The flood of new devices, apps, and gadgets raises the recurrent worry about what these things, individually or in ensembles, are “doing” to us, how they are “impacting” us. Technology critic and MIT professor Sherry Turkle, for instance, argues that “technology doesn’t just do things for us. It does things to us, changing not just what we do but who we are.” In a similar vein, the legal scholar Tim Wu, who focuses on media and technology, warns that the Internet is psychologically overloading us.
This metaphor of impact obscures the evolution of each personal technology as it enters widespread use, misconstruing the implications for our personal lives and psyches. It implies that a technology hits, pushes, smashes us. Meteors impact the earth; missiles impact a target; bats impact a baseball. But in what meaningful sense does an electric light or a cell phone, literally or metaphorically, impact us?
We better understand the role of technologies if we think about how we use them and how that use changes over time. Most such uses are purposeful, benign, and mundane, such as commuting to work, checking in on mom, gossiping, and shopping. Technologies that begin as luxuries often slip into daily use over time, as they become cheaper and more common. The earliest automobile drivers used their expensive new cars for Sunday jaunts. A bit later, farmers used cheaper versions to take produce to market and families to movies. Later, Americans used autos to commute to work. Initially the Internet was a space of experts. Today people use the Internet to see their distant grandchildren, view pornography, or window shop. In all these cases, we use new devices to push the boundaries of the social sphere.
The critics’ concerns are not about such mundane uses of new technologies, but about their harms, unintended problems that become widespread as the technologies do. There are two sorts of unintended consequences: those affecting the individual because he or she uses the devices and those affecting the individual because others use the devices.
Concerns of the first kind are often about addiction. Early bicyclists and automobile drivers were accused of being obsessed with speed, television watchers of being hooked on the boob tube. Now smart phone users presumably suffer withdrawal symptoms if they lose signal. Back in 1909, a contributor to Lippincott's Monthly was among those who worried about telephone addiction: "Has not the telephone become the favorite pastime of the woman with nothing to do? . . . for the exchange of twaddle between foolish women . . . . it has become an unmitigated domestic curse." Who knows whether Internet addictions are more harmful than other compulsions of the addictive personality—toward drugs, alcohol, gambling, shopping?
More than a century ago, the German sociologist Georg Simmel had no fMRI pictures, but in a classic essay he argued that simply walking the streets of bustling, modern Berlin created what we would now call information overload. Today neuroscience has shed light on how intense flows of information, such as those enabled by new technology, directly alter the brain. Indeed, just about everything, new or old, reshapes the plastic brain. This includes learning a strange language, or, as an important study of London cab drivers has shown, learning to visualize street layouts.
Concerns about the harms of new devices obscure the ways in which people have long adapted to technologies.
In particular, reading, an invention of roughly 8,000 BCE, significantly rewires the brain. We subject children to years of intensive brain shaping to get them to read fluently, because we think it is good for them. These days, people assume that they can retrieve information from a computer and so are less likely to use neural storage to remember that information, a shift that has some observers worried about the decline of human memory. But people have jotted down reminder notes for centuries. Getting caught up in the latest gadgets obscures the way people have been adopting and adapting to technologies for millennia.
We are affected as well by others’ use of devices. Technology use often generates byproducts, negative or positive externalities. Automobile driving helped to end blacksmithing, warmed the planet, diverted Americans’ spending, and probably increased incidence of obesity. It also provided millions of well-paid jobs for decades.
Others’ use compels us subtly and pervasively: it makes us users, too. As Americans adopted cars for commuting, road- and home-builders pushed into terrain that had previously been too remote. American families became increasingly suburban; stores and jobs followed. At this point, owning a car is, for many of us, no longer optional. Only unusual circumstances, such as the density of Manhattan, or forceful government policies, such as subsidized mass transit, enable the realistic possibility of going carless. Similarly, when enough Americans got cell phones, major telephone companies tore out public phone booths, further nudging the rest of us to sign up for mobiles. (Some specialized companies still provide coin-operated phones for the poor, just as check-cashing businesses offer quasi-banking services.)
So others’ use of new technologies does change our behavior. But are critics such as Turkle right to suggest that deploying these technologies will profoundly alter how we relate to each other? The evidence suggests not.
The communications scholar Keith Hampton and his colleagues obtained access to time-lapse films taken in 1979 and 1980 of four different public spaces: Philadelphia’s Chestnut Street between 10th and 11th Streets; Boston’s Downtown Crossing; and in New York City, a sidewalk next to Bryant Park and the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 2008 and 2010, Hampton’s team filmed those same spaces at comparable times in comparable weather. They took additional pains to ensure that their procedure was similar to that of thirty years earlier. Then they coded in detail what could be seen in both sets of films.
The researchers saw roughly the same number of people per fifteen-second clip then and now; they saw a higher proportion of people “lingering” in 2008 and 2010; and they saw, in contrast to most speculations, that “there has been a decline in the tendency for people to spend time alone and a corresponding increase in the proportion of people in groups.” Except on Chestnut Street, which is largely a thoroughfare for commuting, the proportion of people who were by themselves declined notably.
What about the cell phone, that presumed destroyer of public sociability? There were none in 1980, of course. Hampton and colleagues found that no more than 10 percent of the people they filmed in 2008 and 2010 were talking or texting. Moreover, these individuals were overwhelmingly (except at the Met) by themselves. That is, phone users captured on film were rarely ignoring the people they were spending time with.
We are compelled, in the end, not by the device, but by others’ use of the device. Such compulsion is no different from other ways that groups press individuals. We generally wear the fashions that those in our circles wear lest we appear clueless; we keep up on the music or literature others in our circles follow lest we seem tasteless; and we empathize with what others in our circles feel lest we be judged heartless. These compulsions are social. And the range of human ways to be social is not likely to be transformed radically any time soon. The consequences of using new technologies are better understood similarly as social arrangements, not as the impacts of the devices themselves.