Thoughts on technology and happiness.
As a college professor, I spend a lot of time with Millennials. Often when I am spending time with them, they are spending time with their phones. No matter how fascinating the material, no matter how enthusiastically I deliver it, I just can’t compete for my students’ attention against the whole world, which their phones deliver.
I’m not alone. Complaining about the way mobile technology distracts students is pervasive among faculty. Nobody’s immune. I have heard about the problem from faculty at both massive research universities and small, liberal arts schools.
The constant distraction obviously interferes with students’ ability to receive an education, but recently I’ve started to worry that even deeper damage is occurring. The constant use of technology is creating a generation that finds it hard to connect to life’s deepest pleasures. It’s a generational problem. And, with the introduction of the new Apple iWatch, it’s going to get worse.
I’m no Luddite. The benefits of technology, including instructional technology, are real. I am a faithful Apple customer. I use my iPad daily. I am writing this an iMac. Apple products are dependable, easy to use, and beautiful.
Still, technology of this sort has become counterproductive. The flood of increasingly magical gizmos comes during a time of increasing alienation, of disconnection. This is especially true among Millennials. A recent study revealed that Millennials are the least trusting of ant recent generation. Soon they, along with the rest of us, will be able with a tap of the wrist to send a message to anyone in the world, yet our hearts remain empty.
Our hearts are empty in part because of technology. In spite of the power and amusement they bestow on users, mobile technology really can make our lives less enjoyable. Restricting its use is ultimately a hedonist’s move.
The deepest pleasures of human life all contain elements of connection, context and comfort that virtual technology cannot offer. No matter how amazing the graphics, how responsive the interface, the pleasure digital technology affords lacks the components necessary for deep and lasting pleasure.
We hear often that technology is connecting the world. In many ways this is true. As a person who grew up long before Facebook, I didn’t to some of my high school classmates in two decades. Since joining Facebook in 2007, I’ve heard from many of them daily.
Still, our most pleasurable connections cannot happen in virtual space. Lasting, deep pleasure requires bodies present to one another in real time. This is most obvious in sex, but it’s true as well for conversation, for sports, for worship.
In pursuing the pleasures of embodied connection, we learn to accept the world and others though they differ from ourselves. We come to love what we cannot alter, customize, or otherwise improve. In virtual spaces, we can almost always do tailor our experience to our preferences. Yet, in reality, to experience connection, we must accept not ignore unpleasant realities and limits, our own and others.
The pleasures of life are intensified when we experience them under the right circumstances with the right people and to the right degree. In other words, context matters. Every human act occurs within the flow of history and this conveys meaning to the things we do. Our actions have consequences. Knowing we have made right choices and experiencing the rewards of those choices is its own kind of pleasure. In relationships, context allows us to experience the joys of place and of walking through circumstances together. Without context, we would miss the pleasures of anniversaries, of membership, of forgiveness.
These pleasures are largely absent from the online world. As users we are the beginning and end of our experience. No need to be swept along by the flow of history here. The context of any action is merely the never-ending stream of tailored data to which we contribute or withdraw at will.
In the end, digital fantasies offer us little comfort against the pains of the world. Even our imaginations tell us this. When we conjure mental images of comfort, I doubt anyone thinks of an environment decorated with the Apple aesthetic, hard, reflective surfaces gleaming in synthetic, unnatural perfection. Instead, we look for comfort to those objects designed more closely to mimic the natural world. We look to objects that speak to us as embodied creatures.
But more importantly, we imagine ourselves involved in something other than the consumption of online content. The numbers of people who, when they imagine themselves ensconced in a scene of comfort, imagine themselves at a desk staring into a mass of glowing pixels are few. The vast majority of us imagine a glowing fire, good and abundant food, a snoring dog. This is because comfort is a condition of the body, a part of us that online experiences, no matter how intense, simply cannot reach. Our bodies prefer fire, food and dogs to computers. They just do.
Maybe I don’t need to tell you I won’t be buying an iWatch. Whether students do is their business. But, I hope they won’t. I fear its coming between them and the most enjoyable experiences in life. As for me, I’m going to instead keep my wrists free from anything that, though sleek and beautiful and eager to make promises, might become a handcuff.