Have you ever felt like you were too dependent on technology? Maybe you felt a sense of anxiety when you couldn’t find your phone, or maybe you realized you don’t know how to navigate to your friend’s house without the help of your phone-based GPS app.
Despite the labels that baby boomers hate technology and that millennials are obsessed with it, the reality is that all generations embrace digital life to some extent, though some are more cautious than others when it comes to accepting our level of technological integration. The reality is, technological dependence is destructive, both on an individual and on a societal level—and we need to reject that dependence if we’re going to keep innovating.
The dangers of technological dependence
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The overuse of technology can lead to our dependence on it, in multiple ways. These are just a few of the potential consequences, which exist on an individual level:
1. Anxiety and depression. The excessive use of mobile devices has been linked to anxiety and depression, as well as other mental health problems. This could be explained by a variety of influences. For example, the constant bombardment of news and information can leave you feeling numb to the real world, and being obsessed with digital interactions can leave you deprived of real-life relationships.
2. Impatience. Technology has also made us impatient. Knowing that most people have 24/7 access to their social media messages or email inboxes makes us expect replies within a few minutes. Being able to access articles on any subject makes us less tolerant of anything that takes more than a few minutes to learn or master.
3. Memory. Studies show that avid use of smartphones to take photos, videos, or notes can impair our memory. The exact mechanism at work here isn’t known, but it’s hypothesized that because our minds recognize that the information is being stored elsewhere, it’s less important for us to remember it—so we don’t dedicate the mental resources to remembering it. In other words, you know you can always call up a list of actors in a specific movie on IMDB, so you never bother committing that cast list to memory.
4. Addiction. While the exact definition and legitimacy of “technology addiction” is debated, it’s clear that for some people, technological dependence can become so extreme that it causes severe anxiety whenever technology is inaccessible. This may manifest as an addiction to social media, gaming, porn, or any number of other tech-rooted engagements. Do note that technological addition is an extreme version of the problem; just because you get the urge to check your phone for notifications on a regular basis doesn’t mean you’re addicted to it.
5. Skills. Using a smartphone or other technology regularly to replace or enhance a skill may also gradually reduce our ability to access that skill. For example, if you use a smartphone to navigate to locations in your city, you may never learn to read a map or navigate without the aid of a GPS device.
Why the case for modern cyborgs is invalid
I’ve heard arguments that the next stage for human evolution is to become a cyborg; in fact, it’s arguable that we’re already cyborgs. A cyborg is an organism with both natural and cybernetic components that drive its functionality, improving on the capabilities that either category of components would have on their own.
For example, your phone is incapable of forming abstract thoughts or introspecting. Your memory isn’t reliable enough to have photo-perfect representations of past events. But together, you can view all the details of a location you’ve visited in the past, and consider its significance in a broader context.
In this way, proponents of technological dependence describe cyborgism as a way of outsourcing certain functions that we can’t otherwise generate on our own. And if that sounds revolutionary, consider that we’ve been using this for centuries; books, for example, are a way for us to commit long swaths of information to multi-generational permanence—a feat that would be impossible, given our natural cognitive limitations.
Would you criticize someone for being dependent on a book or journal to house their memories the same way you’d criticize them for taking too many smartphone photos?
The problem with this viewpoint is that it neglects the sheer power of modern technology. The scale at which we’ve developed in the past decade is fundamentally unlike the trajectory of past generations.
Instead of introducing a gradual improvement or iterative form of assistance, we’re overwriting entire functions of our brains and bodies. As a metaphor, shoes serve to protect your feet from the dangers of walking on questionable terrain, but if you rely on a wheelchair when you don’t truly need one, your leg muscles would eventually atrophy.
The role of technological dependence on innovation
We also need to consider the role that our technological dependence could have on innovation, and the progression of our societal capabilities. If we become wholly dependent on certain types of technology, to the point where we’re unable to live comfortably without them, we pigeonhole ourselves into using variations of that technology.
For example, if we become too dependent on smartphones, our line of technological progression will, for an extended period of time, force us to come up with smaller, faster, and more convenient smartphones, rather than innovating something entirely novel.
Take, for example, an anecdote from history; in 1894, people relied on horses for transportation, with metropolitan areas boasting 50,000 or more horses. All those horses came with problems, such as manure, horse corpses, diseases, and speed problems. Relying on straightforward innovation, people would have continued coming up with better ways to manage horses, such as automated systems for cleaning manure or training programs to make horses faster—rather than inventing the automobile (which is what ultimately transpired).
In other words, depending too much on one of today’s technologies blinds us to future, better technologies.
Finding the balance: individuals and groups
The cost of becoming dependent on technology, at its most extreme, is our mental health, our cognitive capabilities, and the future of innovation. So what can we do to mitigate our dependence on technology, both as individuals and as groups?
I’m not saying we need to outlaw technology, or deliberately limit our use of new technologies that have the potential to significantly improve our lives. But we do need to find a balance.
As an individual, that means limiting the time you spend engaging with technology, and relying on your own cognitive capabilities as much as possible. In a group context, it means resisting the temptation to accept any technology as a given, or as the new norm.
We need to acknowledge the destructive and limiting potential of technological dependence without demonizing technology altogether, and we need to work together to accomplish this.
This post is part of our contributor series. The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily shared by TNW.