I was holding my mobile device — at the time, the feature-challenged BlackBerry RIM 850 — when my first son was born. It wasn’t on purpose. Without going into the gory details, I was anxious and also bored waiting for Louie to arrive, and was texting about a new conference idea. When I suddenly had to get an epidural and was rushed into an emergency C-section, I wasn’t focusing on the fact that the Blackberry was still in my hand. So there it was, buzzing away, encased in plastic during the whole procedure, since the scrubbed-in staff couldn’t touch it.
“Kara, you really have to do something about your tech problem,” joked my doctor.
Yes, I know. I am awful. But bear with me when I tell you this was not the worst thing ever.
During a recent interview at SXSW, Margrethe Vestager, the commissioner of competition for the European Union — the regulator who is the scourge of Facebook, Google, Facebook, Apple and more — asked me a surprising question.
“What is the good life?”
The good life, Ms. Vestager said, is not “the same thing as a convenient life. I think a convenient life can be extremely boring if you’re never challenged with any hardship of everyday life.”
She was talking about the way we have shifted to valuing convenience as the ultimate good over what is actually good for us. It’s the not surprising result of the twitchy, I-want-it-now, mobile-phone-addled life in which everything is just a click away.
But I don’t think throwing our phones out the window is the solution. Instead, we have to find a way to balance what is good with what is convenient, even as tech companies do as much as possible to hook us.
On this topic, there’s lately been a lot of hand-wringing. Some are warning that we don’t yet know the consequences of being addicted to our devices. Others are pondering whether the overuse of screens is a class issue, in which the poor are trapped in cyberspace and the rich can afford not to be jacked into the matrix 24/7. And what is the price we pay in cohesion, as we opt to stare relentlessly at our phones instead of engaging in person? Will there ever be an end to the tweet-dissing that coarsens our civic discourse? What does it mean that so much of the important information citizens of a working democracy need to know has mutated into blink-and-you’ll-miss-it memes?
All of this is about the fact that we are now contending with a culture of convenience that does not differentiate very much between getting news in a form that is “snackable” (my least favorite media word ever), having a bottle of ketchup delivered to your door in the middle of the night even if it sucks up too many resources, and getting a car on demand at the lowest price even if it requires paying drivers less and less.
The top techie Marc Andreessen once said that software is eating the world. The fact of the matter is, we are eating software and becoming unhealthy and obese doing it.
That was the real point Ms. Vestager was making in the interview, which was ostensibly about competition and how to rein in big tech companies with her too-small bag of remedies, such as passing strict laws about how they need to run the platforms that have become a free-for-all. By this I mean both that their services are free and freewheeling and that this freedom comes at a high cost to society.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that she sees the unbridled power of the big tech companies as part of a bigger issue. “We have to have a discussion” she said, “about inequality.”
“And in that, competition or enforcement is only a tiny part of that answer. But it’s as if we’re not having this discussion,” she said, referring to all manner of apps that bring us stuff immediately. “We just talk about convenience, ‘Oh, it will be convenient that my fridge is always full.’”
Kevin Roose, in a recent column for this paper titled “Do Not Disturb: How I Ditched My Phone and Unbroke My Brain,” chronicled the price of tech addiction.
“Unlike alcohol or opioids, phones aren’t an addictive substance so much as a species-level environmental shock,” he wrote. “I’ve been a heavy phone user for my entire adult life. But sometime last year, I crossed the invisible line into problem territory. My symptoms were all the typical ones: I found myself incapable of reading books, watching full-length movies or having long uninterrupted conversations. Social media made me angry and anxious, and even the digital spaces I once found soothing (group texts, podcasts, YouTube k-holes) weren’t helping.”
A species-level environmental shock? That’s a big statement, and it’s true. The most profound experiment in human communications in all of our history is taking place right now.
But while the downsides of continuous partial attention have been made abundantly clear, we shouldn’t forget that the concept of instant communications is profound, and the ability to be in touch at an important time is both convenient and good.
As technology morphs and improves, the terrible things about it (being pecked to death by email, texts or tweets) are always shifting back and forth with the great things (the joy of surprising emails, texts or tweets).
Taking a cue from Mr. Roose’s piece, I looked hard at my own screen time, which adds up to about seven hours a day. I guess that sounds like a lot. But very little of that time is frittered away.
Mostly, I send what I consider important messages into the ether and I get them back; I read The New York Times and Washington Post, as I always have; I use Slack to talk to my co-workers, and that’s certainly useful; I check my Google calendar to find out where I should be; I write ideas and notes for columns and podcasts and more; and, best of all these days, I rent scooters.
All convenient and good, for the most part, which is the balance I think we all have to find as tech keeps eating the world.
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