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In between essays and articles, the two shows I most recently binge-watched were Black Mirror and Mr. Robot. Both shows are about the profound effect that technology has on our lives and our society, and it got me thinking about how much of a love-hate relationship we have with our devices, despite the innumerable benefits of interconnected communication, at least in the developed hyper-accelerated capitalist world.
As much as you can champion the new mediums we’ve created, it’s paradoxically very difficult to be pro-technology, especially when it comes to that Unholy Trinity of smartphones, the internet and social media. We live in the future, but apparently that future consists of people forever zoning out on their smartphones and becoming “zombies” addicted to their devices and not engaging with the “real world”. Uuuuurgh.
But fine, you want to have a real conversation? I want to talk about where that complaint came from, and what systems of narrative we have around technology that crop up whenever we do talk about them. Hopefully it comes off as some kind of “opinion”.
First off, from a purely linguistic perspective, I hate when people treat the internet as some distinct organism apart from themselves. Also that it’s somehow nobler or better for you to be apart from it. This narrative has been around since the turn of the millennium. The Matrix all gave us the fear that machines would use humans instead of the other way around, plugged into a world that seemed real but was actually an illusion, some inconsequential fabricated world that you will be better off being without.
But the internet isn’t a separate world like the Matrix. It IS our world, an environment that we created as an extension of ourselves. The internet and its media are both a mirror reflecting on our lives, and an umbrella over all our interactions. To that end, I think the complaint of becoming a “smartphone zombie” derives from two big cultural biases—we mistake idleness for laziness, and we’re unable to allow ourselves to feel okay with being alone.
The narrative in the Western world has explicitly tied fastidiousness and busyness to being inherently good, and doing nothing to evil or at best a lack of attention to your moral character. There’s an old Calvinist saying, “when you’re down on your knees, you may as well scrub the floor”. It makes a devil out of anyone who doesn’t appear to be pulling their weight and vilifies anything that doesn’t look sufficiently engaging to be called “busy”. “The devil makes work for idle hands” and all that hokum. But there’s a difference between the willingness to not do any work and simply taking a break in the moments between work, never mind that we’re doing most of it on computers anyway. Idleness is not the same as laziness.
To all those old farts who demand that we put down our phones and move back to a simpler time when we all used to talk to each other, I call an Augean Stables worth of horseshit. We haven’t forgotten how to have a conversation, we’re just holding them in a world beside you. If anything, we’re more social than ever; you’re the ones who invented the best ways for humans to ignore each other. There’s an old photo circulating online of everyone on a train reading newspapers on the commute to the city, ignoring each other just as they accuse smartphone-addicted millennials of doing the same. So, pots and black kettles all around.
To me, the beauty of the ‘net is that it takes a sword to that Gordian knot of human interaction—how do I be a part of the world and apart from it at the same time? You can tune out your surroundings and just scroll your feed. I don’t see it as ignoring the world, you’re just participating from another vantage point.
I think we’re still a little boggled by that capability, as our technology surpasses our ability to comprehend it. It’s in this that I do have some empathy for that older generation who are bewildered by iPads and smartphones, and who champion the great equaliser that is the face-to-face conversation. You’d be mad and a little betrayed too if you were old, had more time than you knew what to do with post-retirement, and no-one can talk you in the way with which you’re familiar. I’m sure the same thing will happen to me when I miss out on radiotelepathy or whatever with my grandspawn and complain that no-one posts things on screens anymore. And the cycle continues.
Technology always changes. People, in general, do not. We will probably be having this conversation in twenty years time, so stop cluttering my feed with re-posts.
Gus Mitchell is a feature writer, comic artist and biology student, in order of decreasing attention paid to each. His favourite Marvel movie is all of them.