Doing Something about the Technology Problem
November 15, 2017

“Technology enchants; it makes us forget what we know about life. The new—any old new—becomes confused with progress.”
“When we move from conversation to mere connection, we get a lot of unintended consequences.”
Sherri Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age

I know many of us have been worrying and speaking about this for some time. There is of course no easy solution. And constantly pointing to the problem can get tiresome.

But then again, the more keenly aware we are of the problem, the more motivated we will be to do something. There are many aspects of the problem, and there are several possible approaches to addressing it.

At the end of the day, what is most important is that we choose something, and then do it. We make a plan—even a very simple one—and start to follow it. Being aware that we ‘have a problem’ or that ‘something is really wrong,’ but then not taking concrete steps to address it is irrational. It is a sign of the seriousness of our problem.

Turkle says that technology makes us forget what we know about life. Powerful words. A scary reality.

The other day a man was driving with a teenager who is related to him. He observed that almost immediately the teen took out a smart phone and started to text. And text, and text. No conversation took place. It was shocking. And it was commonplace.

Adults of all ages will need to take the lead. The young cannot be accused of forgetting something about life that they haven’t learned. Indeed, if we don’t do something, they’ll never learn it.

The problem is subtle—though at times not so subtle!—and pervasive. It demands that we look again with honesty and humility at our own practices, and then act with courage and self-discipline.

No one is going to change our habits for us. And no one is going to give direction to the young for us.

~ ~

A NOTE ON IMAGES: When I did a search of images under “grandparents and teens,” in the first page of results were three images I have put here: one as the feature image of the post and the other two below.
The tag lines of the images, respectively, were:
“How to create a lasting bond between teens and grandparents.”
“Happy Grandparent connecting with grandchild.”
“Grandparenting Teens”
I do NOT put these images here to scoff at them. Different efforts at interaction with grandchildren can be applauded. Yet I would raise two questions: How might we better picture the interaction of young and old? and, How might elders draw the young into THEIR WORLD rather than vice versa?

Sherri Turkle is the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and in addition to the book quoted above has authored “Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other,” among other books.

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  1. I’m having a conflicted reaction to your post. The title is “Doing Something About the Technology Problem”. I’m conflicted because due to technology I get to work from home – that is NOT a problem for me. There are also a lot of things that I do in my job that I really, really, really enjoy doing that technology makes possible (I love working with data and spreadsheets). Also, thanks to technology I get to Skype with someone who is helping me a lot. I also get to Skype with my little niece who lives so very far away. I also get to keep in touch with siblings when they go overseas.

    That said – the example that you gave of the man driving with the teenager is an example that horrifies me. It blows my mind how people blatantly and without pause whip out their cell phones and start texting or checking e-mails in social situations. Or how much Facebook is a part of daily conversation (I feel like I myself can’t go a day without mentioning something that I saw on Facebook).

    I feel that the problem is not with technology, but with how technology caters to our ‘fallen’ inclinations. If you or I went to a party 20-30 years ago and sat down and opened a book and started reading that would have been considered the height of rudeness. Only the most socially ignorant couldn’t see that there’s a problem with that. Why is it that the majority of people today can’t see that it’s rude to whip out your phone and start reading, checking messages, etc? Is the problem really with technology or is the problem really more rooted in a lack of understanding community relations (and by community I mean immediate community – the people you are with at any given moment)?

    I only say this because I think if we focus on technology as the problem then we’re not really addressing the root of the problem – and there’s a lot of good technology has given us. I really like the last sentence of the quote from Sherri Turkle: “When we move from conversation to mere connection, we get a lot of unintended consequences.” I think if we accept connection as the totality of relationship we’re creating a disastrous environment – but you don’t necessarily need technology to create this disaster.

    1. Teresa,
      Thank you for such an insightful reflection! You make outstanding points. I have a couple of thoughts.
      One great point you make is that the fundamental problem is not the technology. At root here we have a problem of people making bad choices. But that said, I think we also need to realize that certain technologies are in fact an integral part of the problem. Certain technologies tend to encourage certain ways of acting. And it is THIS to which I am especially referring when I saw the “problem of technology.” Or let me put it differently: the “problem” to which I am referring is that WE do not recognize how these technologies are forming our actions. This is where the “unintended consequences” point comes in. Very few people who purchase and start to use a smart phone intend the notable, negative consequences that often follow from their use of the smart phone. So the problem here is that we have let the technology change how we live, often without careful consideration of whether this was in fact a positive change, a net gain. My calling it a problem further implies that in my judgment our use of certain common technologies, either individually or as an aggregate, in fact constitute a net loss in the quality of our lives.
      What I would really like to emphasize here is that holding my position does not commit one to holding that all advances in technology are negative. Now that said, I also cannot naively say: So, just carefully pick and choose which technologies you use, being sure to avoid the ‘bad ones.’ In reality, they do tend to come as a package deal. THIS too is part of the “problem!” So how do I sort out what I use and how much I use it?
      No easy answers here. But I am deeply convinced that a right approach will necessarily include at least three things:
      1. being conservative–I’ll also say ‘skeptical’–about using new technologies, especially new ‘gadgets.’ Err on the side of saying: my life is/was fine without this, and asking hard questions about possible unintended consequences, which can be hard to foresee.
      2. being disciplined, even ascetic, in using those that we do use.
      3. Remember what we know about human life (a la Turkle’s point), such as that face to face conversation is primary and irreplaceable. And that human environments where people can really be PRESENT to one another will need to be cultivated and protected.
      Thanks again for the great comment.

  2. Unfortunately the current rate at which our society develops and adopts new technologies has created a world where the elderly can easily be seen as worthless. In the quite recent past the old were valued for their wisdom and insight, gained through long life experience. But what insights can a grandparent offer to their grandchildren when the world in which the grandparent was formed is gone, radically disrupted and reshaped by new technologies like the internet, smartphones, social media, globalization, etc. To borrow an idea from Wendell Berry’s writing, this turns what was previously a healthy difference between the old and young (one has knowledge and wisdom that they can impart to the other) into a tragic and isolating division (one is stuck in the past, the other is moving into the future).

    If technological development continues to accelerate as it has even in just my (rather short) lifetime then I can’t see how proponents of natural human relations and behavior can avoid ultimately being regarded by the rest of society as quaint curiosities at best, or at worst, freaks. Maybe I’m being too dire but I don’t think so.

    1. Philip,
      I love that point: turning a healthy difference into an isolating division. It seems to me that this forces us to take a harder look at the advances–even seemingly benign ones such as those that Teresa F refers to in her comment–and ask whether a community can bear such change given how, among other things, it isolates the elderly. Such advances in technology seem to imply that the way life was before was not acceptable, or not as good.
      I find a technology like Skype to be particularly difficult to consider. It is hard to criticize something that seemingly helps you to ‘stay in touch.’ But honestly, I think a strong case can be made that such staying in touch comes at too great a price. We need to consider this matter more closely.
      Thanks for this comment!

  3. I am late to responding as I was in Puerto Rico when you posted this story. One of our local counselors told me about an interesting thing that happened in one of the neighborhoods after the power and internet went down. A father pulled his car up to the local rarely used community park, turned on his headlights and played ball with his son. Within days, the park was crowded every night with parents and kids playing baseball by headlights. Neighbors meeting each other for the first time, eating together. The park filled with life, community.

    1. Malia, What a fitting reminder. We all retain longings for richer ways of interacting. And given the right circumstances–which sometimes can just mean given a freedom from technological distractions–great things can happen. Thanks so much for sharing this, and I hope your time in Puerto Rico was fruitful in many ways.