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  • Writer's pictureErik Herman

The New Normal

Updated: Nov 4, 2022

The Covid19 pandemic has further accelerated what had already been happening--that a larger and larger portion of life is lived through a screen.

Consider what your day, your week, your month would be like now if cell service and internet was simply turned off. For most of us it would throw life into a complete tailspin. You might loose your job or fail school. You'd loose touch with friends and family. If that wasn't enough, you'd even have to deal with being bored. Then what? Would your mind get relegated to thinking about your life? Would you be forced to pick up a book, pen a letter to an old friend, learn how to juggle?

You could pick up a guitar and noodle away at a song you've been wanting to learn...but it will take effort and you probably won't sound as good as that guitarist you follow on social media, so why even try? Hope Reese captures this conundrum very nicely in her Vox article.

I have some real concerns for the effect excessive screentime will have on our relationship to ourselves, our relationship to others, and our relationship to the physical world. When I've expressed this concern to others it's often pointed out to me that this is a normal part of innovations being adopted into society--that there will always be people who fear that these new gadgets will lead to an overall deterioration of all that is good. And then, generation after generation, things turn out ok.

But I think everyone would agree that technologies always bring unintended aspects. Some things don't show up until long after a technology has become normal. Before 2020 when going into "airplane mode" as a passenger staring out the window I never had the thought, "Gee, I wonder if this big flying thing could help create a global pandemic?"

The tricky part about smartphones in particular is that they go everywhere and they do everything. When I was a teen, my parents were worried that I was spending too much time on the telephone, but at least I was tethered to a part of the house by a cord. There was a built-in restriction. And the only thing I could do on it--even if I did it for a long time--was talk to people.

The smartphone and the network that makes it come alive defies limitations. It's difficult to even get away from it. I've tried. And the funny looks you get from people when you talk about disconnecting as if to say, "Sure, sometimes you can't get a good signal but who would try to do that on purpose?"

There are even plenty of examples where whole communities of people have agreed to restrict their usage of certain technologies. If you're traveling on the country roads in upstate New York it's not unusual to see some Amish people in a horse-drawn buggy. These folks have seen the car. And they've made a decision to stick with the buggy. Before you dismiss their rationale by simply thinking about which of these modes of transportation is faster, more comfortable, and more convenient, take a minute to also consider some of the negative impacts cars have had socially, environmentally, and on our health.

My takeaway here isn't that telephones, smartphones, cars, or buggies, are inherently right or wrong to integrate into our lives, but rather that we need to be making conscious decisions about how they integrate into our lives. Where, when, and for what should you use your smartphone? Should it be allowed to interrupt a hike with a friend? Should it entertain you on a long drive? Should you exchange a few texts while at the dinner table with family? How many hours per day is a reasonable amount of time to spend? Which hours of the day shall we allow ourselves to be on it or off of it?

It doesn't help the situation that, through our phones, tablets, and computers, we are deliberately being fed content that intentionally distracts us, guides our thinking, and sells us things:

Zeynep Tufekci

Tristan Harris

Especially if putting some guidelines around usage doesn't make any sense, try going off screen for a long weekend. The experiment will at least allow you to find out what happens--what other things you notice, what conversations and daydreams you have, how you pass the time--when it isn't always at the tip of your fingers.

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