Technology does not have to be evil

Published on Winchester Sun, June 20, 2019.

The other day I saw a meme on social media depicting people floating lazily down a river on inner tubes or rafts. The caption read something like this: “This is what streaming looked like back in the day.”

In case you don’t get the allusion, “streaming” in the digital age refers to consuming online media — such as music or video — in real time. The subtle implication is that before all this newfangled technology, people were more inclined to just relax and enjoy nature rather than spend all their time in front of electronic screens.

It’s hard to argue with that sentiment. But — you knew there was a “but” coming, didn’t you — there is a popular notion running through our culture holds that all things natural are good and all things artificial — that is, made by humans — are bad. As applied to the technology of the past couple of decades — computers, tablets, and smartphones, for instance — the meme implies that spending time outdoors in nature is a more noble or rewarding pursuit than spending time sitting indoors playing a game or watching content on your phone or gaming console.

Certainly, if you frame the choice as either spending all day communing with rivers, rocks and trees — or spending it lying on the couch engaged in screen time of one form or another, then few people would argue that the latter is a healthier and happier alternative.

But like so many things in real life, the choices aren’t actually that black-and-white. Nor is this issue itself exclusively a modern one. Since the earliest days of technological innovation, there have always been people who worried about its over-use.

I can easily imagine people, soon after the invention of the printing press and the ensuing appearance of mass media, complaining that “nobody just talks to each other anymore; all they do is bury their heads in the Daily Gazette.

Through the generations, the newspaper has been joined by such innovations as motion pictures, radio, television, personal computers and now smart devices of all types. With each technological advance, it seems we assume this is a new problem, of some new gizmo pulling our attention away from the really important stuff of life.

As someone who works with technology, I see things a bit differently. It seems to me that we often blame technology for behaviors under the full control of humans. And that seems patently unfair. I think it’s more about how the technology gets used and in what context that counts.

I am writing these words while sitting on my back porch surrounded by the sights and sounds of nature. Once I’m finished, I’ll close my Chromebook and just relax (or chill as the kids say) while taking it all in. In this regard, my use of a tablet computer is no more disconnected from nature than if I were writing with a pencil and paper, and probably less so than if I were forced to use, say, a clay tablet and stylus.

There are many ways technology can actually enhance our enjoyment of nature. On my phone is an app that helps me identify birds by appearance or song. I have another one that helps me navigate while on walks in town or hikes in the gorge. Yet another helps me identify stars, planets, and constellations in the night sky.

The secret to maintaining balance is to use technology as a tool to enhance the other parts of our lives, rather than allowing it to dominate our time and lives. I freely admit to being more tethered to my smartphone than is probably healthy, but I’m working on that. Step one is awareness. Once you have that, you can work on reducing screen time.

It is true that social media companies and others making money from our use of technology employ insidious mechanisms to keep us far too engaged with their products. Food manufacturers employ similar mind hacks to encourage us to eat more fatty, sweet, and salty food and to do so in larger portions.

But we don’t blame the technology that delivers the food to us. Nor should we blame the platforms that bring us Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. We are autonomous agents of our own fates.

Final thought: I say embrace the tech. Use it to enhance your life. Make it your servant, rather than becoming its minion. And don’t forget to stop and smell the roses along the way.

Pete Koutoulas is an IT professional working in Lexington. He and his wife have resided in Winchester since 2015. Pete can be reached at pete@koutoulas.me or follow him on Twitter @PeteKoutoulas.

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