It has been about 140 years since the telephone was first invented, 70 years since the computer came by, 50 years after the internet was created and 40 years since the mobile phone was made. All this has made us extremely dependent creatures and has even affected our social lives and our ability to interact with other people; it has also changed the way we create relationships…and the way we destroy them. By Sruthi Radhakrishnan
Imagine a typically romantic scene in the 1990s: a young couple in love taking a leisurely stroll on a beach, hand in hand, gazing into each other’s eyes, whispering sweet nothings. Cut to the present day: The same scenario but there is something amiss. Gone are the sweet romantic gestures, their place cruelly usurped by technology! Both of them are busy tinkering with their respective smartphones, physically with each other but mentally and spiritually miles apart.
Researchers have found that constantly checking for messages is an addiction which like other drugs can ruin your personal relationships. In a study done by Dr James Roberts of Bayler’s Hankamer School of Business, Texas, the survey shows that young adults spend up to seven hours a day interacting with communication technology and their behaviour can spill over into a problem. For some it can become a compulsion while others feel withdrawal symptoms, akin to those felt by substance users, when they are not with their phone.
In his book titled The Shallows - What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains, Nicholas Carr questions if Google is making us stupid and presents medical evidence that frequent interruptions mess with our ability to form short term memories, make it harder to focus, and can contribute to depression.
Of course, there is a flip side, or what detractors call the evolution of human relationships with the advent of technology. Communications technologies have altered perceptions since about forever. Socrates spoke ill of the Sophists, who actually wrote things down without remembering them, at a time when the spoken word was the only form in which people remembered anything. Monks bemoaned what print would do to the Art of Memory. In "House of the Seven Gables" (1851) a character complains about telegraphy making the world too busy, and George Eliot's characters say steam has led to useless travel, people bothering your life of contemplation.
In other words, a few hundred years ago, the increasing ability of average people to send letters could have led to quite a few people spending all their time writing, the invention of the telephone might have made some use up all their time talking to people, the printing press could have influenced some people to pass all their time reading, movies might have made some people ‘waste away’ doing nothing but watching them, records would have encouraged people to listen to endless music at the expense of all else.
Changing Dynamics of Intimacy
But social media is a slippery slope for many. We have all heard countless stories of the bride or the groom who stopped their wedding midway to update their Facebook status. The average Facebook user has over 130 “friends”. The average person has 2.5 strong ties- close deep personal connections. Yet many would consider someone a friend whom they have not seen in a long time, and possibly only met a handful of times face-to-face, because of the frequent connection and constant awareness of what is happening in someone’s life through online social networking sites which feels like a close relationship.
Our traditional definition of ‘friend’ is changing as the world and how we interact within it changes. Prior to the explosion of online communications and the development of social venues, the majority of one's friends lived within reach, either on a local or telephone connection level. With the onset of early sites like AOL, through to Facebook, finding others with similar mindset and with similar interests became much easier. The method of communication became simpler too, via a keyboard or touchpad.
The use of instant chat via Facebook, text messaging on one's cell phone and the ease of email can help one develop a sense of closeness via frequent communication exchanges. Valued friendships and even permanent relationships have arisen based on an encounter on a social site.
Sometimes however, a false sense of intimacy can develop, as stories about sexting, and photo/video sharing have revealed. The methods which make it easy for us to stay in touch with new/virtual friends, can lead to an illusion of friendship or the development of an intimate relationship that may well not occur if the people involved were in the same physical space. In fact the 2010 film directed by David Schwimmer, Trust, explores just this. In the film, a 14 year old armed with a new laptop begins an amorous relationship through a chat room with a significantly older man who, when they meet, rapes her.
Relationships are being totally reshaped. Every time the cost of communication drops, it fundamentally changes our social environment. Each social interaction has an opportunity cost, time spent with somebody is not time spent with somebody else and time shared is not equivalent to one on one time. Since technology radically changes those costs because we can talk to people that were not geographically or even economically close to us or because we get new filters and notification, the cost of existing relations and new ones are different from before the introduction of those new technologies. Unfortunately, we often see short-term gain and forget long-term losses.
Good or Evil?
The effects of gadgets and the availability of them in society have been too gargantuan to ignore. For the most part technology improves life. If it did not then we would revert to whatever we used before the latest technology. Almost everything was a new technology at some point: the wheel, pen and paper, automobiles, iPhones and so on.
Usually, technology allows society to get more done in less time with less effort. Although a new invention may allow us to do more, it may be something we do not need to do more of. And although there certainly would be several viewpoints about what was necessary and useful it always seems to sort itself out as the masses 'vote' on new inventions and technology. If in fact, it is deemed useful and worthy by enough people it will stick.
And the new technology will allow for breakthroughs to develop the next technology, and so on. In this modern age it is more evident than ever that technology is like a pyramid, the more that is developed the more than can be developed and invention and technology expands exponentially.
Life appears to be moving very fast. Look back to your first computer or cell phone. The amount of change in the last 20 years is astounding, the last 100 years unimaginable.
It may be said that invention/technology/improvement is a basic human endeavour and is fundamental to life like eating, sleeping, thinking, communicating etc.
But, of late, internet addiction is something we have all had to deal with. In a family arena, a member of the family who has become an internet addict tends to withdraw from the family and spend a lot of time surfing the net and in a way moves away from the family. In many cases the other family members are of the view that internet has hijacked their close one from them. In relationships the partners who have ventured into the world of cyberspace start giving preference to internet over their other partner paving the way for the coining of yet another contemporary phenomenon – technological infidelity.
The scenario may seem depressing but all said and done, it is rather easy to not let technology take over your life if you keep the following in mind:
Make deliberate choices about time
Research suggests that we actually receive a little dopamine rush when we see something new in the inbox. All you have to do is realize the potential guilt over ignoring non-essential messages is worth it if it means allowing you more time to be as you would like to be – and find the dopamine in a healthier way, by doing something new instead of waiting for a new message.
Box out time to put technology away
This is simple advice, perhaps one of the most important ideas: plan for specific times when you will not engage with technology in any way. When you are using technology, aim to create a new type of flow so you don’t lose yourself or feel anxious when dealing with what is in front of you.
Remember: the most precious thing you can give someone is your presence
Though social networking can bring us closer together, nothing can replace warm hand to warm hand contact. If you keep in mind that your presence, your attention, is the most precious thing you can give someone else, perhaps you will be less tempted to multitask face-to-face encounters and tweeting, Facebooking or emailing. It is this type of simple but powerful understanding that can help us tame the compulsion to connect digitally when it compromises physical connection.
Be mindful of your reasons for connecting to technology
We all have reasons for our instinct to pull out a piece of technology. It could be stimulation, confirmation of importance, an obsessive need to stay connected with people, to have something to do when anxiety creeps in or to feel in control.
Self awareness is such a key step. If you realize why you are turning to technology in times when connection or learning new information is not critical, you have made the first step to reconnecting with yourself.
Get the most important things done and let go of the rest
If you don’t live in a world where you are in control of your tasks and schedule, this might be challenging. Still, there are probably a handful of tasks you don’t really need to complete, but feel obligated to do for one reason or another.
Instead of assuming you have an endless list of things to do – which probably leaves you with little time at the end of the day – be clear about what is important to you, and what you can leave undone. It is okay not to do everything. It is normal to have unread emails in the inbox. It is legal to not update your blog for a day. You deserve time to disconnect.
Make minimal commitments to yourself for a clear mental space
Many of us don’t consistently honour what we need to do to maintain physical and emotional wellbeing because we get sucked into technology and to-do lists. Make minimal commitments: one minute of meditation, or five minutes of exercising.
It is easier to honour a minimal commitment; and odds are, you will find the time so enjoyable you will end up increasing it. You could also make ‘non-negotiable commitments’ to yourself. For example, yoga every Tuesday and nothing changes that.
Track your day’s presence in battery life
For living peacefully in a technology-driven world one of the easiest things to do is to make it fun instead of considering it another chore. If your phone is about to die at the end of the day (or if you need to charge it multiple times) you are clearly hooked on to your gadget. If you can get to the end of the day with some life left, though, you have probably lived the day mindfully.