Stop Blaming Technology (Blame Yourself)

Originally posted on Medium

More and more people are coming online for the first time, using smartphones and tablets, and integrating technology in their lives in meaningful ways.

What would life be like without using the internet for a year? That’s what Paul Miller of The Verge set out to discover. Do you think you could do it? Do you think it would change your life?

Then Baratunde Thurston, formerly of The Onion, wrote about his 25-day unplugging at the end of last year.

You’ll read accounts like this, from Paul Miller:

…I was spotted by a man brandishing one of my own articles about leaving the internet. He was ecstatic to meet me. I had chosen to avoid the internet for many of the same reasons his religion expressed caution about the modern world.
“It’s reprogramming our relationships, our emotions, and our sensitivity,” said one of the rabbis at the rally. It destroys our patience. It turns kids into “click vegetables.”

And Baratunde:

I stopped next at a friend’s holiday party, where I engaged in conversation without once taking out my phone to see what Twitter had to say about my conversation. My mind left the party only when my body did, at about 2 in the morning.

He continues…

And the fact is, I maintained the same slow pace, the same sense of discovery that I enjoyed during that first week. There were movies, there were food trucks, there were friends, there was mulled wine. There was brief consideration of a mulled-wine food truck. Above all, there was an expansion of sensations and ideas.

Magical moments that could not have happened if he had a phone in his pocket.

There are countless articles and blog posts that tell variations of the same grim tale: A couple sitting at a dinner table, staring at their phones, together but alone. It certainly does happen, which I guess it why it’s always mentioned. But is it the problem?

My wife and I will be having our first baby soon. Very soon. (Oh man, this is happening pretty fast.) So I’ve been thinking a lot about how to incorporate technology into my son’s life and learning process. I still remember the first time I saw a child under two years old unlock an iPhone and launch an app.

In order to determine how to best use technology for his development, I have to take a look at how we use technology ourselves. It’s all related, and my choices will influence his choices.

Yet everything I read is how terrible technology is for us. How we spend too much time staring at screens and not talking to the people around us. And I think it’s all bullshit.

Thankfully, just yesterday I saw an article on The Verge by Ben Popper titled, “Is technology scrambling my baby’s brain?” It was one of the first pieces that felt balanced. And that’s one of its key takeaways: It’s all about balance.

I called Dr. Dimitri Christakis, director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s Research Institute. “Screens are purely a delivery mechanism. What parents should be focused on is the content,” he told me. A blanket ban on screens, he argued, doesn’t make sense. “I’m a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics, but I have to say, their statement about the effects of electronic media is clearly out of date.”
What matters, says Christakis, is the difference between passive and active consumption.

Technology and the internet have made our lives infinitely better. We’re able to connect with people thousands of miles away, take an online class, and look up any piece of information you could possibly imagine.

As with anything, when not used in moderation, it could be harmful to you or those around you. If you plop yourself (or your child) in front of a screen without engagement or interaction, that certainly could have negative effects. Still, the technology itself is not at fault.

Although I appreciate Baratunde’s brand of tongue-in-cheek humor, this point is similarly used by many to prove that life is just so much better without technology:

For lunch I frequented Chuko, where the server recommended the pork-belly ramen. This was not the server, mind you, but a human server who proclaimed, “Try the pork-belly ramen.” What an algorithm.

With or without a phone in our pocket, we can always talk to the person sitting next to us. There are many reasons we don’t: We value our friends’ opinions more, or we prefer to search thousands of opinions instead of just one, or maybe we just don’t feel like talking to anyone that day. The point being, there’s nothing about your phone that is controlling you. It’s simply a choice to leave it in your pocket during dinner.

All it takes is a little self-control.

It’s ok if you don’t have the self-control to always be perfect. Breaking a habit isn’t about quitting cold turkey. It’s not about pointing fingers at a problem and saying, “If this would just go away, life would be better.” Breaking a habit takes recognizing a pattern, and doing your best to alter it. You’ll have good days and bad days. But if you take a moment and think that you should put your phone away and chat with your friend, you’re already doing well. Listen to that voice enough and it will become your new habit.

Is “quitting the internet” for 25 days realistic for most people that aren’t privileged enough to have someone run their company for them while they’re gone? Probably not. Does it really address the problem of being addicted to checking every notification? Probably not.

I think blaming technology is one of those things that just feels good for people from time to time. It’s like blaming fast food for obesity. It doesn’t actually do anything to uncover the true issue. It doesn’t actually do anything to encourage better habits.

Stop blaming technology. Start blaming yourself. Try your best to recognize if you’re checking your phone too frequently, addicted to email, or not spending quality time with those you care about. Do something little every day to build better habits.

Don’t lock your phone in a drawer and proclaim your problems solved. Try turning off some of your notifications. Try not responding to work email during the weekends. Or just try putting it in your pocket more often.

Andy Newman