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How is our obsession with technology actually improving our lives?

Read Monday, 3 Apr 2017

Conversations around the impact of new technologies tend to lurch between wild, unexamined enthusiasm and alarmist hand-wringing. Maybe we need to take a deep breath and a broader view of things, writes Naomi Chainey.

Illustration: An iPad cable is coiled to resemble a human brain
Much has been made of technology’s negative impacts on the human brain, but not all the effects are negative
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As a teenager, I watched the Australian-American sci-fi TV series Farscape religiously. Every Saturday I tuned in for the adventures of Moya (a living spaceship!), and her dysfunctional crew of escaped alien convicts, travelling an unexplored universe, the spectre of an oppressive regime looming at their heels. Would John make it back to Earth? Would Crais avenge his brother? Most importantly, would John and Aeryn ever get together and make babies?

So I felt incredibly put out when an elderly relative made a point of engaging me in unscheduled chit-chat during Farscape’s first season finale, a passive-aggressive protest against the ‘antisocial’ tendencies of youth. This was the 1990s – well before the days of television on demand, or even DVD releases. You either had to watch it during the broadcast, or record it on VHS. I didn’t have a tape handy, and felt as if my relative were ripping out the last chapter of a beloved novel for the sake of pleasantries.

Media that caters to shorter attention spans suit me, and millions like me, just fine.

New communication and entertainment platforms are often viewed sceptically by those who’ve long lived without them. The longer we’ve had to become entrenched in established social and vocational conventions, the more we feel we have to lose with the advent of new forms of communication.

History is full of anxious types, raging against new media platforms. VCRs spelled the end of free-to-air television. Gramophones would strip the life from live performances. The written word would weaken our memories (Socrates and Plato were cautionaries on this one). Novels would give women unrealistic expectations and distract them from domestic duties, photocopiers were going to end the publishing industry and, most recently, smart devices are destroying our attention spans.

When the gramophone first became popular, people worried it would destroy live music.

Some of these predictions were probably right on the mark. I suspect Plato would kick our modern butts at memory games, and perhaps it’s a coincidence, but women’s suffrage did follow the popularisation of the novel. However, as new technologies develop, so do industries, consumers and culture. A fondness for the familiar is not, in and of itself, reason to protest the new.

To sum up widespread anxieties on recent technological developments: video games make us antisocial and violent, screens are straining our eyes, we are looking at our phones rather than engaging with each other, social media distracts us from getting things done, the sedentary nature of these activities is hurting our waistlines and consuming information in bite-sized chunks has changed the way we process information.

Some of these concerns are valid (eye strain is on the rise), others have been debunked (video games do not make us violent), some are just very complicated (there are many factors contributing to sedentary lifestyles), and I will assert that sharing and processing information differently is not an inherently bad thing.

[Video] games are being trialled as treatment for amblyopia or ‘lazy eye’.

Full disclosure: my own processing ability was impaired shortly before social media took off in the mid-2000s. I have ME/CFS (myalgic encephalomyelitis) a chronic illness which causes a range of physical and cognitive symptoms, including problems with attention span, concentration, working memory, word recall and extreme fatigue. As a result, Facebook and Twitter updates are now far more accessible to me than longer pieces of writing, which may take multiple attempts to power through if they are not abandoned altogether. Media that caters to shorter attention spans suit me, and millions like me, just fine.

In preparation for this piece, I threw a leading question out to my Facebook friends: ‘How has social media made you more productive?’ Naturally, some laughed and stated the opposite was true. The conventional wisdom is that social media sucks away your time and enables procrastination.

On this, I remain sceptical, remembering the ever-present pile of novels and magazines that travelled with me throughout my teens. I can procrastinate with the best of them and the means to procrastinate have always been there. These days, my distractions are more likely to involve online social interactions or updates on current events. In practice, tablets may have made my procrastination much more productive.

In response to my question, others’ friends detailed how social media supported their event management and business ventures. Introverts and people with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) found online interactions easier to navigate than face-to-face interactions. Instant group feedback had practical uses for people in a number of professions. Personally, I’ve found it useful for access to support groups, grass-roots activism, networking and self-promotion (I was contacted via Twitter to write this piece).

On a broader scale, social media is now incorporated into disaster responses by the military and NGOs, and into healthcare systems around the world. The benefits and limitations are still being hashed out in research, but there’s no doubt the landscape is changing as technology enables (potentially) more efficient ways to organise and disseminate information.

Video games come with a wide range of benefits, too. Surgeons who play games have been found to perform with better precision on the operating table and certain kinds of games may actually decrease your risk of dementia.

Surgeons who play games have been found to perform with improved precision on the operating table.

Games can also promote understanding of social issues: Zoe Quinn’s Depression Quest, for example, invites players to experience everyday events through the lens of mental illness, while Italian studio InnerVoid Interactive has produced The Day We Left, which explores hardships faced by refugees.

A fondness for the familiar is not, in and of itself, reason to protest the new.

More generally, research has found that some games improve cognition in the areas of attention, memory, decision-making and perception. Impulsiveness may be reduced while reflexes and hand-eye coordination are improved. Despite the old stereotype that gamers are antisocial, cooperative online gaming has been found to improve emotional, social and psychological wellbeing. Gaming skills relating to strategy and teamwork are transferrable to workplace tasks, and while eye strain remains an issue, games may be helping our eyesight in other ways. Studies have found improvement in perception of contrast and the ability to track moving objects, and games are being trialled as treatment for amblyopia or ‘lazy eye’.

With this in mind, I think back to my interrupted viewing of Farscape, and the benefits my elderly relative perhaps overlooked in her mission to liberate me from the ‘idiot box’. My plan was to study television production after high school, so watching television involved useful lessons in plot, narrative, character development, blocking, camera-work and editing. With hindsight, I can also see how Farscape, in particular, influenced the feminist and disability rights politics that have informed my career (good science-fiction is often political).

In moments when I feel myself resisting new media developments (I’m at that age, and no one seems able to explain Snapchat), perhaps I should draw on the frustration I felt that day to help me resist the fear of change.

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