Alarm off, in the shower, breakfast made, YouTube open. Lock the front door, headphones in, arrive in class, laptop out. I hope I am sitting near a socket. Class over, headphones in, to the library, scan matric card, laptop out, avoid procrastination. Headphones in, walk home. Make dinner, TV on, set alarm, time for bed.
Not an out of the ordinary day in the life of a student, I think: a day feeding off technology in some shape or form. We have created a society that inherently becomes more and more technologically dependent by the day thanks to our general acceptance that a life with technology is better than a life without. We are probably right. However, when every minute of the day is taken up by something technological, does something need to be done? The technology discussed here does not include technological breakthroughs in science or medicine—any consequences that could be imagined about those innovations tend to be outweighed by the positives. Here, we are going to concentrate on more personal technology, the technology that lives with us every day, that we see all around us.
I do not need to tell you how much of a toll studying online took on us. It made us realise how much technology can affect us: from headaches to poor sleep to a distinct lack of concentration (certainly for me anyway), we have seen it all and it has made me wonder about this ever-present aspect of our lives. The aim of this feature is not necessarily to answer a question of what can be done, or in fact if anything needs to be done at all; it is simply a reflection and consideration of how technology dictates us as people and even how it might isolate us more than connect us.
Socially, we are more dependent on technology than we think. As I have already suggested, it forms a part of every aspect of our lives. How often when studying online, with headaches from looking at a screen all day, did you decide your well-earned relaxation would be a break on YouTube or Netflix? Or was that just me…? The point still stands. Our work and our play are generally technology-based. Without technology, we feel lost, without direction.
I feel a bit ashamed asking this question (and I am not even sure why—perhaps I am the ultimate Gen Z-er), but is it possible to live in our society without a phone? I am sure there are examples out there of people who do so very effectively, for which I have great respect, but I do not think I (or the majority of us) could do it—which is sad. The screen activity stats on my phone always make for slightly alarming reading, less so now than they used to. Yet, sadly, I cannot imagine a world where I did not have a phone, where my family and friends were not merely a WhatsApp away, or someone on my course was not instantly available to answer my obvious question about what we have to do for tomorrow’s tutorial; a world where I did not have an instant “relaxation” tool sitting right next to me on which I can browse social media.
I put relaxation in quotation marks here to consider if this really is true relaxation, which I do not think it is. We cannot truly switch off when using social media, which has become a mega industry and perhaps one of the most negative things about everyday technology. It is a tool for socialising, a weapon for business and politics. When we scroll through social media to relax, it is hard not to be confronted with polemical topics or political trolls. (I would suggest following Dogspotting on Facebook for a spot of light relief.) I have considered cutting down on social media myself, but then we worry about what we will miss.
I know people who used to not have a phone, but it did not last forever. The fact is, we need a telephone number in the lives we lead. Just to sign up for things, even to log into our Microsoft accounts… On my year abroad in France, whilst I managed just using my UK number while roaming, I could not shop online with my French bank card or do much online banking without a French phone number. FOMO is not just a social phenomenon, especially in this ever-connected world; it is more of a risk than a fear when talking about technology.
Technology has taken over commercially, too. Whilst some people try to avoid technology in their every-day lives, there is no ‘commercial’ or ‘working’ life that avoids it. There is so much competition and pressure to not fall behind the pack, all major players in the world of business and education have to have the latest tech to succeed. I do not begrudge them that. Technology in itself has become a business and I do not begrudge that either.
What does sit a little uneasily with me is how this commercial fixation with technology means it has become unescapable, a trap we must willingly enter in order to proceed with our lives. A trap that we have in our personal lives, too. Our social media use is to the inevitable detriment to our eyes, self-esteem, and sleep. I feel guilty that I do not walk in the rain to the library as much as I should to actually look at a book; I just find the PDF online. I feel guilty that I cannot remember the last time I used a paper dictionary. Should I feel guilty? Is this just life now?
This tech-filled world also sparks inevitable quasi-elitism. I thought I said I was not going to lecture on the technology problem…. Oh well. Have you ever imagined trying to complete your degree without a computer of your own or a stable WiFi connection at home? Almost all our work is accessed, completed, and submitted electronically and, whilst you can go to the library or borrow a laptop from them, university life is undeniably much harder without a computer and strong internet access, which makes it just that bit more inaccessible. These problems do not start or stop there either. Applying to university: online; applying to jobs for after graduation: online. It is a ruthless system, and one constant concluding element in this process is the nature of exclusion to people without technological devices or the skills to use them.
Socially, too, this exclusion is real. We organise our lives in and around technology. How many university events are only published and advertised through social media or email? Group chats with friends are often such a hive of activity and people can easily feel excluded. Meet-ups and events are organised here, too. With this instant messaging, instant responses to ideas contribute to the unbearable pace of our daily lives and the exclusion of those without technology available to them.
We are in a spiral where technology is almost as essential as heating or kitchen appliances. When you look at renting or buying a house, WiFi connectivity is an essential factor in the decision-making process, a priority like electricity and gas when sorting out the initial admin. Maybe it is no bad thing and it really is just a commodity now like these utilities. Perhaps one day, we will consider broadband as important as having a weather-tight and heated property.
This pressure for everything to be online has its effects on our generation, supposedly the generation of technology, yet imagine how it feels for the older generation, those in their eighties or nineties. A lot of an already perhaps closed-off world is inaccessible for them because they either simply don’t possess these devices to access the internet or have the know-how in order to use them. People of that generation can feel disregarded when the thing they want to access is behind a “pay-wall” of online connectivity. Try doing anything quickly with banking, comparing prices for car insurance or ordering repeat prescriptions from the doctor without internet access or technological knowledge. Applications for carer’s mobility grants are initially online and you have to wait a lot longer for phone appointments if you cannot fill out the forms online yourself. The technology we love, which makes so many things accessible, also unfairly renders some people in society out of the loop with little way back in if we are not careful.
We are never going to ban technology or slow down technological advancement. I do not even think that is a good idea, however fanciful it may be. Yes, the idea of cutting back appeals to me but the benefits technology has brought us are unequivocally important in areas of society. What is crucial, however, is that we consider what these advancements are doing to our society and try to make adjustments accordingly, making sure that one day the negatives do not outweigh the positives. Technology has infected our lives; we just need to make sure that infection does not hurt our society. If it has not done so already.
Illustration: Sarah Knight