Sunday, March 27, 2011

Feeling Pressure from Technology

Just a couple of weeks ago, nobler souls than I celebrated the second annual National Day of Unplugging during which they disconnected from all technology for a twenty-four hour period. The idea comes from a group called Sabbath Manifesto, who advocate unplugging for one day each week. They're not anti-technology; in fact, they're on Facebook and Twitter. They even have an app to help you detach. Their admirable purpose is simply to get us "to slow down our lives in an increasingly hectic world" and reconnect with other people on a more personal, meaningful level.

A complete voluntary detox from all technology for even a day can seem pretty daunting to most of us who depend on being wired, probably far more than we realize. And yet, one of the common complaints in contemporary society is a feeling of being overwhelmed by technology and its effects. I can barely remember a time when I didn't feel pressure to pay attention to multiple sources of information. In the mists of ancient history, I do recall not having a cell phone, not even having an answering machine. There was no cable television and only a handful networks and local stations. No personal computers meant no Facebook, no e-mail. You couldn't Google something; you had to go to the library and search through reference material. When you got together with someone, you talked, uninterrupted by text messages. I love the benefits that technology brings us, but I do have a certain nostalgia for that unfettered, unpressured feeling I had when I wasn't constantly available or constantly beseiged by information.

And it's not just the unrelenting flow of information resulting from current technology that's an issue. Digital cameras make us feel pressure to capture every moment of our lives. If you've ever been the designated photographer at an important event (even in the pre-digital era), you know that taking pictures can remove you emotionally from the experience; you feel everything second-hand. Now not only does the photographer feel that way, but the subject can have his experience and memory of the moment replaced immediately by a digital image. Dave Pell wrote on Tweetage Wasteland about the impact of this in a post called "We All Have Photographic Memories:"

"For his third birthday, my son had a surf-themed party at a way too cold beach in San Francisco. I’m sure he had created a self-image of how he looked in his rash-guard and shades as he balanced on a freshly waxed, beach-bound longboard. Like most parents, I felt compelled to go paparazzi on my son and his friends from the second we unloaded the car. And because he is a child of the digital age, my son followed nearly every snap of the camera with the same request: 'Can I see the picture?' The instant my son looked at the image, his imagination-driven perception of himself was replaced by a digital reproduction of the moment he had just experienced.

"During a presentation on happiness at the Ted Conference, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman makes a distinction between the experiencing self and the remembering self. Digital photography gives additional dominance to the remembering self. At his birthday party on the beach, my son almost leapfrogged over his realtime experience. He was no longer imagining what he looked like on that surf board. He was looking at what he looked like. The wave of emotions, senses and reactions that made up his initial experience were swept away by the undertow of a single sense: what his eyes saw on a two inch viewfinder."
I love the benefits of digital cameras, but what happens to us when we don't savor our experiences because we're so busy documenting them and reviewing the documentation that the experience itself gets lost? What happens when we barely get to create our memories in our minds before they're created digitally, then often distributed to friends and "friends" before the moment has fully passed?

NPR's "All Tech Considered" picked up another fine post by Dave Pell, this one about the effect of creating our very public images online, something we're pressured to do to participate in social media networking: For Sale On the Web: You! And, yes, we are selling ourselves:

"I need you to know how full my inbox is, how great my marriage is, and what an awesome workout I had this morning.

"Friend Me. Follow me. RT me. Like me. @ Me. Poke me. Forward me. Buy. Buy. Buy.

"The age of subtlety is dead. So we all push the product nonstop and the product is us."

And then, he points out, we check the stats to see if we've made the sale. How many comments did we get, or re-Tweets, or "likes?" Did we build our "brand?" To be always on, always selling is a lot of pressure.

How does pressure from this technological overload affect us as consumers? Online pressure directed at our public selves can make us feel insecure or competitive, perhaps like we need something more to make our images appear as successful as we'd like to be, so we acquire more stuff.  Pressure just to keep up with technology itself can make us feel unsatisfied and that makes us vulnerable to wanting to acquire stuff to make us feel better -- sometimes more technology. Pressure to be wired and fully informed can cause us to spend more time attempting to do that rather than doing other things that are more important and more satisfying, like connecting on a personal level with our family and friends -- or making and keeping our lives uncluttered.

I definitely feel the pressure and the sense of being overwhelmed that many of us share, but overall, I like spending much of my time online and I like all of the benefits technology gives us. And yet, more often than I'd like to admit, the availability of technology in my life hasn't always necessarily resulted in the best use of my time. Like now, when I've avoided uncluttering some stacks of papers by writing this blog post.

Did I feel pressure to write something? Of course. Did it contribute to the task at hand: uncluttering my my life? Unfortunately, no. Did I enjoy writing it? Absolutely!

© 2011 Cynthia Friedlob

Related Post: Consuming Time: Kids and Adults Overwhelmed by Technology


Ariane Benefit said...

Cynthia...this is such a valuable article....thanks for taking the time to write and share it! I shared it on my Facebook!

Jeri Dansky said...

I understand (and relate to) the potential negative aspects of all the technology that's now part of our lives.

But on the other hand, I was just out of town for almost two weeks, as my stepmom finally succumbed to her lung cancer. My day-to-day life was made so much easier by having my tech tools (iPhone, iPad, laptop) with me. I could find out where the funeral home was. I looked up information on how to correctly dispose of prescription medicines. I stayed connected to other family members. I booked my return flights. The list goes on and on.

On the camera issue: I don't really feel a need to record everything; maybe that makes me an outlier. And I've also noticed on various trips that having a camera makes me notice things in a different way. I generally take few photos during events, and more when I'm just wandering around.

Jo said...

This speaks perfectly to me about why I’m not on Facebook. I think sometimes people (and perhaps moreso the younger generation) get mixed up between living a life and documenting one.

I once went on vacation with a friend who liked to take photos, which she did the whole time. When we got back I remembered having a great time and she remembered… taking lots of photos.

Cynthia Friedlob said...

Balancing technology use in your life can certainly be tricky. I'm on Facebook and enjoy it, but I use it in a very specific way, posting links to my blogs, some music I like, and occasional articles I find interesting. I enjoy seeing what my friends are doing, too. But, the downside is that it takes a huge amount of time!

Interesting observation about your friend's experience on the trip. I think a lot of people can relate to that feeling of having missed the event itself.

Thanks for your comment!

Cynthia Friedlob said...

Jeri, I'm so sorry to learn of your stepmother's passing. I know it had been a long battle.

You've pointed out some of the many benefits we get from being wired. I agree that the advantages outweigh the difficulties and our job is to make sure we use the technology we have in ways that are beneficial.

I don't find it necessary to document everything in photos or video either, but we do seem to be the exception to the rule. I can't explain why I feel that way, but maybe your "outlier" position regarding cameras is related to your ability to live without TV!

Cynthia Friedlob said...

Good to hear from you Ariane! Thanks for your comment and for sharing the post on Facebook.