Has Tech Made us Forget How to be Human?
Focusing your full attention on someone else is a gift.
These days, it’s also a rarity due to the omnipresence of smartphones.
Go to any café or restaurant and the devices often take pride of place on the table. Worse, two people can be sitting together and staring at their phone rather than talking to each other. This has happened to me with my husband and I’ve had to make a conscious effort to shove the phone back into my pocket; he did not.
What once used to be considered the height of rudeness has become normalized, commonplace, and ubiquitous.
Although we may have a real live human in front of us, we favor the company of pixels and data packets. It’s as if we had become allergic to the presence of our peers, preferring their digital incarnation to their meatspace one.
Unless you have a sick relative or work a job that requires you to be on call, there’s no reason to always be checking your phone. But although social media can wait, its constant feedback loop is a hard drug for those who peg their self-worth to vanity metrics like hearts and thumbs up.
Because human nature demands we seek constant validation and the internet dispenses it on tap, we’re hooked. Suddenly, everything becomes interesting, be it what someone on the other side of the world had for lunch or someone’s debacles with basic housekeeping.
We feast at the digital trough of inconsequential content and are never sated.
So we demand more, and more, and more as we get trapped in a vicious circle of our own making.
And yet, I love the internet.
I’ve been living on it for almost as long as it’s been available and credit it with changing my life for the better by providing me with the key to the whole world. Thanks to it, I was able to extricate myself from a hazardous first marriage, make lifelong friends, forge a career…
My digital self has always been an extension of my flesh and bone one, the two forming a whole. There’s no difference between who I am online and offline but for the fact that I may be more articulate in print than in person. In the same vein, I don’t write anything I wouldn’t be happy to discuss with you if we met.
When it comes to attention, I try and apply the same principles I use offline to my online interactions.
For example, replying to a long, detailed email from a friend will see me blocking out a chunk of time. I will make a pot of tea and dedicate myself fully to crafting a thoughtful, considered reply. All else will fall away for however long it takes me to finish the email. This is my way of spending quality time with those I love despite the many miles and time zones that sometimes separate us.
I try and use social media the same way, in short, mindful bursts rather than scroll aimlessly. I keep up with the news, I keep up with friends and acquaintances, and I keep up with cats.
This is plenty enough for me.
Also, I’ve recently discovered that too much time staring at my phone is nausea-inducing, a discovery I welcome as a hint to curtail screen time.
After all, I don’t need to know about things that add zero value to my life or fan the flames of outrage through sheer controversy.
Instead, I treat my attention like a finite currency and make sure I invest it wisely.
My phone sends me a weekly report detailing how many hours I spent on it, as if to chide me.
The assumption that I’m incapable of regulating my behavior is more than a little offensive. Then again, it’s symptomatic of a country where people systematically have to be protected from themselves. The American adult, it seems, is so helpless they need mollycoddling at all times.
As a result, there’s no shortage of people wanting to nudge us in the right direction and help us along the way, at a price. Tech creates a problem and tech makes a buck fixing the problem, it’s a win-win situation with profiteering as the modus operandi. Meanwhile, the consumer pays up in the hope of an elusive life upgrade.
While almost everything can be bought and sold in America, do we really want our attention to become commodified? As clickbait attempts to hijack our eyeballs for profit, we aren’t as powerless as our weekly phone reports would have us believe.
Attention is agency, and we still get to choose what and whom we spend it on.
We do not have to be slaves to notifications; they can all easily be turned off.
We do not have to be slaves to status updates; our smartphones all include an email and a phone function.
We do not have to feed the outrage machine; reacting is a choice.
We often treat our smartphones as if they were an extension of the soul, lavishing more time and care on them than we do on our loved ones. Without a hint of irony, we then wonder out loud why we’re so disconnected and why basic social skills are disappearing.
But what happens to our brains when we feed them a steady and endless diet of claptrap? And what happens to those we love when we ignore them?
Instead of asking ourselves who we are becoming, how about asking ourselves who we are, right now?
I’m a French-American writer and journalist living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.