Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about my relationship with technology. Like many of you, I use a variety of apps, websites, and digital tools to manage projects, listen to music, connect with friends, shop, and get food delivered to my doorstep.
But what if, instead of technology helping us to be more productive, it encouraged us to be more human? What if our phones weren’t designed to be distracting, but instead devices for connection and empathy? How would we spend our time, and our lives, differently?
Most often, I think that technology is trying to afford us humans the freedom and flexibility to spend less time on the tedious stuff. Logically, then we will have more time for the “important” stuff.
But instead, we work more. Perhaps even making up more tedious tasks to fill the time.
Email, for example, was supposed to make us all better and faster at our jobs. No more faxing or mailing documents around! Incredible! But now we spend a bunch of time answering emails. Or setting up inbox filters and out-of-office reply messages. Or setting boundaries around how and when we answer emails.
Maybe part of the problem is that we never decided what the more “important” stuff is. We might have some vague idea. Time spent with family and friends. Volunteering. Community. Writing a book. Reading a book? But the distraction and addiction to our devices, to the internet, makes it difficult to take meaningful action on these ideas.
Part of the solution is defining for ourselves, clearly and with conviction, what the important stuff is. Then building habits and boundaries to make more time and energy for it.
For example, after feeling disconnected from my community this year, I sent an application to volunteer with my local nature center. I also joined a writing group. For me, the important stuff is making time for creativity, connection, and nature.
But the other part of the solution involves demanding and re-imagining better solutions to the problems that technology has created. Each of us isn’t personally responsible for our addiction to social media. It was designed to keep your attention; to suck you in and keep you there. Maybe you’re entertained, maybe you’re drowning in shame and comparing your life with Bang energy drink models. They don’t care, as long as they have your attention.
I like to play a fun game with myself where I try to imagine what different apps and websites looked like without capitalism and vanity dictating every design-decision. Instagram without the ads, without the likes, without the infinite scroll.
It would probably be boring. Which is the point. We’d see our friends and family post pictures of Sunday morning brunch and then we’d put down our phones and go do something else. I recently came across an Instagram ad (the irony is not lost on me) for the Light Phone, a mobile phone marketed as a tool for communication, rather than distraction.
The Light Phone II will never have feeds, social media, advertisements, news, or email. All of the tools are custom-designed for our Light OS. There is no infinity, just intention.
The Light Phone is just one example of a company building an intentional product grounded in re-imagining our relationship with technology.
Companies like Headspace are doing something similar, I think, by making meditation more accessible to everyone.
But I wonder if we’re overcomplicating everything. Why do we need an app to help us be more mindful? In this case, isn’t the solution, maybe, sitting quietly with our thoughts for several minutes each day, no app required?
What I’m saying is, perhaps technology isn’t the solution to everything. (We’ve seen how unregulated giant tech companies have threatened democracy all over the world.) In fact, grassroots community organizing is probably the only thing that kept the November 2020 election from taking a very different turn.
And maybe making things more convenient isn’t the solution either.
Don’t get me wrong, shopping online, and getting groceries delivered to my apartment is extremely convenient, especially during this year’s global pandemic! But what if by prioritizing convenience I am losing out on something else? If I rode my bike to pick up the groceries, for example, I would be getting exercise and more time in the sunshine.
I’m more interested in seeing how we can use human-centered design to make our lives fuller and more meaningful. In certain contexts, this might mean building a tech solution. But in other contexts, it probably means ditching tech altogether and building community instead.