Technology and the Human App

headerLet’s get this out of the way first. What you’re reading is not a rallying screed for Luddites.* We’re cool with technology and everything it does to improve our lives. But we’re not alone in thinking it’s time to get a grip on how digital technology is affecting the human app.

The human app? That’s how educator Abbe Blum refers to the conscious biological entity known as the human being. She taught a Saint Mary’s Jan Term course called The Human App: Transforming Communication in a Post-Human World. The title, which she chose only partly in jest, refers to the work of Duke University Professor N. Katherine Hayles, whose specialty is the relationship between science, literature and technology. Hayles describes the post-human era as a time in which there is no essential difference between our old familiar corporeal existence and a computer simulation, between the human organism and cybernetic mechanisms, or between robot teleology and human planning. Whoa! Are we there yet?


*Luddites were early 19th-century groups of English craftsmen who destroyed textile machinery that threatened to replace them. Today, we use the word to describe anyone opposed to technical change.


Anyone watching news from the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January might have thought so, with all the buzz about wearable devices that hint at the human/cyber alloy science fiction writers predict: smart socks that map how a runner’s foot strikes the road, chip-implanted clothing that scans brain waves and heart rate, and ear buds that track your every move. It’s probably too soon to count on humans embracing these often-clunky devices, because they can peg you as something less than hip.

Besides, we have enough problems with the technology we carry around with us today, Blum said. “Mobile devices, in particular, present a distraction and a fire hose of information that can get in the way of our being compassionate listeners, skillful communicators and mindful participants in the world,” she explained.

Look around. People are increasingly navigating a crowded world with their eyes “glued” to a mobile device, according to a study by Flurry Analytics, which has been measuring our use of such devices since way back in 2008, when the iPhone was a precocious one-year-old. They found that Americans spend more than two and a half hours a day looking at their smart phones or tablets. Advertising Age reported recently that American adults now spend more time per day using digital media than watching traditional television, averaging some five hours with their various devices. The fact that more people are watching television programs on their devices than on TVs may qualify that statistic, but never mind.

The important issue may not be what we watch or how much time we spend glued to mobile devices, but rather, how and when we use them, and what we are sacrificing in the process.

Anthropology Professor Dana Herrera ’97 teaches an undergraduate course in the Anthropology of Digital Cultures, part of the new digital literacy minor at Saint Mary’s. Her students last semester focused on what technology is doing to human relationships. “Everything from day-to-day interactions with people, to how we craft our personas online, what it means to be female or male, and how age impacts how we benefit from and engage with technology.”

Herrera’s students also had heated debates over whether it’s OK to break up with someone by texting. “We just don’t have an accepted social norm for doing this,” said Herrera. Remember the Dear John letter? We haven’t figured out how to do the tough stuff—humanely delivering bad news, for example—much less how to incorporate new technology into every aspect of life, Herrera observed.

Blum devised her Jan Term course to specifically challenge students to think deeply about how to balance the exigencies of modern life with some pretty important, timeless needs—paying sustained attention, listening carefully and being heard. “That’s always been a difficult art, and I think it’s more difficult with the technology we have today.”

So much so, said Professor Linda Saulsby, that it’s difficult to separate ourselves from our devices “and just take quiet, contemplative time to think,” she said. So, Saulsby and James Wood ’70, a former litigation attorney and the president of the Board of Regents, created a Jan Term course in which they and their students would do the unthinkable—disconnect, power off and unplug completely for an entire month. Through journaling and contemplative outings, they dug deep into that scary unconnected world of the self. If they caught themselves “using,” a term Wood suggested, the students understood they had to journal about it and share with the class their thoughts on the experience.

And was it difficult? “Absolutely,” Saulsby said.

“But it went amazingly well. We saw 17 students develop into people who will now question the balance in their lives between technology and humanism.”

She and Wood hope this exercise will have a long-term effect on their students’ appreciation for and cultivation of solitude, something we all need to consider, Saulsby said. “We’re just too caught up with the screens in front of us.”

We’ve all seen it. People together in a crowd, but alone with their devices—at a restaurant, in class or in a living room full of relatives. “We put ourselves into emotional silos,” Wood said. “Doing everything we can to fill our time with distractions and, in the process, mess up the idea of intimacy.”

In fact, a University of Essex study published by The Journal of Social and Personal Relationships found that the very presence of mobile phones, not even in use at the moment, could inhibit the development of interpersonal closeness, trust, empathy and understanding, particularly when the conversation is personal and meaningful. Other studies point to the extremely close relationships people form with their devices, an idea played out in the recent Spike Jonze movie Her, about the heart- and hard drive–felt relationship that develops between a lonely man and an advanced, intuitive operating system named Samantha.

Hold the phone!

A survey by Educause found that 58 percent of today's college students, who grew up with digital technologies, owned at least three Internet-capable devices. It appears that societal anxiety over digital absorption is ramping up, bringing much needed attention to choices we all need to consider, said Blum. “I think we are at a thoughtful point where we can still figure out what we need to do to manage our lives.”

We can start by carving out a little time, “even five minutes,” Saulsby said, “to put everything aside and just be still, be quiet. Or call a friend or a family member; say hello to someone you don’t even know. This stuff seems really simple,” she said. “But it’s hard to do if you’re always looking down at your phone or wearing earphones.”

From an anthropological standpoint, humans rely on a deeply rooted face-to-face template that is still in effect, Herrera said. “It serves cooperation, social cohesion, bonding with each other and strengthening those bonds.” Over the years, every technological innovation—from transportation to telephones, air-conditioning and television—has threatened to take us away from our template, she said. People don’t like change, and technology has a particular ability to tweak us, which might explain some of the angst we feel about our digital environment, said Herrera. She would rather take a more holistic view of cultural change. People want to jump at the easy answer, the latest boogeyman, to explain social dissonance or violence, she said, when it’s really combinations of multiple factors that create societal reality.

So, is all this the fault of the iPhone and its imitators? Probably not. “Blaming everything on devices doesn’t relieve us of our responsibility to take control of our own lives and make intelligent choices about the things to which we give our conscious attention,” Herrera said. And while it’s too late to turn back—technical progress doesn’t work that way, and why would we want to, with so much to be gained—it is up to us to figure out how to bring balance to the relationship between technology and the human app, Blum said.

It begins with deciding who is leading whom, said Kirthi Nath, a filmmaker, artist and entrepreneur who also taught a Jan Term class with a related theme.

“Are you on autopilot or are you part of the navigation?” she asked.

Balance is of particular interest to Nath. She looks at technology as a welcome tool for creative work, but recognizes both its promise and its limitations.

The ability of technology to connect people across miles and cultural differences is particularly valuable, she said. “For those of us who are do-gooders, humanitarians, change agents, artists—technology can be a beautiful canvas for making the world a better and brighter place.”


Blaming everything on devices doesn’t relieve us of our responsibility to take control of our own lives and make intelligent choices about the things to which we give our conscious attention, – Dana Herrera ’97, Professor of anthropology


However, it’s too easy to get caught up in the idea that technology starts revolutions, Nath said. “It’s just a tool. We are the force that brings change, that energizes and opens perspective.” Her course—Creative Presence: Cultivating Creativity in the Age of Information—focused on storytelling techniques through various media, combined with mind-body tools—like meditation, visualization and movement—that support creative practice.

Nath finds creative inspiration in social media, in text message exchanges with friends, and incorporates it into her art. And she views as a positive the ability of artists to share their work with others, unhampered by traditional gatekeepers.

However, our tendency to make ourselves constantly available because of smart phones doesn’t serve us, our creative work or the people around us particularly well, Nath observed.

James Wood pointed out that all great art, all great inventions, begin in solitude. “Not a state of being lonely, but being present with yourself, your thoughts and your ideas. Daring to take the risk of solitude creates the opportunity to make something significant,” he said.

Nath credits her awareness practice with keeping balance in her life and her work, but acknowledges that it can sometimes feel challenging. She pointed to “the juicy conversations” going on at Wisdom 2.0—a series of conferences, workshops and meet-ups that address what the organization calls the great challenge of our age: “to not only live connected to one another through technology, but to do so in ways that are beneficial to our own well-being, effective in our work, and useful to the world.” Wisdom 2.0 brings together a who’s who list of technical leaders, capitalists and entrepreneurs with experts in meditation and yoga to discuss how to live with greater wisdom, purpose, and meaning, while also using technology to build a healthy society.

“Technology is neither good nor bad,” Nath said. “It’s how we use it to nourish and support us in our lives, and how we understand when it’s healthy to disengage.”

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