The False Promise of Technology

I am in a constant battle with myself about technology. I fantasize about taking a hammer to my computer daily and yet I feel bereft when I’m without it. I appreciate the ability to send electronic missives to people half a world away, to read The New York Times online, to be able to find a list, in five seconds, of all the movies Wim Wenders has directed. But I miss the satisfying crinkle of airmail paper on which I once wrote long letters to far-flung friends, I miss having to wash the black ink off my fingertips every Sunday after reading the paper, I miss the thrill of going to the library to search for hard-won pearls of information.

Technology’s promise to us was a false one. We were told that it would make us more connected, would make our lives simpler, would save us time. In fact, we lead more isolated, distracted, and busier lives than ever before.

I heard a quote this week from my hero Fred Rogers, and it shed a light on my internal struggle about technology: “I feel so strongly,” he said, “that deep and simple is more important than shallow and complex.” Technology promised the former but delivered the latter.

When you compose an email, or read the electronic version of the NYT, or check IMDB, there are always things calling you away: 43 unread messages in your inbox, pop up ads, curated slideshows, videos, links to other pages that promise information or mystery or solace.What begins as a simple task introduces you to a maze of distraction that you must contend with in order to complete it, as you wade through the shallow pool of your own fractured attention. This gives us the illusion of completing more tasks more quickly but it is as the expense of time and depth and care for each one.

When we write a letter by hand, turn the pages of our favorite newspaper, go through the stacks of our local libraries, a degree of deliberateness is built into these actions, there is an unhurried quality to them. And wherever there is slowness and deliberateness, there is the potential to be returned to oneself. Technology does not return us to ourselves, it delivers us somewhere else entirely. And then somewhere else. And somewhere else. All day every day.

I have started an experiment. It is a small protest, but it is something: I have turned off all notifications on my computer and my phone, which is to say that when I’m ready to check text messages and emails and Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and OH MY GOD, they will be waiting for me, but they will not be inserting themselves into my day. I am spending the first couple hours of each day in silence: reading, writing, meditating, or–how telling that this sounds so quaintly archaic–in quiet contemplation. I am trying, with all my might, to do only one thing at a time. This is a terribly difficult one for me. No more writing while listening to a podcast in the background and searching the internet on the side. I am, as best I can, walking away from the shallow and complex toward the deep and simple.

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