What was intended to be a relaxed lunch with a friend of mine last week turned into an hour-long confessional on the frustrations of the electronic age.
“I hate electronics—I hate computers!” hissed my frazzled friend who’d spent the morning trying to set up her new Apple computer. “How manipulative of Steve Jobs to call his computer company ‘Apple’! It sounds so benign, so ‘apple pie and motherhood’—like Apple is good for you! Wrong! It has changed everything. It has messed with my head.”
I had to agree with the general thesis of her complaint (but then she is also a writer). On bad tech days—sometimes good ones too—the necessity to focus on the minutiae of function can disrupt one’s capacity to hold higher-order thoughts in one’s head.
“My house is full of old electronics, and I can’t even figure out how to get rid of this junk. These devices are like hateful reminders of all the human things we’ve given up or lost.”
Like her, I also have several old computers and smartphones sitting in the corner of my study. We both lamented that should someone put a gun to our heads and demand our old passwords, we would be DOA—that’s right, dead on arrival. Full of worries about the data still on them, she asked plaintively: “What should we do? Take a sledgehammer to them?”
The change in our digital lives has accelerated exponentially since the pandemic started. Ironically, for many people the electronic world has added further isolation to their day, even while being connected. My friend asserts that it has robbed people of the human touch that has always helped us thrive. She complained that companies are now using the pandemic as the excuse to do what they always wanted to do: save money by eliminating jobs and replacing them with robots. The result, however, has been to fracture the backbone of our communities—with only more to come.
As for the consumer experience these days, my friend concluded sadly that you can’t even have a “pleasant conversation” with someone on the telephone anymore. Gone are the days when a friendly person would help you sort out an old bill or answer a credit card question. “Recently a digital voice told me she didn’t understand what I was saying,” my friend told me. “Then I couldn’t help myself. I screamed into the phone: ‘Of course you don’t understand me!! You are a robot!!’”
These frustrations are not the only side effects of this new age. Such changes exclude the elderly, the impoverished, and the many people who live beyond broadband’s reach, often making the management of critical daily functions more difficult, if not impossible.
There are other downsides as well. Smart phone addiction is a real thing. Add to that, all these gadgets are taking their toll on the environment. Discarded digital stuff is up more than 20% in the last five years. And the transformational adoption of bitcoin is damaging the physical environment and adding to greenhouse gasses and climate change. This is not to mention the cyber competition or potential warfare that are threats to our entire way of life.
The digital world is here to stay and—handled with wisdom, inclusion, and forward thinking—much of it is a productive game changer. Nevertheless, without caution, the computerization of most human activity will strip us of vital interaction and violate the human right to privacy.
The challenge is to pursue balance: in business, in education and in personal behavior. Finding that elusive place will depend on taking personal responsibility, but it will also require help, foresight, and a commitment to social values from government regulators and corporations themselves. According to my friend, much of human happiness hangs in the balance.