Like moths drawn to an open flame, people are drawn to their smartphones, tablets and other online portals as they seek and absorb the torrents of data that flow through those devices and into their lives every day.
Luddites and traditionalists might argue that this trend reflects a dangerous technology addiction that threatens the very fabric of society.
A recent article, written by blogger Farley Goodman, suggests that technology has taken control of our every day lives. Goodman writes:
Technology has infiltrated every aspect of our lives. There are large data dumps created every single second that are becoming huge political and economic weapons with great destructive power. Companies are being hacked every day and sensitive information about unsuspecting netizens is being leaked routinely. There are huge gaps in cyber-security that are wide open for the public, but we all are completely oblivious to them.
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This complaint is nothing new, but it deserves further examination, specifically as it relates to how businesses have evolved.
New technologies and, more broadly, new ways of doing things have often been perceived as threats to the existing order and industry. Automobiles, for example, replaced horses and decimated the buggy-whip industry, while electric lighting put candle, torch, and gaslight manufacturers out of business.
The rapid pace and onslaught of new online technology, however, is like nothing that has been previously seen. Henry Ford needed almost twenty years to sell 15 million Model T automobiles in the early part of the twentieth century, whereas smartphone manufacturers sold almost 1.5 billion of their devices in 2015 alone. Smartphone sales increased by an order of magnitude in less than ten years.
- More than half of all smartphone owners look at their phones at least once every hour, and more than ten percent of those owners check their phones every few minutes.
- More than one third of all homes in the United States subscribe to Netflix, and an average Netflix subscriber watches eight hours of Netflix content per day.
- An average adult Internet user spends more than twenty hours per week online, which is more than double the amount of online time spent less than ten years ago.
- As of mid-2015, more than 100 billion apps has been downloaded from Apple’s App store.
- After almost 250 years of continuous publication, the Encyclopedia Britannica stopped printing its iconic volumes in 2012 as a majority of individuals turned to Google and Wikipedia as reference sources.
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The creative and irreverent minds of Comedy Central’s "South Park" took a stab at explaining the lure of technology in the show’s "Freemium Isn’t Free" episode. One of the show’s characters had accumulated thousands of dollars in micropayment charges on his phone after he played a game on a mobile app that required him to make regular payments to access new levels.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) includes Internet gaming as a behavioral addiction problem, and psychologists and counselors are expanding that problem to include broader categories of Internet addiction. Among certain individuals, technology addiction may be a genuine problem, yet on a global scale, new technologies simply reflect unstoppable progress.
In an ideal world, progress advances all of society. Because we do not live in an ideal world, a portion of society might not experience the benefits of that progress.
By most measures, new online technology has created enormous benefits that exceed questions of dependence. From a perspective of psychological disorders, we are no more dependent on new technology than we are dependent on modern housing to protect us from the elements, on modern food processing techniques to expand our daily meal choices and to eliminate food-borne parasites, and on modern transportation to get us to a morning meeting on the east coast and then back home to the west coast in time for dinner.
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A Little Bit (Or a Lot) of Both?
We use technology to advance our lives and to make our daily routines easier. Whether our routines are in fact easier because of technology is a valid question for debate, but that debate goes deeper than just asking if we are addicted to technology.
Simply stated, we are using greater amounts of technology than we did 10 years ago because so much more technology is available at affordable price points. Technology and its overuse pose a new generation of risks, just as cars and airplanes posed new and different risks to travelers than did horses and trains. By most objective measures the benefits of new technology outweigh the risks.
Thoreau famously observed that, “[m]en think that it is essential that the Nation have commerce, and export ice, and talk through a telegraph, and ride 30 miles an hour, without a doubt, whether they do or not; but whether we should live like baboons or like men, is a little uncertain.”