A new technology drops. Some people immediately adopt it, assuming all that is new is good. Other people immediately shun it, assuming all that is new is bad. Neither of these approaches is ideal. There is a middle—and better—way. It has to do with the concept of evaluating alienation.
In the simplest terms, alienation means to create space between two things. “In some cases, alienation is precisely what gives a tool its value,” writes Nicholas Carr in his book, The Shallows. “We build houses and sew Gore-Tex jackets because we want to be alienated from the wind and the rain and the cold. We build public sewers because we want to maintain a healthy distance from our own filth. Nature isn’t our enemy, but neither is it our friend.”
In other cases, however, the role of alienation is more complex. Take, for example, a GPS watch with a heart-rate monitor or any other biometric tracking device. Exercising, sleeping, eating, and so on with these devices gives you all kinds of powerful information, but it also alienates you from your own body’s physical sensations. If you rely too heavily on a screen to tell you how you feel then you lose some ability to feel for yourself.
Are these biometric devices good or bad? It depends. How much do you value the information they give you versus your ability to be in direct relationship with your body? Where are you at on the journey of mastery? Are these devices functioning as helpful learning tools, or as crutches? There is no single or right answer to these questions, and it can (and usually does) change over time and in different contexts.
Two more examples of technological alienation, both of which are quite broad and thus yield not only individual but also societal consequences:
- Social media enables you to connect with people all over the world and discover interesting ideas and insights you might not have otherwise. I’ve met some people who have turned out to be indispensable collaborators and good “in-real-life” friends, all thanks to Twitter. Social media also alienates you from direct contact with a lot of the people you engage with on the platforms, often resulting in a loss of emotion, empathy, and anything remotely close to productive discourse.
- Buying books from Amazon tends to be cheaper and more convenient than buying books from your local bookshop (the same is now true for groceries, and so many other goods). But buying books from Amazon also alienates you from the people in your community and the relationships you might forge in those local shops. It is often these independent retailers that make a community special and more than a run-of-the-mill cookie-cutter kind of place. And yet, and yet. During the pandemic more books were sold (and presumably read) than in a long time. This would never have happened without Amazon. Many people have bought my books on Amazon precisely because they are on a tight budget. They wouldn’t have read the books otherwise. (But how and why Amazon can price so low is another point of contention!) Not very many independent booksellers stocked my and Steve’s first book, Peak Performance, because we were “nobody authors.” The book took off because of Amazon. I love my independent bookshop and fear the consequences of Amazon, but I doubt I’d be here writing to tell you this if it weren’t for Amazon. This stuff is not so simple.
A great framework for evaluating how to use a technology (or whether to use it in the first place) is to ask yourself what are the benefits of this technology and what is it alienating me from? This question helps bring a level of discernment to your habits that involve technology, which, for many, is increasingly a lot. For example, maybe you shun social media and Amazon altogether. Maybe you end up spending only a certain amount of time on social media and buying only a certain type or number of books from Amazon.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I want to repeat myself: Sometimes this stuff is black and white, but often it’s grey. Again, I think social media is pretty terrible and pretty great. If it wasn’t for Twitter I would not have met Steve and neither our books nor The Growth Equation would exist. I love my local bookseller and I buy most of my books from them, but without Amazon, publishing probably wouldn’t have had a blockbuster year in 2020, during a global pandemic. I’ve met tons of wonderful people through my books, and many of those people bought my books on Amazon. But if my local bookseller went out of business, I’d be very sad; I believe it provides an immense value to my community. Thus, I tell everyone I know in Asheville to buy their books from Malaprops.
Given that most new technologies are neither wholly good nor wholly bad, perhaps what we ought to be thinking about is optimal use, where optimal means the net benefit is positive. Unfortunately, since technology is, by definition, non-human, a lot of what we lose with new technologies is our essential humanness—something that is hard, if not impossible, to quantify. I don’t have the answers, but I do think that bringing more conscious awareness to these tradeoffs is a good place to start, both for all of us as individual actors and for policy makers who are far behind in how regulating these technologies and understanding the consequences of such decisions, or worse, not making such decisions to begin with.
The point, writes Nicholas Carr in The Shallows, is that while we should celebrate the glories of new technologies, “we shouldn’t allow those glories to blind our inner watchdog to the possibility that we’ve numbed an essential part of ourselves.”