Siri Agrell is the author of How To Get Laid Without Your Phone: A Meditation on Love in the Time of Inconvenience.
Imagine, if you will, that there was a button you could press each time you felt hungry.
With a tap of your finger, you were nourished. The emptiness you felt disappeared, your body was replenished, your energy restored.
At first, perhaps, you would deploy it sparingly. When you were busy. When there was nothing in the fridge. To shut the kids up.
This button would change some people’s lives, undoubtedly. It would provide for those who were wanting. Some would get healthier, provided with the sustenance they required regardless of barriers of geography or income.
Years would pass, and our reliance on the button would build. We would try not to press it some days, but the hunger would come and it’s just so easy. Industries and professions would rise and fall in the button’s wake, our homes and habits reconfigured gradually until, perhaps, some of us began to forget how to feed ourselves without it, and could no longer describe what it was we hungered for or imagine the taste of fruit on our lips.
It is hard to remember what we were like before technology became a ubiquitous presence in our pockets, in our hands and lives.
It has been more than a decade since the iPhone was introduced and high speed networks handed us each the ability to tap into the collective mind at will.
At their core, our phones are buttons we press every time we hunger for human connection: when we experience a craving for knowledge or community or entertainment or acknowledgment or validation or attention or, yes Valentine’s Day readers: love.
So much has been enabled through the convenience of this connection, the control and access it allows us. It has helped us to achieve things, to be seen, to be heard, to find others with whom to connect.
But these powers have come with a cost that needs to be recognized: they have changed us over time and affected the way we interact with one another, even in our closest relationships and most intimate moments.
Those effects have come into high relief over the past year, as much of the world was forced into social isolation, with only our screens for comfort.
Robbed of one another, we were bereft. We could not deny that something was missing. We missed each other. We longed for face-to-face contact, for random conversations with strangers, for the spontaneity and thrill and magic of life lived out in the open, beyond the reach of any algorithm. We realized the joy we found in our relationships could not be sustained on Netflix content alone, and that talking via Zoom was not the same as having someone lean in, just slightly, as you whispered something softly in their ear.
So how do we go back?
As we prepare to stumble, vaccinated, out into the world, how do we retrain ourselves in the art and romance of being human, with or without our phones?
It begins with naming the effects these habits have had on us, and acknowledging the changes they have wrought on our closest interpersonal relationships.
We can do this scientifically, of course, by reading the countless studies and research papers that document the degradation of happiness, mental health and resilience that has occurred concurrently with our growing reliance on technology.
But we do not need these studies, if we’re honest with ourselves. We need only to look seriously at our own behaviours.
First and foremost, we recognize that our conditioning by technology has made us impatient. When we tweet or post something online, we get a heart or a like right away. We order a shawarma or book a ticket, and receive an immediate confirmation message in exchange.
And so, we’ve become conditioned for immediate validation, and we’ve started expecting it from each other. We expect people to text us back right away, to be constantly available. We’re no longer comfortable just sitting with ourselves. With silence. With giving people time, and space to respond. The convenience and control we experience through technology has conditioned us to deny the reality of other people’s lives, and made us demanding, needy and inflexible in our expectations.
It has also made us rude. It’s happened gradually, but our norms for acceptable social behaviour have declined. We know this. We behave online and through technology in ways that would never be acceptable in person. We ignore and ghost one another. We walk away from conversations now by simply refusing to tap our screens.
Technology has made us strong, but it has not made us brave.
Over time, we have grown accustomed to using technology not just as a tool, or as a weapon, but also as a shield. It is easy to say something hurtful or to ignore someone completely if we don’t have to look them in the eye. We’ve become cowardly in our interactions. We’re unaccustomed to holding someone’s gaze and asking for what we want, or telling them what we need.
At the same time, technology has made us feel as though we know more than we do. We think we have all the answers at our fingertips, and so we no longer ask. We’ve forgotten how to know things about each other, how to seek out information through conversation and shared experience.
But more than anything, technology has made us dull.
I think this is what we’ve realized over these past long months. That living through our screen is not the same as living our lives, fully out in the world. Everything is rote. There is very little surprise or spontaneity in our lives.
We push the button now, because we can and not because we should.
And so, if we can hope to contend with the ways our new tools and platforms have amplified and accelerated human divisions writ large, we must focus on how they have changed us individually.
Our fight against the darker effects of technology cannot just be about regulation, but about self-control and self-reflection.
We need to remember our own humanity, our own desire for connection and love. Because isn’t that really what we’re after?
What is it that we are hungry for when we reach for our phones these days? What is the feeling we’re hoping to satisfy?
We must think about that now, concentrate on it and seek it out even when it’s difficult. If only to experience the taste of one another on our lips.
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