Everything I Know About Technology

(Okay. You win! I know about as much about technology as I do food and fitness.)

Moments before writing this, I heard the familiar ping of a new email in my inbox. Two swipes and a click and I felt like bouncing through the roof — not because modern technology has made communication easier than ever before, but because the message itself offered some of the kindest words I’ve heard in weeks.

That about sums it up, I think. That’s technology in a nutshell: the good—the incredible—it can offer, sure, right in step with all of the not-so pleasant.

I won’t pretend this is an easy subject to cover. Far wrinklier brains than my own have given pretty compelling talks about it, but I think I do have one thing going for me: I grew up with this stuff. Technology, for as long as I can remember, has been plugged into my every waking minute, and I’ve grown to live with it—to rely on it—with all of the complications that brings.

So! Let’s talk about technology.

These won’t be the last words I’ll ever write on the subject, but they might be the most important. They serve a kind of end cap, too, for every word laid before — every worry and every word of praise about how technology continues to shape our lives.

These are the words, in other words, that I want to you to remember. I hope you enjoy them.

Let’s Take the Good…

Twitter brought me a graphic artist, a knitter of hats, and a fantastic backpack designer in the last month alone. It has also given me a chance to interact with people far quicker and closer than I could through email alone.

Email helped me spread the word about my next eBook, a collaborative project with at least a dozen people I’ve never met before in my life. They’re giving me art. I’m still kind of stunned.

Facebook keeps me tied to people I might not otherwise be able to keep in touch with. With a few keystrokes, I can maintain a conversation with someone I met on the opposite end of the globe.

iTunes/YouTube/Whatever has helped expose artists in every corner of the world. I can construct a playlist, now, of Japanese hip hop and swooning Spanish ballads, and I can plug any track imaginable into a radio that tracks down similar songs I might also like.

This blog has given me a platform. I’ve ranted, raved, and tried to spread as much happiness as possible, and I’ve received, in turn, lasting friendships and kind words—like the email that introduced this post—that I know I’ll never forget.

Technology offers a tremendous amount of good.

I’ve been jamming a lot of Nujabes recently. Seba Jun, by his real name, was a one-of-a-kind musician who I’ve never seen or met — but the Internet has a small pocket for his fans, all of whom, like me, are still struck by the tragedy of his recent death.

Think about that. I’m mourning a man I’ve never met by spinning his tracks on repeat.

We are all connected.

…with the Bad

One of the most popular articles on this site describes a problem I still struggle with today: distraction. I passed an entire car ride, once, with my eyes glued to my cell phone, too absorbed in Twitter to notice the red streaks in the sky above me.

The allure of the inbox grows stronger by the day. With the possibility of new messages just a click or two away, we lock ourselves into a vicious—and kind of useless—cycle of mindlessly refreshing our accounts every fifteen minutes.

People spend hours on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and whatever social media network of their choosing, clicking listlessly through photos of their ex-lovers and giggling at funny cat pictures.

The television took root as an American mainstay. We’ve shifted our habits to match it. Your average office worker, at the end of a long day, will immediately plop down and spend their few free hours watching reality TV instead.

In a crowded restaurant, now, count how many people are absorbed in their cell phones. Count how many have their head visibly turned away from the people sitting right next to them, so focused as they are on the text messages—on distant conversations—filling up their screen.

Technology offers a tremendous amount of bad.

We are all distracted.

So How Do You Know Which is Which?

That’s a great question.

I think it’s a personal one, too. What do you want from technology? What do you want from this tool, in other words? I can’t answer that for you, but I can offer my own criteria — the Big Two, as I’ve taken to calling them, that help me decide in an instant if I’m using technology the right way. Here they are:

1. Technology shouldn’t waste our time.

2. Technology should accentuate the real world — not replace it.

Let’s tackle both in full.

1. Technology shouldn’t waste our time.

I bring up time, now, because it sits as a quiet—but important—thread under all this discussion.

Think about time, in fact, and you’ll realize something odd about technology: for every promise it makes about letting us do things better, faster, and smarter, only rarely has that proven true. If anything, we feel like we have less time than ever before.

Why is that? Why, when we can spread our voice all over the globe with a click of a button, do we feel more tired—more stressed—than ever?

The answer isn’t pretty. You might even call it uncomfortable.

For every capability it offers, technology tempts us with something else: distraction. We could keep writing our novel, or we could spend forty-five minutes scrolling through our Facebook news feed. We could reconnect with a long-forgotten friend, or we could spend thirty minutes scanning the front page at Reddit. We could take a long walk through the neighborhood, or we could watch an hour of mediocre TV.

We could do something—anything—important, or we could waste our time.

I want to stress, here, that this doesn’t fall back on machine error. Uncomfortable though it might be, the burden is on us to use these tools appropriately. No one is forcing you to do the social media dance, much like no one forces you to leverage social networks as an opportunity to meet as many cool people as possible.

It all comes back to time. How do you want to spend it? For me, at least, the answer sounds like this: “as wisely as possible.” You can still watch TV. You can still check Facebook on occasion. But pay attention, now, to how many minutes you sink into either one of these activities, and take a big step back if you discover you’re not comfortable with whatever that number turns out to be.

2. Technology should accentuate the real world — not replace it.

I look back, now, on every hour of video games I played during college. (Don’t ask me to count.)

That wasn’t wasted time. I enjoyed it, by and large, and shared great memories with friends whenever we played together. But I do wonder, now, what I missed out on — how many opportunities to meet and greet I might have had if I spent at least half of that video game time outside my apartment.

What if I had spent that time walking around campus? What if I had spent that time learning early on how to cook?

The questions don’t matter now. What does matter, however, is the recognition — the realization that given a choice between living in the real world, this incredible, colorful planet I’ve only barely begun to explore, and spending my days staring at a glowing screen, I know which one I’ll choose. The realization, in other words, that while technology offers incredible things, I’m not always comfortable with what I have to miss out on in order to enjoy them.

The point is this: technology lets us connect and collaborate (and entertain!) like never before, but at a cost. For the first time in history, in fact, I can keep up with the day-to-day operations of a friend anywhere in the world. For the first time in history, I can work with this person on something creative and fulfilling. For the first time in history, I can watch an entire movie in a device the size of my palm at any location imaginable. This is incredible. This is also ripe for abuse.

It’s a give and take. There’s nothing wrong with these virtual worlds, no, but there’s something alarming at how readily they take over the real one.

The problem, I think, is when these virtual connections start interfering with the flesh and blood ones. The problem, I think, is when you see that awkward couple out on the first date — the goofy smiles, the hesitant conversation, the freaking cell phones out on the table and the willingness both of them have to stop all conversation and sit in strange quiet while they text.

The problem is when we apologize to our friends as we crane our neck down to reply to a message.

The problem is when we prioritize these little snippets of conversation instead of the living, breathing creature standing right in front of us.

The problem is when we’d rather play an iPhone game than actually interact with the people around us.

Again: technology lets us do incredible things. We should enjoy this. But we shouldn’t do it at the expense of the here and now — the world all around us that is every bit as interesting and complex as the one we hold in the palm of our hand.

It Always Comes Back to Balance

Technology is a tool.

And how we choose to use it, as ever, can make all the difference in the world.

So there’s the final verdict, then: technology is how you use it.

If it helps you connect, work on new projects, or better discover the sights and sounds of modern life, then I’d say it’s an incredible tool to have at your disposal.

If it distracts you, wastes your time, and becomes an easy out to avoid interacting with the world around you, then I’d say it’s an open invitation to take a good, long look at how you’re currently operating.

But don’t get me wrong — I’m still going to watch TV sometimes. I’m still going to play a video game (hello, Guild Wars 2!) when the mood hits me. And I’m still going to scroll through my Twitter feed, sometimes, before I snap out of it and get back to work.

You don’t have to quit cold turkey. You don’t have to stop watching American Idol.

You do, however, need to start thinking about what you’re doing. You need to study your habits over the course of a week and ask yourself, now, if technology is helping or distracting you. If it’s the latter, start tweaking. Watch a little less TV. Force yourself to avoid Facebook. In the evening, spend more time cooking, laughing, and talking so you have less time to plop down in front of the screen.

You need balance. And you need to remember, now, these two ideas below:

1. Technology shouldn’t waste our time.

2. Technology should accentuate the real world — not replace it.

I’ll be honest: this isn’t easy. But it’s a way of life worth living, I think, as we grow more and more tech-dependent with each passing year.

Start small. Take an hour you’d normally spend on TV and spend it walking/cooking/talking/building instead. Do this for a week straight and see how much you can accomplish.

Imagine doing this for a month.

Imagine doing this for a year.

And imagine, lastly, what words you want on your lips come the end of your long, happy life:

“I’m glad I watched so much TV.”

“I’m glad I spent so much time with my family and my friends.”

You decide.

2 Comments

  1. Rachel says:

    I was just talking about this — in regards to writing — the other day in a class. The frustrating part of this conversation is when you are “required” to be online in some form in order to also interact with the real world. I am an admin of a Facebook page for my work, and I’m required to keep track of it. I’m studying Television, so I’ll have to do an analysis of American Horror Story for homework.

    Like you are saying though, it all comes down to balance. Spending time away from the screen as much as you are reliant on it.

  2. Ethan Waldman says:

    Awesome post. I especially like the idea of balance when it comes to technology. I’d add, that technology should never stand in our way. It should be an accelerator on our path to getting there.