Time for a public confession: I depend on technology.
I need my phone to wake myself up every morning. I study computer science, so it goes without saying that I need my computer to do my coursework. I need my phone to keep my appointments straight, and I need it to tell me what train to get on and when to get off. My girlfriend lives a thousand miles away from me, so I need my phone and computer to keep my relationship alive, too. I could go on and on – and, I imagine, so could you.
My mother tells me I’m too dependent – or, her exact words are that I “spend too much time looking at those screens.” She’s not alone. As technology infiltrates more and more aspects of modern life, suspicion grows about its negative effects. A quick Google search gives you the gist: Dominique Jackson asks if technology “has made us lazy and dependent” in an article on lifehack.org. Nancy Colier writes for HuffPost Healthy Living, lamenting that technology makes us “disconnected from each other and the physical world.” The articles pile up – as does the fear. Is it true? Does technology turn us all into lazy, addicted robots out of touch with reality?
No, it doesn’t. These arguments miss the point. Technology doesn’t replace our realities; it augments them. A smartphone in your pocket that keeps track of your phone numbers and appointments for you isn’t erasing your ability to keep track of these things yourself. It’s freeing you of the need to do so, so you can concentrate your energy elsewhere.
In a 2010 TED Talk, cyborg anthropologist Amber Case asserts that “we are all cyborgs” in our modern world. Case argues that the digital technology we use is an extension of our mental selves. This idea is key: the technology we use every day to navigate around town, text our friends and look at pictures of cats is a part of us. The physical separation between my brain and my devices is irrelevant. It makes no difference whether I recall a fact with my own physical memory or instead look it up on Google – either way I get access to the information.
This is why technological dependence is not the destroyer of human ability that so many people forecast it to be. Sure, after the invention of the clock, most of us lost the ability to tell time just by looking at the sun’s position. But this specific ability is no longer relevant for most people living in a world where clocks exist. If it were, we’d have held onto it.
But no, most of us have simply depended on our clocks – and this doesn’t make us any less capable of telling the time. We possess all the same capabilities of telling time that our clocks do, because we’re the ones using them. The question often posed in an attempt to counter this – “But what if you find yourself without a clock?” – is equally irrelevant, because most of us never do. Once invented, the clock can never be un-invented, and access to clocks is utterly ubiquitous.
Granted, most people don’t lament the existence of clocks. But the exact same arguments apply for digital technology. It doesn’t matter if I depend on Google for information instead of remembering all of it myself. Google’s knowledge is just an extension of my knowledge, because I can know anything it knows with just a click, anytime, anywhere.
Equally misguided is the concern that technology causes us to be disconnected from each other and from reality. Communicating with someone through the digital world over texting, emailing or IMing creates no less a connection than communicating in the physical world. The digital world has different properties, sure – different ways of expressing emotion, intimacy, distance, love – but fundamentally, these connections are still connections with other humans. Technology in fact makes us more connected, because we have easier and more immediate access to each other.
Ultimately, the hullabaloo about technological dependence comes down to fear and misdirection: how can humans be so dependent on such apparently inhuman things? It’s only natural for my mother to be concerned about me staring into my screens, because to her, I’m spending hours enthralled by a hunk of metal, plastic and LEDs.