Thought and technology
Thought and technology have many things in common. Both help in forging connections; the former helps with external connections between people thereby shrinking the world, and the latter connects various time points in our lives creating the experience we call life. The interdependence of technology and thoughts is increasing by the day. The lines between the two have blurred to such an extent that we have outsourced many of our thinking processes to our smartphones. Most people don’t even have time to daydream. Daydreaming has been replaced by vicarious dreaming using online streaming content that is available 24/7.
Is technology to blame for this? Unless there is someone to tap on or swipe a smartphone screen, there is little technology can do to invade our lives. What sugar is to the obesity epidemic, technology is to the stress epidemic spawned by digital overload. Just as a sugar- free diet helps the body regain health, a “digital lite” mental diet helps with our mind’s wellbeing. Like sugar, which is addicting to the brain, smartphones are addicting to the mind.
A few generations ago, sugar was not as freely available as it is today. It has made it to virtually every dish we eat. It was once called white gold by European colonists and helped shape the new world through mass migrations of millions from Asia and Africa to sugar growing regions of the new world. Just a few decades ago, computers were a rarity. Interestingly, the predecessor of the modern computer was the machine that was invented by John Simmons, a Cambridge mathematician to automatically sum up receipts of sugar-laden ice buns. Nowadays, we can order and pay for sugary breakfast fare on our smartphones in our neighborhood coffee shop. The smartphone is shaping the new generation of humans just as sugar helped create the new world a couple of centuries ago.
Sugar has gone from a supplement to enhance flavor to a must-have fix with every meal. As a result of humans consuming easily available sugar in excess, there is an epidemic of metabolic illnesses such as diabetes. Computers have gone from useful machines for large industrial operations, such as mainframe computers, to be an indispensable accessory in our hands through our smartphones. As a result of the massive, large-scale consumption of electronic bits and bytes, the resultant digital strain has led to an epidemic of mental maladaptation such as stress, anxiety, and depression.
The answer is not total abstinence from technology. Its usefulness in modern life is too great to ignore. Using a smartphone, a sugarcane farmer, for example, can easily connect with customers and understand the trends in commodity prices in real time. Satellites beam down directions to our smartphones, making map reading obsolete. What was once a weeks-long ocean voyage to see and talk to a loved one is now a click away using video conferencing technology.
Food labeling is now mandatory advising consumers of the sugar content in packaged food products. There may come a day when digital devices have labels warning of the hazards of digital overload on the mind. Caloric restriction is a foolproof way of preventing, controlling and potentially reversing lifestyle related physical illnesses. Our digital lifestyle has a direct bearing on the state of our mental well being. Using technology for its intended purposes and going on a digital diet whenever we have downtime will go far in enriching our lives and restoring the therapeutic benefits of daydreaming. If our palms stop being “cup holders” for our smartphones, restorative thoughts and ideas will return as we cradle our heads in our empty hands while we relax into an afternoon siesta.