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10 March 2021

You using technology

And not the other way around.

We live in a new kind of wild west. Computers have been around long enough to take over huge parts of our lives, but not so long that we have learned the right ways to use them. The signs are everywhere. They’re in our screen time, our meme stocks, and our energy-hungry cryptocurrencies. They’re in the push for phones with five cameras and 5G networks. They’re in the political power built and broken on social media, the increasingly frequent attacks frothing up the South Cyber Sea, and the string of new tech companies with funny names and astronomically high valuations that all promise to revolutionize some industry or another.

Of course, the computer horde’s reckless conquest has benefited us immensely as consumers. Life has never been more convenient. Anything we could possibly want – Chinese goods, endless entertainment, a date for Friday night – is just a click or tap away. But we’ve paid for this convenience by giving up any semblance of agency in the aspects of our lives that go digital.

Most of us have no idea what our computers are actually doing at any given time, and we’re limited in our ability to understand or modify their behavior. This means tech companies have absolute power over the digital world, which is starting to eclipse the physical one. If Excel made the use of negative numbers a premium feature, financial analysts everywhere would have little choice but to pay. And if LinkedIn decided that users with the same first name could no longer connect, the Johns and Mohammads of the world would have no recourse. In this environment, it’s all too easy to go from being a user of technology to a usee.

At their best, computers are tools that amplify human capability without replacing it. Our current digital infrastructure enables us to do all kinds of incredible things – but we often use it in ways that make us less capable and self-reliant. While GPS has made it unbelievably easy to get around unfamiliar places, it has damaged our ability to get around our own neighborhoods. We should be able to take a friend in need to the hospital, even when our phones are dead. Similarly, the massive body of useful information freely available on the Internet is one of the biggest benefits of modern computing. But, if our first instinct is to go online to learn, we miss important things that can’t be found there. Your grandma’s recipes probably aren’t on any cooking site.

On a personal level, much of our work, play, leisure, and socializing now happens online, and we’re rarely more than a few feet from a device that connects us to it all. While the ability to connect is a boon, constant connection – and the associated expectation that we’re plugged in and available at all times – breeds anxiety and makes it hard to slow down, relax, and live engaged in the present moment. We also spend a lot of our screen time on social media platforms, which are currently designed to consume as much of our attention as possible, at any cost to our health. We can’t put our devices down, even when they make us more anxious, more distracted, and less happy.

In this digital wild west, we don’t have anyone but ourselves to look out for how technological trends affect our wellbeing and quality of life. If we aren’t careful about how we use computers, we may be the next thing to get disrupted.