Technology: First gives and then steals

Civil servants: Caretakers or undertakers?

Sunil Mishra

In pre-historic days, the lives of our hunter-gather forefathers were simplistic. They had only two basic tasks to perform – to procure food and to safeguard themselves from other animals or human attacks. But these two tasks were so uncertain and complex that consumed most of their time. They were barely left with any free time for leisure. There was no facility to store food. So, hunting was an everyday activity. Whatever free time was available, the foragers used it for tool making and looking for safe new habitat.

The advent of agriculture changed things entirely. Now the food could be produced in excess and stored in large granaries. Also, there was no need to look for a new habitat every few days. This practically freed humans from the clutches of biological needs and provided ample time for recreation. They engaged themselves in writing, painting, singing, architecture and science. This is how civilisation as we know today started. The agriculturist created a far bigger impact in a relatively very short time compared to the foragers who existed for several hundred thousand years.

Technology and its perks

Today technology has freed us even more from the drudgeries of daily lives. We can fly to any place and reach within a few hours. We can communicate online with anyone on planet instantaneously. We can order our groceries with the tap of a finger. We don’t need to queue up to pay for the electricity bills. We can attend universities sitting in our homes, learn new skills and work remotely. We have a digital existence. We also have machines and robots to make our lives comfortable. There is only a very limited set of activities that can’t be automated, and we need to do them ourselves. In a way, we have navigated two biggest constraints of that human always struggled with – time and space.

Ideally, all this technology boons of automation and digitisation should have given us a lot of free times. If leisure time during early agriculture triggered a civilisation, the current gift of free time offered by technology could have triggered a far bigger revolution. On the contrary, nothing of the sort seems to have happened. In fact, we are busier than ever; we don’t have surplus time for leisure and recreation.

Where is the free time?

Where has the time freed by technological invention gone? This is not a difficult question to answer if we look at the tech-savvy millennials. With smartphones and the internet, we are more absorbed than our pre-internet generations. The smartphones have stolen the leisure time that we believe we secured for ourselves.

Modern-day social media apps are like slot machines. The likes and notifications work in the same way in the brain as a gambling addiction. It creates the same rush of dopamine. Checking the likes on your post is the new smoking. In an HBS story Bill Maher says – “Philip Morris just wanted your lungs,” and “the App store just wants your soul”.

Originally in blue, Facebook’s notification symbol had to undergo a colour change — became red — which led to increased use of the notification symbol. Without likes and notification, Facebook is another Orkut or Myspace — good platforms but held no addictive power.

The addictive power of Facebook comes with likes and comments option. This started anxiety which psychologists call ‘FOMO’ – fear of missing out.

This anxiety is sensed by people. Many smart people are aware that they are increasingly getting enslaved by technology.

With smartphones becoming intelligent with every passing day, humans are becoming dumber as we stop using our cognitive abilities. Cal Newport a, computer scientist at Georgetown university has researched this topic in detail. He calls for a revolution of ‘digital minimalism’ to reclaim our free time. He suggests following useful tips to achieve that objective:

  1. Digital Declutter: Start this process by uninstalling all the optional applications from your cellphones for the first 30 days. During this break, indulge in activities that you find meaningful. After 30 days, reintroduce only those applications that serve you value. But be very strict in the selection of these apps.
  2. Spend time Alone: ‘Solitude-deprivation’ — we all suffer from this. In this situation, we lose the art of having a conversation with ourselves. It is not about being aloof but letting the brain break free from thinking.

Pre-smartphone age, while waiting for a bus or travelling in a train and other activities, people had some time for themselves. But the smartphone today consumes all our free time or filler time.

The suggestion that the author gives are:

  1. Leave your phone at home
  2. Practice long walk
  3. Write letters to yourself
  4. Don’t click ‘Like’
  5. Reclaim leisure – Engaging activities like learning a new skill, participating in social engagement or playing a sport among other activities to stave off leisure activities like social media browsing.

To conclude, we can’t be a technological Luddite in the current age. We don’t need to quit social media but do need to manage them. We can use our free time in the real recreational activities that the early agriculturalist engaged themselves in things like writing, painting, games, singing, architecture and science. This is the way we can maximise our own potential and feel happy about it.

Mishra is a software professional with over 20 years of experience with leading IT and consulting companies. He is the author of the book “Who Stole My Time?”.

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