Technology take-over: Can humans ever win?

How to successfully survive the digital age and come out on top

Sometimes I get nostalgic for high school. I think it’s because back then, times were “easier.” There was no Facebook, no Twitter, smartphones were just emerging and everyone seemed calmer and less distracted.
So, the other day I decided to be proactive and reenact those years. The plan was to throw a reunion for my closest friends. I created a Facebook event called “No Phones Allowed,” a title I chose because just once, I wanted a night with my friends that didn’t involve constant manhandling of our Blackberries. It was a little optimistic considering most of my friends (myself included) have an unbreakable bond with our phones. Still, I felt it was worth the risk.
Most of today’s university students are part of Generation Y, born between 1980 and 1995. They have grown up with technology and the world at their fingertips, so they tend to live under the misconception technology is appropriate in any forum &- whether sitting at the bar with friends, or in class.

“This has become a socially acceptable way of behaving,” said Anna Woodrow, a sociology and anthropology lecturer at Concordia University and a full-time humanities professor at John Abbott College. “But I mean really it is quite rude to have your phone out. It is like saying that there is somebody out there that is not here right now that deserves more of my attention than you. It is just rude.”
Woodrow explains that it becomes a matter of who is more important, the friend on Facebook, or the friend in person.
“Of course we know which one is more important, but we do not behave in that fashion,” said Woodrow. “We behave in the fashion that seems to value the digital relationship over the actual relationship.”
Just before the night of “No Phones Allowed”, some of my friends were pretty upset with this “rule” and questioned my reasons for it. My reasons? Well I had two. The first was I thought we were too obsessed with our Blackberries and it was time we gave each other some attention. The second, more secretive answer, was I was writing this very article about our obsession with technology and I figured my friends would be good research subjects.

And what do you know &- they pulled through. Within five minutes the rule was broken. People had boyfriends to call and other friends to meet up with. Sure enough, this gave everyone else the permission they needed to check their phones and make a quick call or text. This inability to unplug for just a few seconds left me wondering what ever happened to good old quality time with friends and how this almost addiction to technology is affecting our daily lives?
“I remember thinking the no phones thing was a cool experiment, but obviously it didn’t work out,” said Marissa Greenberg, a second year accounting student. “I remember sitting there and everyone had their phones out so I took mine out too. I was kind of disappointed we couldn’t do it but I also expected it.”

Trying to do it all with the click of a button: the dirt on multitasking

Teaching at both Concordia and John Abbott, Woodrow is well-versed in the ways of students. Everyday in her classroom, it becomes a challenge to gain the attention of students who are busy surfing the web or texting friends. The problem, according to Woodrow, is most of our generation is under the impression we can be effective while doing 10 things at once.
“Technically we think we are multitasking, but we are not,” said Woodrow. “Our brain can only focus on one real thing at one real moment at a time.”
Saul Carliner, a professor in the Educational Technology department at Concordia, agrees with Woodrow in that the more things you attempt to pay attention to, the less you are actually concentrating on anything.

“When you are using too much technology at one time, like if you are trying to watch TV and follow the Internet and text someone, you are really not paying attention to any of it,” said Carliner. “It is because you are so busy making sure that you are checking the other thing, that you end up paying attention to none of them.”
Management student Neil Etinson is all too familiar with this situation.
“I often find myself completely distracted when doing homework,” said Etinson. “If I am studying with my laptop, I check the Internet every few minutes and also check my phone. It is just a horrible distraction.”
What tends to happen though says Woodrow, is we think we are multitasking successfully because we can accomplish a lot of things at the same time, when in fact, it’s often the computers that are doing the multitasking for us.
“The human being is not a digital subject although we think about ourselves now digitally because of the prevalence of technology,” explained Woodrow. “We try to internalize this need to multitask because that is what computers do and we are constantly trying to be more like computers.”
According to Woodrow, this desire to become more like machines is a by-product of our generation. We rely more on technology and are able to scan a lot of information at one time, thus changing the way we operate as students.

This leads students to make certain choices based on what is the most efficient way of completing a task rather than on how they can do it to the best of their abilities. This concept, which Carliner identifies as “time-on-task,” is based on the principle that certain tasks require a certain amount of dedicated time in order to receive the desired results. But, with the way students of our generation tend to multitask, this is almost rarely done. So students will go to class where they’ll answer emails, text friends and assume, because they are hearing what their teacher is saying &- they’re retaining it.
“This has become the new reality of our interactions,” said Woodrow who explains the biggest losers are the students, because they go to class and listen, but are not fully engaged. Hence, when it comes to exam time, they have not retained enough to receive the mark they expected or hoped for.
Another common problem students encounter, explains Carliner, is that they’re overconfident in their ability to use technology properly. Carliner says students struggle to understand that an email to a teacher should be treated as an official letter. Further, they don’t know how to properly search the web and they often don’t realize when certain issues need to be dealt with in person and not online.
Yet Carliner thinks this isn’t solely the responsibility of students. Teachers should offer classes on email and Internet training as well as try and incorporate technologically interactive exercises into their courses, he said.

Not letting technology take-over your life: finding the right balance

There isn’t one hour in a day where I’m awake that I’m not plugged in. Even as I write this article, I am texting friends, browsing Facebook and updating Twitter. I seldom stop and wonder how this constant state of being connected affects my productivity or the quality of my work.
“I am not sure that youth today have an identity outside of a technological identity,” said Woodrow. “If you asked someone if they could give their cell phone up for a week, most of them would say absolutely not, it is my lifeline.”
After having a cellphone since the age of 14, Etinson would like to think he could survive without his iPhone, though he admits it would be hard since he considers himself addicted.
“I would like to say I could go without [my phone] for a week, but it would feel tough,” said Etinson. “I would feel disconnected from everyone – unless I was on holiday, I would probably freak out if I didn’t have it on me.”
Yet the fundamental issue isn’t why we’re so reliant on technology, but rather how can we keep it in our lives and achieve a healthy balance?
For Leslie Regan Shade, an associate professor in the Department of Communication Studies, “constantly being connected is not particularly healthy. [Students] need to learn how to balance all of these technologies and tools in their everyday lives because technology is here to stay, for better or worse.”

STEP 1 &- Determine the role technology plays in your life.

“The big thing to ask yourself is how do you feel?” said Carliner. “If you feel you are dependent and can’t live without it, take a day or two off of it to see how you feel, do you really need it that much?”
Another important step says Carliner, is to log the amount of hours you spend using your phone, your computer and watching TV. This number may be enough to make an individual realize it’s time to cut back.

STEP 2 &- Determine if it’s negatively affecting you

Carliner suggests looking at your grades and asking yourself if they’re what you would like them to be. If not, you need to think about if your use of technology is affecting your concentration in class.
Grades are not the only thing that can suffer from an overuse of technology, explains Woodrow. It could also be negatively impacting your social relationships. She tells a story of how rather than get together in person, students from her class organized a “Facebook night” where they were all expected to come online and share things over the Internet.
“While I admit, it’s a very convenient option, at the same time there is something that is lost when you don’t have the face to face contact,” said Woodrow.
According to Shade, being constantly plugged in can be an indication of other problems as well.
“If you can’t be by yourself that is a problem too,” said Shade. “I think we need to indulge in the solitariness of ourselves to regain a sense of our selves that is lost to technology.”

STEP 3 &- Regaining your time, your friends and yourself

There are many ways people can go about reducing their use of technology. One popular solution that was publicized by several celebrities for the New Year was a technology detox. The idea was to cut out aspects of your technology use completely.
Musician John Mayer’s detox, which he called a “digital cleanse,” consisted of no tweeting, no social networking and restricting cell phone use for calls only, meaning all emails received had to be either answered on a computer or via phone call.
“I would never want to cut out technology, I think its great, but getting a break from it once in a while is also amazing,” said Greenberg.

Greenberg has taken a technology break before. During exam time, the student cuts out Facebook by deactivating her account because she finds the site distracting. Though temporarily shutting down her account prevents her from surfing the site, she usually ends up finding another source for procrastination.
Detoxing, according to Woodrow seems to have become a movement. People are engaging in these digital cleanses in an attempt to see if they’re able to function in the “real world” versus the online world. An important step in this process says Woodrow, is to fill up the time you aren’t using technology doing something productive and reconnecting with other aspects of your life.

“Take a day off a week where you don’t go online,” suggested Carliner. “Make Sunday no Facebook, Monday no Twitter, Tuesday no email, etc.”
One of the problems, says Carliner is people feel obligated to respond immediately, but this isn’t the case. He suggests letting yourself not check Facebook everyday and to not answer emails instantly. By not plugging in, you give yourself the permission to not look at stuff and to not worry about it, explains Carliner. He also describes how doing so allows you to put your mental energy into something different. Another tip is to remember that people were fine before all this technology was in their lives.
What Woodrow and Carliner both agree on is reducing your technology is best done in moderation. Carliner explains that sometimes, all you need is to take the temptation away, so turn your phone or wireless off before class if you want to pay attention. Got it?

Tune in next week to learn about how to successfully survive dating in the digital age


Related Posts