectangles in front of him at all times," says Harris, whose time in front of those three screens eventuated first the book The End of Absence and later the follow-up, Solitude. "I had essentially a breaking point; it was a combination of diminished magazine and journalism work, with, I guess what you could call a kind of crowd sickness that I was feeling from having obsessive connectivity and no distinct disconnections from that crowd." These disconnections from the crowd, once so easily attainable by shutting the front door and taking the phone off the hook, are harder to come by with every new gadget. For Harris, this ongoing change in how we live our lives is of no less import to history than the first printed Bibles arriving in the courts and churches of Europe.

"End of Absence is a study on what it means to be the last generation in history that will remember life before the internet," Harris says. "So it's more broadly looking at the experience of living through what I call a 'Gutenberg' moment. We're living through something that's as a dramatic, immediate shift as what they experienced in the 15th century with the invention of the printing press."

Harris recently completed a second book, Solitude, that covers this idea further by exploring something humans are forgetting how to do with every new bit of connectivity: to be alone. To Harris, the faux-connections offered by social media and hyperconnectivity are junk cures for withdrawal from the real thing. "I think it can be very easily likened to our experience with food," he says. "We evolved in an environment where sugar, salt and fat were extremely scarce, so we were designed to hoard those things when we encountered them. And then in the age of superabundance, companies like McDonald's discovered ways to hijack that instinctual drive, and the result has been obesity and diabetes. Similarly, we evolved in an environment where social connections and social grooming were extremely important to our survival. And so we have an instinctual desire to hoard moments of social grooming. Just as our food drives were hijacked in the 20th century, our social drives were hijacked in the 21st century by media and tech."

It's a slippery slope, not unlike a diet of Big Macs and Hostess cupcakes when we know the supermarket has vegetables within easy reach. "In the same way we've had to curate healthy food diets for ourselves in past decades, I think we're now arriving at a point of social obesity, where we're going to have to start curating healthy media diets," Harris concludes.

App developer Kevin Holesh agrees wholeheartedly, which is why he took some simple inspiration from a minor real-life disappointment to create something he hopes will encourage exactly the kind of media diet Harris hopes for. Moment, his app that tracks exactly how much time a user spends zoned out in front of their phone, is the result of Holesh realizing exactly how simple it is to fall back down that screen-induced rabbit hole despite the comforts and wonders of real life begging for our attention. After moving in with his fiancée, Holesh found that when it comes to screens, routines never go down easily.

"We were cooking dinner, sitting out on the porch watching the sunset, you know, all that cute couple stuff," says Holesh. "Then a couple weeks into it, we fell back into our old habits, which for us at the time was sitting on the couch, usually with the TV on, just scrolling on our phones." Holesh grasped that even in the face of pre-marital bliss and the comforts of home, the warming glow of the smartphone screen was too much to resist without help. Another gadget would provide the spark. "I was looking at my Fitbit, and Fitbit tracks how many steps you're taking. I realized, there was no 'step counter' for how much you're on your phone."

It was exactly what Holesh's new domestic bliss needed to stay blissful. But excitement and good intentions may have gotten the better part of judgment when he snuck the first version of Moment, his "step counter," onto his (by then) wife's phone. "The first couple of conversations, I approached it in sort of the incorrect way. I was confrontational about it, like 'Hey you're spending too much time on your phone.' Or 'Hey, we're spending too much time on our phones.' And that didn't really work." As Holesh points out, it's a common affliction both for individuals and couples. "I'm certainly not perfect at it in my own life. I'll be on my phone and realize 15 minutes have gone by when I meant to do one small thing that could have taken 30 seconds."

But before long, Holesh not only converted his better half, he also drummed up enough interest to launch the app in earnest. Holesh believes Moment will serve the critical purpose of letting people know how much time their phones are taking away from their mindful participation in the real world. It's a simple concept, but as Holesh says, easier said than done when dealing with a device of such ubiquity. "My main goal with Moment is to make the person think for a second before they go on their phones," he elaborates. "So instead of going on your phone out of a reflex, or an instinct just to avoid boredom, I want the person to take a breath and think, Here is why I'm going on my phone, and here's how long I'll stay on my phone."

For both Harris and Holesh, the constant presence of screens isn't something to lament any more than one would lament the advent of the assembly line or the automobile. These inventions have become a part of our reality and are generally seen as being beneficial. But as with cars and assembly lines, there is always the possibility of abuse, whether in the form of the 18-hour workday or the drunk driver. Zoning out in front of our screens might not physically cripple us the way these can, but it can cut us off entirely from the real world, offering a methadone-strength facsimile that's harmless in small doses, but when abused can take away one of our most elemental skills—perhaps one of the things that keeps us sane. Screens mean we're never alone, which makes it ever harder to mindfully engage with our real surroundings.

This article was excerpted from Newsweek's Special Edition: Mindfulness. For more on learning how to live in the moment, banish stress and become more in tune with yourself, pick up a copy today.

Mindfulness Reprint Cover
Topix Media Lab
Is Technology Keeping Us From Reality? | Health