Technology or Trickology?

By James Novick-Smith
Illustration by Sarah Lilz

Technology is a ubiquitous concept and has grown to be so broad and amorphous that, without much exaggeration, no singular definition can effectively capture its multitudinous meaning. It has, instead, become a catchall term that we use to describe anything vaguely related to our evolving capabilities as humans, the intricacies of which are not easily understood by a layperson. It’s all relative, though. While there is no doubt that technology has historically manifested itself in the form of physical gadgets and gizmos, as global society becomes increasingly digitized through widespread smartphone adoption, technology has come to have different meanings to successive generations. While our grandparents remember a time when the combine harvester was state of the art, Gen Z’s conception of technology is far different and more opaque; WiFi and Mac iOS aren’t tactile objects but are more integral to their daily lives than the tractor will ever be.

As technology has developed into an intangible concept, our dependence on it has been magnified to the point where the UN Human Rights Council declared internet access to be a basic human right. However, while it was once a simple task to remove oneself from the technical world, to literally log off, we’ve now lost control of the extent to which we allow technology into our daily lives. It has become so pervasive, so addictive, even, that many are searching for ways to limit their screen time and “digitally detox.” While this is not exactly a new idea—the Luddites had a similar thought over 200 years ago, afraid that textile machinery would eventually replace their hard labor jobs—people today are motivated to re-evaluate their relationship with technology not by economics but by the detrimental effect it has on their mental health. As we careen towards a reality in which we are all extremely online and as society resembles life aboard the Axiom starship in Pixar’s WALL-E more and more every year, we should all take time to reboot our relationship with tech, the nebulous yet omnipotent ruler of our world.

When I learned about the Luddites as part of my AP Global History course in high school, it was certainly easy to scoff at them, but looking back now, I can’t help but think that they were onto something—they were just motivated for the wrong reasons. The organization sprung up during the onset of the Industrial Revolution, when automated machinery was becoming cheaper and more popular. Textile mill workers in England saw the writing on the wall that their jobs could now easily be replaced, and so they took it upon themselves to destroy the new equipment. They were quickly suppressed by the British government and it is now universally understood that technological advancement is an unavoidable feature of societal progression. While the Luddites were afraid that this superior tech would take their jobs, modern-day Luddites are more concerned with the pervasive and even insidious ways in which technology is invading every corner of our lives. Should we be okay with smart speakers listening in on our every conversation? Or the deliberately addictive qualities of the smartphones in all of our pockets—causing most Americans to pick up their phones over 80 times a day?

Today, it is universally, almost innately understood that technology is an inextricable part of our society. Residents of Green Bank, West Virginia, however, live in an unenviable predicament: The town is situated so close to an ultra-powerful telescope that it forces them to live in complete radio silence without WiFi or cell signal and even most microwaves are prohibited. These involuntary “Luddites” live completely different lives than most Americans and while that means they aren’t as up to speed on meme culture and the latest buzz on Twitter, they do not have the same dependence on technology as we do. To be honest, that really seems like a good thing and something that we will likely be more jealous of as time passes.

While we tend to look down on contemporary “Luddites” and technophobes as not being able to come to grips with the inevitable evolution of present-day society, the coronavirus pandemic has helped to expose the dangerous flaws of technology and how our overdependence on it sets us up for emotional and mental harm. While it is true that through lockdown, we’ve mostly communicated with our broader social circles via digital channels, the technologically-averse have been able to avoid insane theories like those that purport that 5G is helping the spread of COVID-19 and the daily incoherent ramblings of our current president. This quarantine is, in many ways, accelerating our marriage to technology in ways that we have yet to fully comprehend. 

This quarantine is, in many ways, accelerating our marriage to technology in many ways that we have yet to fully comprehend.

It is extremely easy right now to use technology as a crutch, a means by which we can attempt to distance ourselves from our present dystopian reality (or dive headlong into it, if that’s your thing). But it’s important to remind ourselves that this isn’t the only way. As the global quarantine has sparked communities everywhere to reassess how their economies and healthcare systems work, it has also given us all a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity on a micro level to re-evaluate our relationships to “technology” and our screens in particular.

That 900-page book that’s been sitting on your shelf for ages? Start reading it. Play a couple games of Hearts or Euchre instead of surrendering to the same episode of The Office that you’ve seen 5 times already. We can scroll our Instagram feeds, or worse, virtue signal to others that we care about social causes like Black Lives Matter by posting hollow black squares, or we could put our screens down and actually become active participants in the movements we care about. There’s a reason why you can never reach the end of your Instagram/Twitter feeds. We’d be better served to start being cognizant of these borderline insidious tactics that social media utilizes to cultivate our addictions. Watch videos of cooking influencers as they make their daily meals and smoothies or do their daily workout routines, and then get inspired to put your phone down and follow suit!

I’m not the only one who feels that these last several months have felt like a bad episode of Black Mirror, and I hope I’m not the only one who is taking steps to ensure that once we’re on the other side of this pandemic that this very real episode doesn’t have a macabre ending typical of the fictional show. While I am not doing a “digital detox” (it was a brief undertaking by my roommate), I certainly am more conscious of the amount of time I spend looking at a screen. As we all become more cyborgian by the day, we should consider using the unlikely opportunity COVID-19 has presented to us to do a “factory reset.”

I do not say this to shame anyone who has felt despondent or lethargic during quarantine (I certainly have at times), but simply want to make sure we are all cognizant of the forced ways that we’ve had to change our behavior as the country shut down. Many communities have reached Phase 2 & 3 (or beyond) and are now beginning the reopening process, with local governments reassessing the ways in which they will allow citizens to socialize in the near future. We as individuals have a golden opportunity to do a similar audit of our tight-knit relationship with our smart devices. The onus is on us to decide how we want to interact with tech when society “restarts.” When we are no longer living in isolation, I’m not going to become a Luddite or join the Amish and never flip the proverbial switch back on, but I also hope we won’t let the increasingly digital aspects of our quarantine lives become the new normal.︎