Technology is Neutral & Other Lies You've Been Told
Many of the messages we get about technology come straight from the mouths of the makers and shakers of the world, tech giants themselves. Their massive research and development branches give us the sense that their information is of the highest quality, yet they also benefit from large-scale adoption of the following misplaced beliefs:
Technology, in and of itself, is neither good nor bad. It all depends on how you use it.
This idea has been around for quite a while. It is a truncated version of one of technology pioneer Melvin Kranzberg’s six laws of technology: “Technology is neither good nor bad, nor is it neutral.” I recently heard the vice president of Google News present the same idea by saying, “Technology has value, but it does not have values.” Like many lies, there is some truth to this idea on a macro scale. We can use nuclear technology to generate power (good) or to build bombs (bad). However, at the level of the consumer, we almost never get to make this choice. Our gadgets have already been optimized for specific uses. For example, exercise equipment doesn’t seem to be good or bad, depending on how you use it. It is for exercise, which on the whole is a healthy behavior. A television, on the other hand, encourages us to sit in front of it. With our hands free to snack and our attention elsewhere, we consume 25% more calories when we watch as we eat. Staying sedentary while watching television also makes us more likely to develop diabetes and heart disease[i]. To say that exercise equipment and television have “values” may sound a bit strange, but the people who design and sell them certainly do. The technology you choose to surround yourself with biases you toward certain types of activities; ignoring this truth has a big impact on your health.
Binge-watching is ok.
Binge-watching has been hailed as a game-changer in the way people view television. Netflix has reported that 61% of subscribers binge shows regularly[ii]. As Reed Hastings, Netflix CEO, explains, “You get a show or a movie you’re really dying to watch and you end up staying up late at night, so we actually compete with sleep … and we're winning![iii]” While Netflix continues to produce addicting shows—so addictive that many shows only need two episodes to get 70% of viewers to watch the rest of the season[iv]—subscribers whom scientists have identified as binge-watchers tend to have problems maintaining healthy sleep patterns. Those bingeing subscribers have a 98% increased risk for poor sleep[v]. Even worse, finishing a season on Netflix was associated with loneliness, according to a 2015 Texas A&M study[vi].
Spending too much time on your phone is a personal failing.
According to one conservative estimate, the average smartphone user spends almost three hours each day on his or her phone[vii]. We miss out on special moments in the lives of our loved ones even though we may have been physically present. MIT Professor Sherry Turkle found this phenomenon so prevalent that she named her book on new media Alone Together. Unfortunately, many of us feel we are failing our loved ones or, perhaps worse, that our loved ones are failing us. The truth is, smartphones and many apps were designed with one metric in mind: eyes on screen. The amount of time users spend on an app and their levels of “engagement” show investors and advertising buyers that a new product can deliver messages to users in a meaningful way. Facebook, for example, puts ads in the stream of your News Feed so that you consume advertising messages similar to the way you consume status updates from friends. Many platforms have also removed any cues that would have previously stopped you from continuing to scroll. They’ve eschewed paginating content for the infinite thumb treadmill—ensuring that if you have to leave, it won’t be because you ran out of content.
Much of what you hear about technology serves the interest of big tech companies and runs counter to peer-reviewed science. Fortunately, there are ways to start changing your relationship to your tech. To get started, why not try a couple of simple tips?
Keep your phone further from yourself. Rather than always having your phone in your pocket, try storing it in your backpack or purse.
Try to engage in conversation more often with friends, family, and colleagues. For instance, keep your phone hidden during meals. Even if you aren’t in an active conversation, having your phone out sends a signal to others that your phone is competing for your attention.
Taking steps to change your default behaviors around technology will go a long way toward producing a healthy, balanced life.
[i] “7 Ways Your TV Is Making You Fat.”
[ii] Oberhaus, “Binge Watching TV Makes It Less Enjoyable, Study Says.”
[iii] Gaudette, “Netflix Declares War on Sleep, Its Biggest ‘Competitor.’”
[iv] Alter, Irresistible.
[v] MacMillan, “Yes, Binge-Watching Really Is Messing With Your Sleep.”
[vi] Gaudette, “Netflix Declares War on Sleep, Its Biggest ‘Competitor.’”
[vii] “How Much Time Do People Spend on Their Mobile Phones in 2017?”
“7 Ways Your TV Is Making You Fat.” Eat This Not That, January 28, 2015. https://www.eatthis.com/7-ways-tv-makes-you-fat/.
Alter, Adam. Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked. Reprint edition. Penguin Books, 2018.
Gaudette, Emily. “Netflix Declares War on Sleep, Its Biggest ‘Competitor.’” Newsweek, November 6, 2017. http://www.newsweek.com/netflix-binge-watch-sleep-deprivation-703029.
“How Much Time Do People Spend on Their Mobile Phones in 2017?” Hacker Noon, May 9, 2017. https://hackernoon.com/how-much-time-do-people-spend-on-their-mobile-phones-in-2017-e5f90a0b10a6.
MacMillan, Amanda. “Yes, Binge-Watching Really Is Messing With Your Sleep.” Health.com, August 17, 2017. http://www.health.com/sleep/binge-watching-tv-sleep.
Oberhaus, Daniel. “Binge Watching TV Makes It Less Enjoyable, Study Says.” Motherboard, September 5, 2017. https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/evv3pp/binge-watching-tv-makes-it-less-enjoyable-study-says.