Column | Dec. 9

Reclaiming the tools of technology

“But lo! Men have become the tools of their tools.”

-Henry David Thoreau

It is now abundantly clear that we need to do something to manage the role of technology in our lives. It’s no longer news that mounting bodies of research across the psychological and social sciences support our gripes of feeling constantly distracted by Facebook and overwhelmed by email. Along with all the benefits of connectedness, speed and convenience that modern devices — namely, laptops and smart phones — have brought us, come significant human costs. As a generation, we are now more distracted, anxious and fearful of being alone than ever before. The very same technology that was supposed to make us happier has subversively begun to do the opposite.

The history of technological development reflects our society’s constant drive for more speed, efficiency and equality for all. These aims are not mal-intentioned, but the result has been a series of technologies — such as radios, phones, television and now the Internet and laptops — which are taxing on the mind and erode our sense of peace, calm and inner solidity.

As William Powers wrote in his book “Hamlet’s BlackBerry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age,” “We’re physical creatures who perceive and know the world through our bodies, yet we now spend much of our time in a universe of disembodied information … At a very deep level of the consciousness, this is arduous and draining.” I could easily go on for pages describing instances in my own life when face-to-face interaction has lost out to texting and instant messaging, and too much time spent on my laptop has caused my mind to become frazzled and overwhelmed, to the detriment of my quality of work and my well-being. However, instead of harping on and on about the problem, it’s time to think more actively about solutions.

As Powers suggested, we need to focus more on the inner, human dimensions to technology, if we want to reclaim control. We need to ask ourselves how our devices are affecting us and our individual experiences; how they are altering how we think and feel, changing the rhythms of our day and affecting our work and social lives. It is from answering these questions that solutions might present themselves — solutions that can allow us to boost our productivity and ability to relax and to deepen our relationships with ourselves and other people.

So, what can we do? In his book, Powers suggested a variety of techniques that could easily be adapted to Princeton’s campus. The most compelling idea he had was that of “Walden zones” — named for the pond Thoreau retreated to in his escape from the encroachment of the modern world — which are simply rooms where no screens of any kind are allowed. Powers initially conceived of them as rooms in houses, but I think we could create Walden zones around campus, in libraries or in Frist Campus Center that require people to turn off and store their devices in a cabinet outside. It would give more of us the excuse and the external reinforcement to do what we often try to but fail to do by ourselves: Put down the phone and just spend some time quietly thinking and writing alone or talking with friends without any other distraction. Such rooms would not only be beneficial for the quality of our work, but also our social relationships due to the elimination of the constant connectedness and psychological tug of wireless technology.

Another idea of Powers’, which admittedly would be far harder to implement, is the idea of instituting a culture-wide Internet Sabbath for one day a week (or, frankly, even just a few hours on a Sunday). Imagine if, for an agreed-upon period of time, everyone agreed to leave email unanswered, phones unchecked and purely live in the moment without screens for entertainment or distraction? Part of the pressure that technology puts upon us is the burden that at every moment, we might be missing out on something — whether a message from a professor or a friend. But a culture-wide agreement could help us to escape that nagging sense of needing to check, just for a day, or an hour. Obviously, everyone has busy lives and assignments that need to be done. But perhaps knowing that the Internet was not always available would force us to become more efficient, rather than wasting away the hours only half-focusing on a task.

Another easy solution could be that more professors require that students take notes by hand, instead of using laptops. I have had several experiences like this in classes, and all have been totally positive: I remembered the information better and felt more engaged and interested throughout the lectures.

Even outside of class, we could all try turning off our phones for a couple of hours each day and see how much our perception of the world changes and how much more alive we are to what is happening in front of us, rather than what is happening in the abstract world of electronic information. I think it’s time to move away from simply complaining about how technology has taken over our lives and take some steps to reclaim it. We are not the tools of our tools.

Lauren Davis is a philosophy major from London, England. She can be reached at lhdavis@princeton.edu.

Lauren Davis is a philosophy major from London, England. She can be reached at lhdavis@princeton.edu.

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