In the last 24 hours, my six friends and I collectively sent 374 texts in a group chat coming up on its five-year anniversary. And this was a slow day.
Calling Tinder matches “pen pals,” all-caps play-by-play reactions to the new “Matilda” movie, pictures of people we haven’t spoken to in years that seem to reappear all too often. Texts like “im wearing a headband” and “a grown man is sitting next to me on the plane watching lyle lyle crocodile.” Texts like “i feel like an empty shell of a person” received soon after “my mom j texted me that my plane is moving as if i’m not on it.”
There is nothing — like really, nothing — we haven’t discussed over text. Nasty situationship breakups, coming out of the closet and going back in, odd consistencies of period blood. Four and a half years of overcoming physical distance and digital hurdles have eradicated any and all attempts at censorship. It feels abominably rare to find a singular space in this world that holds absolutely zero judgment — and maybe even more rare for that space to transcend the confines of tangibility.
Though the seven of us went to different high schools and subsequently shipped off to colleges divided by expensive plane rides apart, the group chat’s activity has somehow never wavered. What began as a way for us to stay connected in between high school weekends became an integral piece of understanding ourselves, each other and the independent worlds we’ve transversed. The permanent group chat name is “extensions of self” for good reason; it seems that no matter where we go physically, our bizarrely comforting codependence finds a way to make itself at home.
For as long as we’ve been friends, in-person interaction has been the exception, not the rule. From our former lack of driver’s licenses to a global pandemic to our current collegiate lives, we’ve rarely been able to spend consistent time together over the years. But amid the gaping hole that occupies the space of our in-person relationships, a much more sentient realization exists: the affordances of modern technology have, against all odds, made each of our lives substantially better. And it makes me think that maybe, just maybe, there is a world in which we are less than doomed to live in the emotionless digital dystopia we’re told is imminent.
On the edge of a precipice
In the last almost-three years, “unprecedented” has become a notoriously ineffective buzzword. If everything is “unprecedented,” the word loses its meaning entirely. Though a pandemic exactly like the one we experienced under the exact social and technological conditions of today’s world has never happened before, human nature has always been subject to the same problems and fears that dominated life in 2020: a lack of interpersonal connection, anxiety about humanity’s ability to resolve a life-threatening conflict and an overwhelming hunger to return to a mythical stability that was really never all that stable.
Writer and professor Jason Farman cites a few examples of the “unprecedented” trope in his essay “The Myth of the Disconnected Life.” Throughout the last 200 years, everything from kaleidoscopes to landline telephones to bicycles have been criticized for being the “beginning of the end” for human connection. Farman’s decade-old piece itself predates many of the products that dominate today’s existential technological worries.
Farman says even Plato was against writing, arguing that it would “disconnect us from the meaningful presence that comes with face-to-face interactions.”
And yet here we are.
In his seminal 1939 essay “Learning in Wartime,” writer C.S. Lewis reminds a World War II-ravaged society that the state of the world, though jarring and nerve-wracking, is not as “unprecedented” as they thought.
“The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human condition so that we can no longer ignore it,” he wrote. “Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself.”
In a world chock-full of algorithms and devices that seem to be suspiciously morphing into a critically acclaimed Black Mirror episode, it’s easy to feel bogged down by the “unprecedented.” An ever-increasing reliance on modern technologies presents an easy avenue for looming fear. But Lewis presented a caveat from the assumption that a major societal shift inherently qualifies as the jumping-off point for the end of the world. Lewis knew that humanity’s motivation to survive was much bigger than whatever an era’s “unprecedented” scenario may be.
There’s the artificial intelligence platform that could destroy literacy forever. And the GPS trackers that are kidnapping women and stealing cars. And, maybe most familiarly, social media platforms working so hard to keep our attention that losing yourself in a sea of smiley pictures of people you hate and ads for shoes you won’t buy is often an hourly occurrence.
There’s so much to be wary of. And more than that, there is just so much. Opening my phone can feel like allowing an army to stampede and invade my consciousness, giving them permission to the pieces of me worth preserving and putting them up for sale. Even when I’m trying to engage in something I believe is beyond the noise, I find yet another accredited news institution publishing an article that indiscreetly aims to unnecessarily scare me into confusion (and a subsequent subscription).
Radically imagining a better future
How we interact with technology depends on how we understand its place in our little, individual universes.
I asked everyone I thought would answer what their favorite part of modern technology was. My dad’s favorite is having an in-depth encyclopedia always at his fingertips. Friends answers varied from making memes of other friends to maintaining connections with people as geographical distances expand. When I ask myself what part of online modernity I most value, it’s the ability to visually remind myself of all the love and growth in my life. It’s the access to photos and messages and ideas that simultaneously ground and inspire me if I look at them right.
The technological affordances that permeate daily life depend on our own identities, needs and interests. In the oversaturated, fragmented media environment we inhabit, it is impossible — and probably inadvisable — to try to consume everything. But on the coattails of that truth is a substantial net positive: a digital world at your fingertips provides the autonomy to cultivate a technological experience that solely serves your best interest.
There is an obscene amount of literature detailing the negative effects of a life of technological integration — depression, anxiety, ADHD, myopia, to name a few of the classics. These effects are real, and important to understand, but leave a world dependent on these seemingly evil entities with no viable alternative beyond eradication. As the products that are said to instigate these conditions lose their novelty and become synonymous with daily life, it’s no longer about figuring out how to get rid of them, but how to use them well.
A group of researchers at the Datta Meghe Institute of Medical Sciences define digital well-being as “[enhancing] the usage of technology itself to combat increased screen time by using restraints and [promoting] wellness by enabling productive and healthy lifestyles.”
It sounds straightforward, and it can be. But working towards digital well-being must go beyond turning on ignorable screen time notifications or downloading a rarely used meditation app. It’s about actively considering how our technological experiences enhance (or destroy) our physical and emotional wellness. Though a universal set of rules would be more pleasing, the natural individuality of interactions with the digital world requires introspection. In prioritizing our own feelings above the instructive messaging of online platforms, it becomes easier to discern which pieces of our technological lives are truly positive. It’s the difference between fostering deeper connections through Facetiming oft-forgotten friends and mindless, drooly doom-scrolling on Twitter. It’s knowing the former can exist all the same without the latter.
We will likely never revert back to the analog “glory days” of our parents and grandparents. Technological development is a historically forward-thinking process, making the trials and tribulations of a chronically digitized world a grounded influence on modern life. Thus, coming to terms with the perceived permanence of reality will make the ongoing transition easier and allow us to find ways to make the most of it.
Finding — and being selective about — the media we consume, then, becomes an ever-important task. “The Joy Report,” an environmental justice podcast, invites listeners facing the horrors of the climate crisis to “radically imagine a better future.”
“Real pain needs joy,” host Arielle King quotes environmentalist Diandra Marizet. “And that requires authentic recognition of where we are so we can cherish what we have and manifest where we can go.”
Meeting the inevitable series of humanity’s mishaps with pure fear and anxiety makes them all the more seemingly impossible to solve. Marizet’s radical imagination asks active knowledge and optimism to drive the bus while existential dread takes a nap in the backseat. It asks us to stand at the edge of a precipice with bright eyes and ready fists.
The best thing we can do for ourselves is learn to comfortably inhabit the technological world we do live in, rather than idly pine for an alternate universe void of the digital era’s modern developments. Though individual changes can’t entirely absolve the potential for disaster, they can make a world of vastly overwhelming options fit the shape of our lives. They free up the space filled by nonsensical content bombarding to make room for mediation on what we really care about. These seemingly minor changes can be the foundation for shifting a user-supported digital world to provide what users actually want and need. Changing our habits is not an end-all-be-all solution, but it can be a genuine start to a slow and steady revolution.
Scrolling through the same suggested Instagram accounts of people I simultaneously don’t know and also idolize brings me down a rabbit hole where my sense of reality disappears. I have to routinely remind myself that comparing my falsely perceived failures to the successes of people who embody my insecurities will never be of use to me, or to anyone else. Old habits die hard — especially when breaking them means letting go of a culture pushing us to see ourselves through the lens of other peoples’ best moments.
But when I find the strength to step back and consider what and whom I value, my digital and physical lives shouldn’t look all that different from each other. The affordances of the phone seated next to me should honor, rather than dismantle, my understanding of my identity. Four and a half years of the reliable sight of texts from the strongest non-familial relationships in my life have shown me what it means to embrace that honor. More than that, it’s a reminder of what our digital present — and future — could feel like.
Though the group chat rarely finds time for all seven of us to hang out, this New Year’s Day seemed to fall right into place. One by one, we all showed up to spend four hours walking along a familiar suburban hiking trail filled with barren January trees and warmly waving bikers. I don’t remember all of what we talked about. Where to buy workout clothes, the House of Representatives and our shared ironic food account were some of it. But what really stuck out was the profound ease of unlikely friends continuously finding their way back to each other.
As I drove home, that rare feeling of inner peace radiated through the setting sun and cast onto the Long Island Expressway. A perfectly curated mix of Taylor Swift’s best nostalgia feeders hummed lowly underneath a mind consumed by contemplation. And I finally understood what it meant to radically imagine a better future — one where humanity and technology find a way to happily coexist.
Statement Contributor Emily Blumberg can be reached at email@example.com.