Welcome to the matrix...
It’s 2023. I carry a smartphone in my pocket that is more powerful than the supercomputers of a few decades ago. That device is connected to the internet using wireless network over vast areas in cities and even the countryside. I can stream an entire TV series on that smartphone, I can play advanced games and social media connect me to hundreds of people across the world. I can even have a video call with them, may it be on the other side of the world. Notifications ring quite regularly, filling me with anticipation for what I’m about to read. Taking the smartphone out of my pocket is an action I do dozens of time every day. A fleeting moment of boredom or pause is killed by catching my smartphone to check the latest notifications on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat of the myriad of other apps designed to capture the attention of my consciousness. At the end of the day, I don’t quite remember all that I’ve done because I barely stop: my mind is constantly busy and stimulated; my eyes spend hours watching screens of various sizes: the smartphone, the tablet, the computer etc. Not a year goes by without new advancements that translate into: better and faster apps/devices. I wait with excitment for the next super smartphone of my dreams and its promises of happiness. My social life is mostly virtual, and when I still meet my friends there are times when everyone at the table is watching their smartphone but, well, that’s normal isn’t it?
No, it’s not normal. And that first paragraph is not about me, but a random persona compiled from all I’ve seen around. And I don’t like what I see.
I now realise how the 2010s have been a decade of profound change. Technology was already evolving quickly, but in that 10 years span we’ve reached another level. It is not so much the processing power of devices that’s been an enabler, it’s the internet speed over 4G/5G networks. Impressive speeds that now dwarf some of the best broadbands only a few years ago. I remember the start of the 2010s and how we were less connected. The tech was there, but I did not feel like my fellow humans had been zombified by their smartphones. But look around you today! Especially in cities or in public transport. In western countries, it’s taken proportions I couldn’t imagine. Covid didn’t help, at a time when physical disconnection was replaced by digitalisation of social life—a habit that is there to stay.
So, that makes me wonder: “Are we happier with all our technology?” No, I don’t think so. At least, I’m not happier. I believe there was a sweet spot which has been reached years ago. I feel like we’re missing the present moment and our attention is mobilised by a few inches-wide screen that we carry in our pocket almost around the clock (well, some people even sleep with their mobile, don’t they?). I recall that odd conversation a few years ago when I said I turn off my cellphone at night. I was told “are you crazy, but what if someone needs to call you in the middle of the night?!"—“Well…” I replied, “it will have to wait for the next morning!”. And that other line from a conceited city girl: “I can’t understand why there’s no high-speed network in London underground, London is so behind it’s a shame!” to which I replied “Why? Can’t you take a break from your smartphone when you’re under the earth?”. The audience was horrified…
You may think I’m against technology, but I’m not. I got my first computer when I was 12. I was in awe. I spent hours on it, granted, but the beast didn’t go around with me all day: it stayed at home, and the internet speed was so modest that all modern uses were unimaginable. And, seriously, for those old enough: if you had told your old self of year 2000 all the things you could do with that mini computer in your pocket (aka your smartphone) one day, all the apps and data and information we have access to, would you have believed it? Still, are you in awe every day because of what you can do with that pocket computer plugged to the world wide web? Probably not… we take things for granted. A web page doesn’t load and we sigh. We’ve become entitled to all those miracles of technology and lack gratitude (because, if you know how the tech works from the ground up, you’ll realise it’s astonishing it all stacks up and does what it does). We take speed and content for granted. But it’s not. Not long ago, you had to go to the library to consult encyclopaedia to access information. It was a journey to get there, it took time. And maybe because of that, true knowledge was much more valued and respected. Now, it seems to have become a mundane commodity. But, no, you don’t become an expert in any topic by reading a Wikipedia page. You just read words that do not penetrate your intellect unless you spend time taking the information in.
And I wonder: have we become too reliant on our precious technology to function properly? I dare to ask the question, and for the youngest of us that is certainly a valid one. Technology has become a substitute for serious critical thinking. I even suspect 2020 was ripe for the big Covid madness, because a decade earlier people still had much more common sense. Information is not knowledge. When I ask a complex question to someone and they google the answer and throw it to my face after a cursory glance at just the result page reading the snippets, I can’t help thinking that they’re missing the point… Have we renounced our mind in favour of Google (or the likes)? What would we do if tomorrow an outage was disconnecting us all from the internet? And what if an EMF blast or a solar flare was wiping out our core internet infrastructure one day? Will we still able to function… or could it be that we have become so dependent on our precious modern tech that we can’t go back?
I talked about digital detox before, and that is a topic dear to me. No, I’m not allergic to tech: I work in tech! Information technology consulting, for large companies, with smart people who know all about the latest techs actually… but surprisingly I’ve found myself more and more wary about my fellow humans’ tendency to worship the silicon beings. They are just tools, but we ought to be in the driver seat. And I’m not even talking AI here. I’m talking about where we are today. Of course, I write on a computer right now, and I will publish this article on a server and you’ll read that on your own device. And that’s precious, and I love it, but it’s all about the dose of tech we put into our life. There’s much more to explore.
Whatever we become too attached to will become a cause of suffering. Someone who’s not able to live 24 hours without a mobile phone or turning on a computer can experience withdrawal symptoms. Talking about that, when was the last time you tried? The sense of identity, purpose and stimulation we get from those devices is impressive. On the bright side, it connects people together and offer social interactions unheard of in human history. On the dark side, are we becoming addicted to our own creation?
I like to fast one day on a monthly basis, but now technology fasting is even harder I feel. I allowed myself not to use a computer for 14 days last year and left the smartphone on the side most of the time (anyway it was without a local SIM card and I was on holidays overseas). It turned out to be a profoundly transformative holiday! I brought a compact camera from the old days because using your smartphone as a camera is too tempting: you’ll end up doing more than just taking pictures!
No, I don’t think we’re happier today than 10 or 20 years ago. In fact, I’m quite convinced we’re worse off. We’re not talking to people in public spaces because we’re too shy and prefer to watch our screen. We are isolating ourselves even more. We live in the bubble of our digital devices that we carry with us no matter where we go. For me, the bottom line is: technology used without the right level of consciousness can be dangerous. And I feel that it’s exactly where we stand. Our consciousness needs an upgrade, but will that come soon enough? In the meantime, everything seems to be accelerating. The fabric of time itself seems to be altered compared to a decade ago. Can you feel it too? Do you realise that we do things ever so more quickly, but we keep wanting to go faster… where does it end? Can you see that in our modern times of constant activity, we’re feeling more stressed than when we just took the time to do things in the old ways? And that entailed: talk to other people, use our mind, read books, make phone calls etc. Things were slower, but not with less flavour. Just like black and white movies of the old days, it feels like those earlier decades were slow motion movies. And there’s power in doing things slowly. Like eating your dessert, spoon by spoon, taking in all the flavour aka enjoying the journey.