What is the price of convenience?

-- By TiffanyYoung - 11 Nov 2017

We are in the age of Big Data. A time where the value of a technology lies not its software but the information that the software gathers and analyzes. The rise of Big Data can be attributed to one thing: convenience. Google, Facebook, Apple, WeChat? – these companies promise convenience in exchange for our information. These companies hail cashless transactions, instant answers online, and easy contact with friends across the globe as the future of humanity. But at what point does convenience begin reshaping society? I think it already has, and for the worse.

Destruction of Human Connection

Social media promises to help us keep connected with our friends no matter where we are. Yet, by subscribing to this, we destroy the connections closest to us. When everything is an instant notification, it’s nearly impossible to focus on any task lasting longer than a few minutes, including spending time with real, physical people.

I often find myself sitting at dinner with friends, yet failing to find a single pair of eyes to connect with because everyone is glued to their screens. I have also often sat with a grumbling stomach because my friends had decided that taking a photo for the internet was more pressing than nourishing our bodies (I would be forbidden from touching my order as they arranged and rearranged the table settings to capture the perfect photo). And unfortunately, I often give up after repeating a story twice or thrice, ultimately opting to also simply pick up my phone. The problem is, they realize it’s rude. These actions are constantly accompanied with a “sorry I’ll be done soon,” yet they continue throughout the meetup. I believe this addiction to the internet is both rooted in social anxiety and a changing of standards.

In an age where hitting a “like” button and sending an occasional message is enough to maintain friendships, failure to do so suddenly means dropping relationships and spending time with people means going above and beyond. Because notifications are instantaneous, responses are also expected to be instantaneous. People are so afraid of being disliked that they must respond immediately to prove their interest in a relationship. The same reasoning applies to online sharing: receiving “likes” and comments is interpreted as signs of friendship. The flip side of the coin is the expectation that using the phone while with company, though rude, will be forgiven. After all, they’re already taking time to actually be with you, what more could you ask?

Destruction of Self

The breakdown is not just happening around us; it is happening within us. We are so enthralled with the online world that it has even changed how we view ourselves. Studies have shown that exposure to social media is correlated to lower self-esteem. At the same time, our brains release dopamine every time we get a positive response on social media, and it is this physical response that makes leaving social media so difficult. I suspect the desperate need to prove that we are worthy both to ourselves and to friends online drives us further into social media’s gaping maws. Because being on social media lowers self-esteem, online validation means even more to us, leading to more posting and sharing.

Furthermore, the constant bombardment of information means never experiencing boredom again…but never truly engaging our minds either. We are slowly losing our sense of self because we spend less time with introspection and pondering about the day’s events or life in general. We also exercise our memories less since any information we want is at our fingertips. Studies have shown multitasking leads to less productivity and efficiency, but it is nearly impossible to ignore the endless pings that demand our attention. So, as technology grows ever more cognitive, our brains grow ever less.

Destruction of Trust

Rather than trusting other humans, it seems people are placing their trust in the very companies that aim to manipulate them. The introduction of Amazon Key is a prime (no pun intended) example. Amazon Key is a keypad door lock that comes with a security camera and an app. We don’t trust our neighbors to not steal our packages, yet we trust Amazon to enter our homes. And indeed, people are now handing a retail company real-time footage of their homes as well as the passcodes to their front doors.

A more personal anecdote: my mother is a very private woman, who refuses even to use her real name on Facebook. Yet, she has no problem telling her phone “OK Google, take me home,” even though she acknowledges she never entered her home address. Perhaps, because our phones are our trusty right-hand robots, we can lull ourselves into believing there aren’t people behind our devices. But this lack of understanding (maybe even self-deception) is exactly why China’s social credit plan even has a chance of working.

Crippled by Technology

I have recently turned off my phone data entirely; I now only use it as a telephone while on the go and utilize its computing capabilities while on to a trusted web connection. Of course, I still have a data plan, so I know in an emergency (say, if I was hopelessly lost) I could always access the net. But couldn’t I just ask a kind stranger for directions? Do I really need to have this invasive technology as a “safety net?” I have to admit I don’t like the answer, but…no.

The ultimate convenience that technology offers us – and the hardest to part with – is the ability to stay well within our comfort zones. At any moment, we are only interacting with those we want to and expected to interact with. By staying within our comfort zones, we insulate ourselves from new bonds (like striking up a conversation with a stranger) and from new ideas (living in an echo chamber). We must accept that discomfort is part of the human experience before we can break the technological shackles with which we have chained ourselves.

This revision acknowledges the issues raised by my comments, but doesn't address them. The rewrite takes the fact of anxiety, or the "comfort zone" into the picture, but doesn't take up the invitation to consider the fact saliently. You're not only interacting with the people you want and expect to interact with: that's the myth. You are instead always interacting with a series of espionage companies powered by machines that comprehensively surveil you and remember everything you read, listen to, and do. To say that's a "comfort zone" is to have created a new and—at least to my mind—incoherent idea of comfort. But this draft is as little willing to come to grips with that as the last one. I don't think the question is, as the conclusion states, accepting discomfort. That would involve, say, living human life the way it was lived for several million years before the development of anesthesia. This is about deciding whether to accept the elimination of freedom.

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