As the coronavirus brings to light the essential role of digital technology in our lives, how will this period change our relationship with these tools?
Prior to COVID-19, digital technology was approached by many with suspicion. Stories of short attention spans, weakened memories and internet addiction added fuel to the fire as parents worried about iPad-fixated kids and grandparents tutted at unresponsive labourers of the screen. As lockdown rules confine work and pleasure to the perimeters of one’s home, our devices have become a predominant pathway for accessing work, education, friends and family. Will this pandemic mark a turning point towards a societal embracing of digital technology?
It’s been fascinating to watch the transformation of opinions in response to this shift, with some of the most unlikely individuals making the most radical technological changes. Just the other day, I called my grandma to teach her how to use Zoom, to which she responded by laughing and saying she already uses it to play bridge. Churchgoers meet online for shared Bible-readings and services, and music and art festival programmes are offered through virtual alternatives. The tech giants, who are ordinarily featured in the media for data breach issues, are now applauded as their infrastructure helps us retain a degree of normality. Even the morally questionable act of tracing the whereabouts of smartphone users has become a crucial tool in the development of an app aiming to stop the fast spread of the virus.
Past experiences demonstrate that humans often take their time to adjust to technological changes, and upon their invention, fear for their potential impact on the brain; Plato predicted that writing would weaken memory; the telephone was once associated with an increase in anxiety and a loss of attention; and cinema was feared for its overstimulation of the senses. All these technologies have become so normalised within society that these neurological fears are long forgotten. But they do have a certain familiarity about them, don’t they?
I’ve read countless chapters on ‘Google brains’ and weakening memory, screen fatigue, the distracting quality of the internet, and even considered writing a PhD on smartphones and attention. Just last year, I organised an event programme exploring the neurological effects of new technology, as part of my project Cognitive Sensations. But as was frequently addressed in discussion, it’s extremely telling that these are all ‘technological neurosymptoms’ that have been around since the birth of writing. I’m not discounting the fact that these conditions are very much driven by technology, but perhaps suggesting that it might be our time of acceptance.
One considerable effect of COVID-19 is the sense that we are slowing down. Modern life was previously characterised by a trajectory of acceleration, a non-stop schedule of meetings, deadlines, travel and social engagements. Digital technology is often viewed as the catalyst for this lifestyle. Emails and instant messaging demand quick-fire responses, and the presence of someone ‘online’ is increasingly perceived as someone who is available. As computers shrink to the size of smartphones, life online has expanded to all hours of the day, blurring the boundaries between work and pleasure. Those who cannot keep up with the expectancy of the digital age are often left feeling behind.
But in lockdown, much of the time spent on travel, socialising and work is now reinvested into one’s immediate surroundings. New practices are emerging in breadmaking, reading and connecting with old friends, with reports worldwide that the experience has enabled people to find creativity and quality in life. While our pace may have decreased, technology engagement certainly hasn’t! Screen consumption has without a doubt risen, due to its growing role in keeping us connected during isolation. So if we have managed to find slowness, perhaps our previous lack of direction and hectic approach to life was not driven by technology at all, but by an era driven by capitalism, consumption and production.
Those lucky enough to establish this new perspective on life are the privileged individuals with reduced working hours and enough savings to survive. They are also the demographic most likely to own and engage with digital technology. But there are four million individuals in the world with no access to a reliable connection or technology at all, making them the most vulnerable to the negative human and economic consequences of the coronavirus.
In low-income areas of America, school kids without access to wifi are put at an even lower disposition than before as their school programmes move online. Africa suffers with its faulty undersea network cables, reducing the speed of mobile and landline connectivity. And elderly generations with low digital skill sets are cut off from their friends leaving them more susceptible to loneliness.
In recent years there has been a growing awareness that technological acceleration could cause serious segregation between two classes of humans. But as the pandemic forces us online, it sometimes feels like we are too late to deal with this divide. Technological development is moving at a much faster pace in response to the coronavirus, causing a greater pressure to widen digital skills and accessibility worldwide. Creating a space for analogue alternatives could be a temporary solution. I just launched a letter-writing campaign to tackle loneliness during the coronavirus through offline solutions. If this article has inspired you, perhaps you could join too?
To address my opening question, I believe that we must reach a societal turning point with technology to ensure that our future in this environment is balanced and equal. Of course, it is natural to approach these tools with trepidation when they’re such a dominant factor in our lives. But there is simply no turning back the clock. Our devices have proven instrumental not just in everyday life, but at the time of a worldwide crisis. As we did with cinema, television and other pioneering technologies of our past, let us make amends with our suspicions about digital technology, and focus instead on strengthening its infrastructure where it has not yet been placed. As technology develops and expands, we must not leave those behind whose connection it has not yet reached.
Gabriella Warren-Smith is an independent curator and writer, whose research investigates the relationship between digital culture and society. She is Founding Director of Cognitive Sensations, an online platform that publishes writing and art exploring the impact of technology on human behaviour and everyday life. She enjoys working on multidisciplinary projects with artists and scientists exploring human development in a technological world.
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Image Credit: Plugged in (2020) Grace Holliday. Commissioned by Cognitive Sensations.