The Light and Shadow of the Digital Technologies We Live With – part I

“From today’s perspective, I am amazed at how I could once arrange a date with my girlfriend without a mobile. It seems so difficult and uncomfortable now, almost impossible. Back then it was not only possible, but I did not feel limited at all.” Michael, 40

How would you feel if you had to give up using your smartphone or laptop right now? What would you miss? Would there be any benefits?

Your answer will depend on many factors like your age, the way you were raised, your interests, your job, whether you live in your home country, and many others. However, if I had to choose just one decisive factor, I would choose your age.


If you are around 20 to 25

If you are around 20 or 25, your answer is probably similar to this one:

“After realizing that I had left my phone at home, I panicked. There was no actual reason to panic or get nervous – I knew I had not lost my phone. The reason I panicked was that I thought "what if my parents call or text and I do not answer?" – they would be extremely worried. I did not have time to return home and get my phone, and all kinds of horrible scenarios ran in my head. In addition, during the day I had this constant feeling that something was missing, and I wanted to check my phone, but I could not. Fortunately, once I returned home from school I found that my parents had not tried to contact me, and everything was all right.”


Not having your smartphone or laptop could feel like a disaster for you, like for the UNYP student who gave the above answer. Why? Because digital technologies are so natural to you that you have probably not had many opportunities to live without them e.g. sending a letter, waiting in a phone box for a call or listening to the birds on the way to school. And even if you know how to live without technology, you may consider it old-school, slow, passive, or undesirable in other ways. You are a digital native, and you probably do not remember the time before mobiles, laptops, or internet and digital technologies, as these things have been part of your life from the very beginning.


If you are around 35 to 65

How would you answer the same question if you are turning forty (like me) or older?

“Yeah, I could live like that but it would be hard. Smartphones or laptops are so useful that I wouldn’t be happy to give them up. It’s easy to carry them anywhere, contact somebody when needed, work anywhere, find something on the internet and pay online. On the other hand, I often feel overwhelmed by all the emails and phone calls, by being constantly reachable, and just by the vast and growing amount of everything on the internet. I miss slow communication.”


If you are in this age group, you will know from your own experience that it used to be possible to meet with your friends and share gossip without digital technologies, and to work without laptops. If you are slightly older than 35, you remember good work being done without computers or the internet.


It may seem surprising from today’s perspective, but the general public only started using the internet in the early 1990s, and it boomed a few years later. Email took off in 1996 with the launch of the free Hotmail service. In the summer of 1999, I worked in the USA as a camp counselor. Although I had been using email for a year or so, I still wrote long letters because not everybody I knew had an email address, and the dial-up internet connection at the camp was extremely slow – dialing, dialing, dialing and sometimes refusing to send an email at all, even without attachments. (Digital cameras were just about to take off, and mobiles would not have cameras for several years.)

Our group can be called digital immigrants, because we lived a substantial part of our lives before the widespread adoption of digital technology. We had enough time to learn how to live without digital technologies, and many of us will never learn to use them as easily as today’s children and young adults.


The Light and Shadow of Digital Technologies


Digital immigrants are usually more critical of digital technologies than digital natives, but in general, both groups see a lot of the advantages in using these conveniences (only a few of the digital immigrants and some older people do not see the benefits). Because of this, I will focus more on the darker side of digital technologies.


According to Jung (1938, p. 131): “Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.” I am not only referring to obvious problems such as addiction to social networks, constant messaging, gaming, back problems caused by too much sitting and eyestrain. Digital technologies also bring problems of a more subtle nature, that many people do not pay enough attention to, and may not notice at all. For example, the way in which digital technologies, especially those that are easy to carry and connected to the internet, have changed our leisure activities, work, or relationships.


Some people tend to see only the bright side of digital technologies, while others mostly the dark side. Manfred Spitzer's bestseller Digitale Demenz, which is popular in Germany, the Czech Republic and several other countries, sees mostly the shadowy side. There are certainly many problems with the use and overuse of digital technologies, but as with many things in our life, we must take a balanced view as the extreme groups may both miss something important. As Jung (1959, p. 872) writes: “Anyone who perceives his shadow and his light simultaneously sees himself from two sides and thus gets in the middle,” which is where we find our individuality. For example, a smartphone can be an amazing tool for keeping in touch with our loved ones, but it can also become a prison if we cannot put it aside and we feel obliged to respond constantly. Seeing both the light and the shadow side can help us to use our smartphones more wisely, and therefore benefit more from both using it and putting it aside.


Let’s come back to our UNYP student (a digital native):


I realized that my reaction to forgetting my phone was not a healthy one. Thus, I decided to implement a small change by leaving my phone at home at least once or twice a week. Firstly, I talked to my parents and friends in order to explain the situation – what I am planning to do and why. Happily, they fully supported me. The next day, I intentionally left my phone at home and left for school. The first discomfort I encountered was that I could not listen to music on my way. During the day, I had a constant feeling of discomfort – I wanted to check my phone, my social networks, text people and just browse. At the same time, I noticed that I was more attentive in class and took better notes. In general, my first day did not go very well due to the feeling of discomfort. In addition, my parents said that even though they knew I left the phone at home intentionally, they were still a bit worried. However, I decided to continue the experiment. I was meeting friends at Riegrovy sady to enjoy the weather. The first thing I noticed was that now it was easier for me to walk somewhere without music in my ears – I was still craving it, but it was a lot easier than before. I paid more attention to my surroundings, to people walking around, to birds, and I just enjoyed the weather. During the time I spent with my friends, it was even easier to forget that I did not have my phone with me. We always have something to talk about, catch up on things and discuss recent events. I had no external distractions. When I came home and talked to my parents over Skype, I was curious to find out how this experience went for them. Overall, they said they were not as worried as before… In the future, I want to try giving up my computer for a while.


As we see, even though she didn’t like being without a mobile at first, she realized that not having it constantly can have many benefits: paying more attention during class, connecting better with other people, having new experiences (watching birds and people) and generally focusing more on the “here and now”. These experiences are healthy for restoring the resources of our minds.

Conversely, having a mobile can of course have many benefits which we will see later. For example, if we are around other people but want to disengage temporarily, using a mobile phone with headphones is not considered excessively anti-social.


When does the shadow outweigh the light?


Digital technologies do not cause problems by themselves; only when the shadow prevails. There are three major factors: 1) the way that we use digital technologies, 2) our technological literacy, and 3) our ability to self-regulate and impose constraints on the useful and fun but inherently "borderless" digital technologies.

If we use digital technologies for appropriate purposes and for no longer than is necessary, we will generally be OK. But that is not how many of us use them, as we will see later in this text. The second factor is also tricky; technologies develop quickly and most smartphones (tablets, computers) are almost useless after two to three years. The policies of Facebook, Instagram and other social networking sites also change rapidly; as soon as we get used to something, it changes. The third point is also problematic; many professionals in the media field think that it is simply a matter of willpower, and weak-willed people will tend to fail as they do in other areas of life. But it's not as simple as that.

I am professionally interested in our ability to self-regulate, and it is known that our willpower tends to be exhausted very easily. Most activities have to be done on autopilot and without conscious effort because of the limits of conscious will and processing (see Kahneman, 2011 or Ariely, 2010, 2015). One of the most interesting pieces of research was done by Danziger, Levav, and Pesso (2011) who studied eight Israeli judges and their verdicts on paroling prisoners. Researchers found that the percentage of successful paroles started at approximately 65% but decreased quite quickly. After coming back from a snack break, the percentage went up but soon started to steadily decrease again. Kahneman (2011) and Ariely (2010, 2015) refer to many convincing studies showing that even high-integrity adults with a strong emphasis on ethics are still limited by their capacity for conscious willpower (as with all of us) and may still become biased or less able to control their behavior when they are tired, hungry, or overloaded.

It is therefore no surprise that the majority of people do not have sufficient willpower to regulate their use of technologies at all times. Moreover, digital technologies attract our attention by blinking, vibrating and other notifications, they offer us a constant stream of stimulation, and they connect us to our loved ones.

Stay tuned for Part II, in which I give examples of the light and shadow of digital technologies, some advice on how to use technology in the healthiest way, and a recommended reading list.

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