A hidden threat of the pandemic: our increased reliance on technology

The irony of this blog post is not lost on me: I convey this message through a piece of technology, more specifically a tablet that I deem essential to my daily life, as I remain vigilant in practicing social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic.

More than once over the past six months, I’ve reminded (or been reminded by) someone how even more invaluable our everyday technologies have become to us as coronavirus remains ever dangerous.

Thousands of college classes that were always taught face to face have switched to online delivery. (Tack on high school or and elementary and secondary education classes and that number swells into the millions.) Millions of meetings that included (often bad) coffee have been transformed into video gatherings. Mundane responsibilities such as going to the supermarket have been replaced by ordering online and then picking up those items “contact free.”

All of these changes, however temporary they might be, have been necessary. Whether we take the threat of coronavirus seriously or ignorantly believe it’s little more than the flu, we’re compelled to slow its spread. However, we also could look at the recent changes in a less optimistic way: They’ve made technology even more locked into our lives, inching us further away from human contact and further isolating us from humanity writ large.

Yes, I know many people reading this post who know me are thinking ’You’re one of the most anti-social people I know, so why are you fretting over daily human interaction?‘ The answer is simple: I might be an introvert (and happily so), but there are billions of people around the world who need the interaction that comes from seeing another person face to face. For them, and whether they’re part of the perhaps 1-billion people around the world who suffer from some type of a mental health challenge isn’t important, the toll from the last few months is becoming ever harder to pay.

I’m reminded of a video chat I had with students in my classes at the end of the spring term. One student said how much he simply missed seeing everyone in class or on campus; yes, they were able to talk over the phone, share information via email, communicate via text and more, but for him the human connection was missing, and he agonized over it. That sentiment has been shared by many people, who, even if they don’t miss the coffee, certainly miss the engagement that comes with being in a real, not virtual, room with other people.

Whether we’re holding our own (as I am) in “‘rona world” or struggling (as millions of Americans are), we can’t ignore that our reliance on technology, whether it’s used for personal or professional reasons, alters who we are.

As just one example, consider what Nicholas Carr, one of the country’s foremost experts about technology and its impact on human beings, wrote in his book The Shallows:

“The price we pay to assume technology’s power is alienation … The tools of the mind amplify and in turn numb the most intimate, the most human, of our natural capacities — those for reason, perception, memory, emotion.”

Carr also quotes neuroscientist Eleanor Maguire, who has written of her fears that relying on GPS makes us ignore the intricacies of the road, a skill that makes our brains stronger.

A computer, a tablet, a smartphone all can improve our lives, if we remember that they must remain in a subordinate position to the person using them. We humans must remain the masters of the devices; we can’t become their prisoners. How well are we remembering that right now?

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