A Disquiet in the Machine

What greater test for Stoicism is there than addiction? How would you know what is truly in your control when there are external forces that can hijack that control? By now, we know that addiction is just as great a disease as hypertension and diabetes. None are immune to its pull and all are at risk. I ponder at this as I read this Guardian piece. It describes the unexpected consequences of our screens and smartphones. As tech businesses vie to capture our attention, they resort to psychological methods to keep our eyes locked on their products. We are in trouble. I am not being hyperbolic. I have experienced this phenomenon. Not to the extent of ruining my life, but enough to degrade it. At least once per evening, after a day of work, I mindlessly browse YouTube or Facebook, or hunt through websites for any sign of novelty. Intellectually, I know that I shouldn’t do this, that I need to give my mind a tech break after staring at a computer all day at work. Yet there is some irresistible pull, some force that prevents me from tearing myself away from the screen.

Eventually, I am able to convince myself to put the phone down or turn off the computer. I’m left with feelings of confusion and anxiety. I wonder if it’s withdrawal. My attention span is also shot for the next hour or so. If someone like me, who is well aware of these detrimental effects, finds it so hard to pull away, what does it mean for people who are ignorant of these dangers? I don’t mean to be elitist, but I do worry as I see more and more people with their necks bent down, staring at their smartphones. I see people doing it in classrooms, at presentations, and in their cars! I am well aware of the irony of posting this on a blog, which will be announced on my Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter accounts. That is the problem, it is extremely hard to escape this. Sure, tech addiction isn’t as harmful or attention-grabbing as alcohol or opioid addiction, but it is like a silent assassin, and I fear it will have profound effects on society.

No one would agree that this is the good life, chasing forever after a small hit of dopamine. Did my wanderings in the World of Warcraft or reading Wikipedia pages on obscure anime characters really enrich my life? Oh, how better I could have spent my time! But this is out of my control; it is in the past. But now I know better, and slowly but surely, I am more able to restrain myself. Still, there is always the fear that this use can go out of control again. I feel like I’m in a delicate dance when I pick up my phone or turn on my laptop.

This is a problem we as a society need to address. I know that my experience is anecdotal, but I’ve been convinced that we are in serious danger. I do not blame anyone, as this was an entirely unforeseen consequence. We thought the Internet would exponentially spread knowledge, and it has. That it would democratize information, and it has. But what has been the price of these advancements? I’m not saying that we should ban our machines (although some of us could do with tech fasts). I do say we need to step back, to seriously question whether we want to give our lives to the machines.

Summary: Screen addiction is a serious problem. It’s time to step back and think about what our technology is doing to us.

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