Sunday, November 5, 2017

Walking the line with technology

A few months ago, the New York Times Sunday Review ran a piece called, "Save Your Sanity. Downgrade Your Life." The author, Pamela Paul, frames her decision to deliberately go without, or even give up, various high-tech devices as part of her quest for a simpler and more meaningful life. A few examples:
  • Trading in the "frantic whir" of her electric toothbrush for an older, manual version
  • Sticking to a "stubbornly DVD-based" Netflix account rather than switching to downloads on demand
  • Limiting smartphone use in specific ways (no devices in the bedroom; leaving her phone in another room when she's with the kids; not giving the kids their own phones)
  • Cutting out not just cable TV, but network TV as well
  • Eschewing all personal phone calls and e-mails, preferring to "catch up with a good friend or a family member...[when] we actually see each other"
  • Skipping Spotify in favor of "the radio and ye olde compact discs"
  • Avoiding e-book readers and tablet computers
Paul argues that choices like these help her minimize "techno-stress—the psychological and physical impact of spending countless hours staring at a screen." She highlights the dangers of constant connectedness, such as online harassment and cellphones cutting into face-time, such as the family dinner hour, and sees "creeping backward toward the 20th century" as her way to resist the relentless march toward a faceless digital society. This is a goal I can certainly sympathize with. But I can't help wondering whether Paul's knee-jerk rejection of all new technologies is really the best way to achieve it.

One of my favorite remarks about the simple life comes from Ursula LeGuin's "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas": "Happiness is based on a just discrimination of what is necessary, what is neither necessary nor destructive, and what is destructive." It makes perfect sense for Paul to eliminate or limit the types of technology that are clearly destructive: the constant clamor of Facebook, for instance, or the siren call of the smartphone screen at the dinner table. And it may even be worthwhile, at least for her, to eliminate some of the "neither necessary nor destructive" forms of tech like her electric toothbrush. But is she throwing out the baby with the bathwater? In her eagerness to eliminate all forms of "unnecessary" tech, is she deliberately making her life more complex and less fulfilling?

Anyone who reads this blog regularly will know that I'm no slave to technology. I've written numerous times about my slowness to adopt various gadgets and services, from smartphones to social media. But I've also written quite a bit about the types of technology I do find worthwhile, like our tablet computer (which gives us access to a wide selection of e-books from the eLibrary) and my online bill payment service. I see no contradiction in this; to me, it's simply a question of deciding which forms of technology are "neither necessary nor harmful." I could certainly live without online bill payment and pay my bills the old-fashioned way, writing out a check and sticking it an envelope with a stamp and putting it in a mailbox—but it's slower and more cumbersome, it costs me money for the stamps, and it wastes paper. In this case, it's the high-tech system that truly simplifies my life.

This is why I have problems with so many of Paul's tech-related choices. I like having my entire music collection at my fingertips on iTunes; I can select any song I want with the click of a mouse and easily put together themed playlists for different occasions. I can't see how giving that up in favor of "the radio and ye olde-fashioned CDs"—which would force me to listen to whatever happens to be on at the moment, including advertisements, or else fumble with a huge collection of physical disks—would make me a better or happier person. Likewise, while I don't currently have Netflix, it seems to me that if I did, there would be no advantage in a "stubbornly DVD-based" subscription that would force me to make my selections ahead of time, wait to receive them, and then have to mail them back—possibly even unwatched, because by the time they reached me I no longer had the time or the inclination to watch them. If you can't watch what you want, when you want, then what's the advantage of having the subscription at all?

Worse still, I wonder if Paul may actually be hurting her relationships with friends and family through her single-minded determination not to let technology "interfere" with them. I have a lot of friends and family members who are scattered across the country; if I insisted on "wait[ing] until we actually see each other" to catch up with them, I wouldn't speak to them more than once or twice a year. Not to mention that I would have trouble arranging to see them in the first place, since it's awfully difficult to make plans to visit someone who lives in another state—or even in another town—without using either the phone or e-mail. (I guess we could use old-school snail mail, but in the time it would take a series of letters to go back and forth between us, we might end up missing the one available weekend when all of us happened to be free.)

To me, it seems clear that if you really want to "simplify" your life, blindly rejecting all forms of technology isn't the way to do it. It makes much more sense to evaluate each new device or service on a case-by-case basis and ask: Would having this make my life better or worse, easier or harder, more or less fulfilling? If the answer is clearly negative, it obviously sense to eschew the new technology; if it's clearly positive, it makes sense to at least look at the cost and decide whether the benefits are enough to justify it. And if you're not sure, there's nothing wrong with holding out until you have a clearer idea of both the perks and the drawbacks.

It's also worth noting that the answer to this question can change over time. When I wrote this article on technology and frugality back in 2010, I said I "wasn't tempted by the new e-book readers," which seemed to have no clear advantage over printed books. But a lot has changed in the seven years since. Today, there are free e-reader apps for tablet computers, so it's no longer necessary to spend $100 or more on a dedicated device that can do nothing but display books; there's also a much bigger selection of e-books available for free or cheap through sites like the eLibrary. Nowadays, reading books in digital format gives us a lot more to choose from, and it lets us start enjoying our new reads right away instead of waiting until the library is open.

Of course, if the book we want doesn't happen to be available in digital form, we still have the option of going to the old-fashioned brick-and-mortar library to check it out. Because that's the other nice thing about new technology that Paul seems to be ignoring: simply having it doesn't mean you actually have to use it. There's no rule against communicating with your friends by e-mail and in person, or playing both computer games and old-fashioned board games. A new technology is a tool, not an assignment.

If your smartphone, or your Facebook subscription, or any other type of technology in your life is causing you stress or sucking up unreasonable amounts of time, then sure, it makes sense to dump it—or at least put limits on it. What doesn't make sense is to throw out things that are making your life better, easier, happier, because you've decided that technology, as a category, is harmful. There's plenty of room in LeGuin's "middle category...of the unnecessary but undestructive, that of comfort, luxury, exuberance, etc."—for the things that we could live without, but we shouldn't have to.
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