It Started With a Game …
By now, you’re probably familiar with Pokemon Go, the game where people search for Pokemon characters around town with their smartphones. In 2015, I played a forerunner of this game called Ingress. The basic idea was the same – run around town accessing game spots, collect digital items, compete with other players for territory, etc..
At first, the game seemed like a great idea. I figured it would get me out for some desperately needed exercise and it did. I found out some of my favorite walking routes had a bunch of game spots I could access while walking and I was out there at 6 a.m. every morning … willingly! It was a miracle!
Slowly, as I progressed within the game, I started to notice that it gave with one hand and took with the other. There are many layers to the gameplay, a number of things you can do at each Ingress “portal” and different strategies that you can follow to achieve your own goals within the game whether its strictly points and level advancement or collection of achievement badges.
Before long, I noticed that I was spending more time standing still, playing with my smartphone, than I was walking and keeping my heart rate up. A few weeks ago, I was at the walking trail and saw a guy walking slowly along staring at his phone. I instantly knew what he was doing because Pokemon Go uses the same locations for its game spots. I was looking at myself back in 2015.
This realization was only part of the reason I stopped playing Ingress and it was a difficult withdrawal. I really enjoyed the game for awhile and those small rushes of pleasure that I’d get when I took over a portal or gained a large area of territory. Electronic games like Ingress benefit from those small dopamine highs as much as from our ability to believe in their fictional “augmented realities” enough to see a digital badge as a real reward. There’s evidence that Facebook and other social media sites prompt the same dopamine response. In exchange, we give them all types of data that can be sold for a substantial profit to advertisers and mapping services. We become data points.
A Complicated Relationship with Technology
We love science and technology, we really do. We love the new gadgets and toys and the continuing magic show of scientific achievement. We welcome new medical advances and rush out to buy the latest versions of our phones. Technology makes our lives easier and more fun and keeps our economy growing as well.
We also fear technology. We know, maybe instinctively, that all those wonders must be too good to be true. There must be a catch. We like movies and TV shows about dystopian futures where technology has gone awry, from The Matrix to the Terminator series to shows like Black Mirror. Every generation has its own favorite monsters and technology has supplied the lion’s share. We nervously listen to real-life reports of cyber-crime even as we eagerly hand our information over to the next online service. We worry about the wrong countries developing weapons technology even as we hope that our own government will stay on top of the game. We take it more or less for granted that those technologies and their applications were ever allowed to happen in the first place.
We’ll keep handing over the information and control and we’ll keep buying the next version and praying for new scientific advances. We’ll still cling to the technology, however much we distrust it or the companies that provide it, because it’s progress. To many of us, technology and civilization are one and the same. On an individual level, we’re dazzled by the pretty lights and packaging and we’re seduced by the convenience, status and power that technology offers. On a group level, we see our technological advances as evidence of our own advancement as a society. It will always be easier to develop technology than ourselves, so much easier that we might forget the difference.
There’s No Going Back
Now I’m being really subversive to my own cause. I’ve built a career around technology and I’ve even been called a technology evangelist, although not at my request. I love gadgets as much as anyone else. I take pride in my achievements as a computer programmer and my ability to understand technical concepts that 95% of the population would happily leave behind in the classroom if they even heard about them to begin with. There are moments where I’d trade it all for the simplicity that I remember growing up in the ’70s but those days had their share of problems, too.
Nobody really wants a Butlerian Jihad to abolish all the “thinking machines” and, short of a catastrophe that throws us back into the Dark Ages, technology is here to stay and grow. It’s also extremely unlikely that the machines will really develop consciousness and take over the world. They don’t have to when we’re so willing to give over control on our own. Technology, in and of itself, is not evil and cannot become so. Evil is a human concept.
There are many types of enslavement, however. We make ourselves into slaves of one kind of another by handing over control of our lives or selves to habits, ideologies, employers and even technologies in exchange for perceived benefits. Even if you resist dramatic terms like enslavement, you will probably admit at some point that over-dependence on a technology weakens us as individuals. You would not want to see children’s math classes abolished in favor of teaching the majority to simply use calculators. You probably admire the co-workers who choose to take the stairs every day rather than using the elevator, even if you don’t join them.
There’s a Different Path Forward
Technology and our use of it might not always represent the good kind of progress but it does demonstrate human innovation. Even when misapplied, It’s the end product of human minds working to solve problems and create new things. The same process of trial and error will happen in the application of new technologies as it did in their development.
On a larger scale, trends such as the obsession with selfies and angst over digital privacy are a natural part of our struggle to adapt to new technologies and decide on their rightful place in our lives. The question is: how do we know when our application of technology has gone wrong? Where’s the line?
My personal solution is to remember Jesus’ cautionary statement from the Gospel, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” Applying the same rule to technology, it can be a wonderful thing when it’s serving our needs. It’s been helping us advance since we discovered fire. That leads to the question that I will start asking whenever I bring a new tech product into my life and as I evaluate the ones already there:
Is this technology serving me or have I begun to serve the technology?
I’ve already mentioned how this question applied to my relationship with Ingress. First someone suggested I limit how much I did at each game portal and I thought about that but it took the fun out of a game that encourages its players to advance and pursue new goals and, above all, keep playing. I finally put it away altogether, especially after I let it distract me on the road one day and narrowly avoided an accident. Turning to the game as a motivator also kept me from asking the basic question of why I had such a hard time motivating myself to exercise.
I’ve been asking myself this question about my use of Facebook and other social media sites and I’m ready to start acting on the answer. While I think I’ve made good use of the various sites over the years, I can also see where they’ve taken up more time than they should. In my particular case, I’ve also seen where Facebook has become a substitute for creating real and enduring content. When I’ve had something to say, it’s been easy to go to Facebook, Twitter or Reddit and post it there for a ready-made and tailored audience. I’ve provided those sites with the content they need for free while neglecting this blog. Thoughts that could have been developed into something more were stuffed into 140 characters or adapted to the rules of another site.
In the past month, I wrote about my purchase and evaluation of Amazon’s Echo Dot and the Alexa voice service. It was a fun experiment and I think the product has potential but I also find that I’m already using it less and that speaking to it just never really felt natural. I might spend more time with its microphone turned off in the coming weeks and I’ve decided against getting another one for other parts of my home.
The Technology Sabbath
Working on this article, the idea of a Tech Sabbath popped into my mind and I found out the idea has actually been around for a few years now. While its originators were drawing from their own Jewish tradition of the weekly day of rest, this is a great adaptation of the concept that can be shared with people of all traditions and beliefs.
At its center, the idea is to simply unplug from technology for 24 hours once a week and recharge yourself and your other relationships instead.
The idea of a Technology Sabbath does not mean that you have to sit in darkness and silence all day. As with many spiritual exercises, the idea is to examine your own life to see how it can be applied for the most benefit. Again, the Sabbath was made for man.
It would be pretty difficult and even counter-productive for me to stay away from all technology for a day each week but there are a number of steps that I can take. It should be nothing for me to stay completely off of social media one day a week and if it is difficult, that’s all the more reason to do it. Real change is not just about removing things, though. New ideas and dimensions must be added in the process or else a void is left. I can make the plans for that day which will focus on the principles of the Manifesto such as getting outside, nurturing my health and giving back.
Taking a weekly Tech Sabbath allows us to step off this wheel of endless sameness. It’s a ritual that pushes us out of the norm, to pursue different activities, and use different parts of our brains. In so doing, it refreshes and rejuvenates our minds and spirit. It provides the motivation to unhook our wired craniums from the matrix of cyberspace and explore the pleasures of the real world.
I can’t tell you what your Technology Sabbath should look like, how often you should observe it or even whether it’s something you need in your life. Again, half the point of a spiritual exercise such as this is to question our own lives and develop our own self-awareness, not to enforce doctrine on others. It’s up to you to examine your own relationship to technology, be aware of its place in your life and decide what its rightful place should be. However, if you are feeling overwhelmed or dissatisfied or if you feel that something is simply out of whack, then take it from someone who has promoted technology for many years: taking just a day to unplug might be one of the best things you’ve done in a long time.