A Simpler Life?
I’m a fan of the ABC sitcom “Modern Family.” There’s a hilarious episode from the second season titled “Unplugged,” in which Claire Dunfy is upset over how much her kids and husband use Internet-connected devices. When the kids protest, Claire’s husband, Phil, turns it into a challenge:
This clip illustrates the state of today’s technology and digital media: it is woven into the fabric of our daily lives, and many of us would not know how to function without it. That may seem extreme, but think about when you lose Internet service at home or at work. Temporary outages can be annoying (I can’t surf the Internet while drinking my coffee) or paralyzing (the network at work is down, IT doesn’t know when it will be fixed, and I can’t access the files I need for work).
When things like this occur, we tend to long for a return to a time when life was simpler, when we weren’t so dependent on technology to simply pass the time. This reminds me of a meme on Facebook: you see a cabin that is in rough shape, but appears to be habitable. You need to stay in the cabin for an entire month. All the food, clean water, and firewood you will need will be provided. The catch? No access to the Internet, cell phones, or TV. The payoff? $100,000 at the end of the month, if you can last that long without technology.
People who comment on the meme say that they could easily go a month without any connectivity. In fact, they’ve been yearning for an escape from their hectic lifestyles. This is an interesting challenge as it forces us, as a society, to come to terms with our addiction to the power and seduction of technology and digital media. Honestly, I’m not sure many of us would make it a week, like the Dunfys tried, let alone an entire month.
In his book, Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, writer, documentarian, and lecturer, Douglas Rushkoff helps us understand the current state of technology and digital media, and how the over-saturation of technology has fostered an “always on, always connected” culture that is harmful to the emotional, psychological, and social health of humanity.
What is “Present Shock?”
In a topic about the overuse of digital media, I plan on using many elements of digital media to develop this topic (the irony is intended). Here is an interview segment from NPR’s “All Things Considered,” in which Rushkoff defines Present Shock”:
The comment Rushkoff makes at the end of his definition, about how every ping or vibration of his phone may pull him from what he is currently engaged is similar to what Sherry Turkle, a social psychologist and professor of social studies and technology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), says in her TEDxUIUC talk about how computers keep us busy:
It’s this idea of technology keeping us busy, as Turkle shared, that is causing us to live in the frenetic now – Rushkoff’s “present shock.” Technology is constantly keeping us busy as we read and send texts, check e-mail, scan social media, shop, browse – all while doing everything else in our busy lives.
To better understand how this “always on” presence of technology affects us, Rushkoff explores two concepts in his book: Digiphrenia and Fractalnoia.
Let’s break “digiphrenia” apart: “digi”is short for “digital” and “phrenia” is a suffix that refers to mental conditions or disorders. Therefore, “digiphrenia” could be defined as a mental condition/disorder that results from prolonged, overwhelming exposure to digital media and technology.
In a study on digital media and its impact on society, the World Economic Forum used a similar term, “hyperconnectivity,” which they defined as “…the increasing digital interconnection of people and things [that] has the potential to change patterns of social interaction, as face-to-face time may be substituted by online interaction,” (World Economic Forum, “Impact of Digital Media“). Regarding the increased interconnection and its impact on social interaction, “hyperconnectivity” is similar to Rushkoff’s “digiphrenia”:
How many times have you felt like you were going crazy trying to keep up with status updates on Facebook, incoming texts and emails, news alerts, and the rare phone call? In a way, it’s like the “keeping up with the Jones'” mentality, where digital media would be the Jones’ and we are constantly trying to keep up with it, and failing miserably.
Like we did with “digiphrenia,” let’s break “fractalnoia” apart. “Fractal” is a mathematical and geometrical term that refers to a structure with an irregular or fragmented shape (“Fractal,” Dictionary.com). “Noia” is another term used to reference a condition of the human mind. Thus, “fractalnoia” occurs when there is too much information and too many connections mixed in that it is overwhelming to try to process (Miller, “Obsessed with the Now“).
According to Rushkoff, these connection points are fractals, or digital snapshots of information that we then try to piece together to make sense of the ever-changing world around us:
As a psychologist, Turkle sees the aftermath of “always on, always connected” people who have tried to keep up with the constant barrage of fractals. She sees these people living in a “culture of distraction”:
With concepts like “digiphrenia” and “fractalnoia,” it is no wonder that constant exposure to digital media presents so many problems with social interaction to people of all ages everywhere. Such problems were not present one or two generations ago.
The Challenge of Unplugging
In the “Modern Family” episode, watching the Dunfys try to quit technology is funny. That episode provides a snapshat (or, dare I say, a fractal?) of how powerfully addictive technology can be. The following infographic from Statista illustrates the global impact of smartphone addiction:
Based on the numbers shown above, imagine the amount of time gained back on a global scale if people tried to quit technology for just one week, and what that time could be used for.
Rushkoff elaborates on the dangers of a technology addiction:
The comment Rushkoff makes about making eye contact with those at the dinner table is something that Turkle comments on as well as she discusses the overuse of mobile devices:
Turkle continues to describe how her clients struggle with unplugging from technology to the point where they bail out on reality and engage in “multi-lifing”:
As painful as it may be to some, unplugging from technology and trying to go a week, a month, or longer, is a healthy thing to do. Doing so would allow people to engage with each other in person rather than via a tiny screen.
Where Does this Leave Us?
This topic has focused on the “dark side” of technology and digital media. Where there is dark, there is light, and there is a “light side” of technology and digital media. However, in order to enjoy the positives, digital media must be consumed in moderation (much like someone who is trying to lose weight must exercise and control their intake).
The positives of digital media can improve people’s social lifestyles:
Digital and social media helps people learn about touching stories of people from different faiths and communities helping each other even in the face of certain death. Digital media presents a unique opportunity for mankind to aspire to a truly tolerant and civilized society…digital media has rendered physical distances irrelevant. A child of divorced parents can see, talk, and interact with both parents irrespective of who has been granted custody. Grandparents can see and talk with their grandchildren on a daily basis. Photographs and videos can be exchanged on a real-time basis between cities, countries, and even continents…Never in the history of civilization has so much information and knowledge been available and accessible to so many people. From ancient Hindu philosophies to the works of Shakespeare, digital media has the potential to transform our society into a world where there is an unrestricted flow of information. (Zorzini, “How Digital Media is Impacting Cultures and Lifestyles”)
I started this topic with a clip, and I’d like to close with one, too. While you watch it, keep this message in mind: it’s your life to live, don’t let technology live it for you.
Armstrong, Martin. “Smartphone Addiction Tightens its Global Grip.” Statista. May 24, 2017.
Burnett, Leo. “#SXLB: Douglas Rushkoff, Fractalnoia.” Online video clip. YouTube. March 9, 2013.
deGuzman, Charlene. “I Forgot My Phone.” Online video clip. YouTube. August 22, 2013.
Miller, Paul. “Obsessed with the Now: Douglas Rushkoff and the Threat of ‘Present Shock.‘” The Verge. March 21, 2013.
NPR Staff. “In a World That’s Always On, We are Trapped in the ‘Present.‘” “All Things Considered” segment. NPR. March 25, 2013.
“Section 3: Impact of Digital Media on Individuals, Organizations and Society.” World Economic Forum.
Turkle, Sherry. “Alone Together.” Online video clip. TEDxUIUC. March 25, 2011.
“Unplugged.” Modern Family, Season 2. Online video clip. YouTube. September 8, 2011.
Zorzini, Catalin. “How Digital Media is Impacting Lifestyle and Culture.” InspiredMag. March 26, 2015.