Newspaper comments sections are filled with tidings of doom about how technology is hindering our minds; shortening our attention spans and depersonalising our relationships. James Wallman doesn’t agree. Exclusively for Think Smarter, the technology journalist and author of Stuffocation, shares his thoughts on our future relationship with our gadgets. Sign up to the Think Smarter newsletter to get a wealth of brain boosting content from some of our top non-fiction authors sent straight to your inbox, every week this January.
To me, it’s obvious that technology, used right, is good for us. To explain, let me take you back to the 1980s, when British Telecom was encouraging us to use their technology more often.
In one TV ad a grandmother, played by comedienne Maureen Lipman, calls her teenage grandson to find out his exam results.
“Grandma, I failed,” he tells her, sitting on the stairs as he talks on the phone.
“You mean you didn’t pass anything?”
“Pottery – very useful. Anthony, people will always need plates!” she says, upbeat. “Anything else?”
“An ology! He gets an ology and he says he’s failed! You get an ology – you’re a scientist!”
I mention this ad because I think it shows a couple of things. First is that there’s something about the sound of “ology” that impresses and befuddles people. So when people say technology they tend to think about next generation stuff that Wired readers get excited about, like WiFi on planes, smart watches that monitor your health, and apps that tell you what to do tonight and who you should do it with.
This sort of technology is changing the shape of daily life so quickly, there’s a wide open window for cultural commentators to jump through and say something clever and counterintuitive about how it’s bad for us. Some say it’s making our minds shallower, that no one focuses anymore as we’re only ever a click or a swipe away from some other exciting thing. Some say it’s dumbing down our culture: how much can you really say in 140 characters? Others worry that, now everything’s perfectly planned out, tools like GPS and Google Earth are killing the joy of serendipity. But saying that technology is bad, in my view, misses the point.
New technology really does nothing other than help us do things – like stay in touch, stay fit, and meet someone – quicker, better, and more conveniently. And we have to remember that any gain will entail some sort of loss, even if it’s something we wanted to lose. Or, as I prefer to think of it: when you win some, you also lose some.
Take Facebook, for instance. Sure, it’s addictive. (There’s a Facebook addiction scale, and a Facebook Addicts Anonymous.) And it means we might have far more, and much shallower relationships. And then there’s that guy or girl you knew at school who you really wish you weren’t still in touch with. But for all its faults, I think Facebook, and all other social media, is good for us: because not only has it made it so much easier to keep in touch with people, it’s also changing how we express our identities and get status.
Now, you may be shuddering at the mention of “status”. Many people do. But status matters to us all. It matters for humans, as it does for all animals. To establish their place in the pecking order, birds of paradise shake their tail feathers. Lions ruffle their thick, dark manes. Howler monkeys howl. And humans?
In the 20th Century, the best way for humans to express their identities to others and get status was from the stuff they owned, not from what they did. Back then, people would see your handbag, watch or car and know your status. Who would know you’d been to Ibiza for the weekend, Marrakech for a wedding or a Secret Cinema night, or that you’d run a triathlon?
Fast forward to today. With all your friends and followers on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, they do, and that means that what you do is far more likely to give you status than what you have.
This matters for all of us. Social scientists have proved that experiences are more likely to lead to happiness. And that means that as more people shake their tail feathers not through the material stuff they own, but through the adventures and events they experience, more people are more likely to be more happy.
So, despite its many downsides, Facebook – one of the standout examples of technology that is changing the world today – is making us happier.
And think of that old BT ad again. Imagine how that boy was feeling after failing his exams. Who better to deliver a bit of it’ll-all-be-alright-in-the-end sunshine than his Grandma? And, since she was in her house and he at his, that little ray of happiness was only possible thanks to the telephone – a simple piece of technology.
Stuffocation, James Wallman (Penguin) is out on 15th January 2015.
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