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Technology isn’t neutral: 3 Big ways it changes us

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Jackie Niam | Shutterstock

Tom Hoopes - published on 09/04/23

It's not just our kids who need to watch out.

My son, Benjamin, and his friends started a wi-fi free residence hall floor at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, and eagerly share their message that building community face-to-face is what human beings crucially need.

Benjamin likes to argue that technology is not neutral. Our entertainment and information technology change our behavior. Some ways they do this are subtle, others not so much.

First: Entertainment media isn’t neutral, because children imitate what they see.

My wife and children and I used to watch only one television program regularly: Wipe Out. Everyone loved the show with the crazy obstacle courses whose contestants had to leap from pad to pad over water and dodge cartoonish scenarios: Rubber fists punching randomly from a wall, doors hiding big inflatable battering rams, spherical stepping stones over muddy water.

But then we noticed that someone would always get hurt after watching the show, because as soon as it was over our house became an obstacle course with kids’ fists punching between bannisters, pillows pummeling brothers and sisters as they ran, children’s bodies hurtling through the air and often missing in furniture-to-furniture jumps.

I banned “Wipe Out” from my house — not because it is immoral, but because people imitate what they see.

Then, it turns out that not just children imitate what they see, but teens do too — a 2008 study linked sex on television to teen pregnancy.

So, our entertainment rule of thumb became: Show them what you want them to imitate; if you don’t want them to imitate something, don’t show it to them. I even compiled lists of movies I want my children to imitate: “Movies for Future Men” and “Movies for Future Women.”

Second: Using screens isn’t neutral; it rewires our brains. 

It isn’t only kids who imitate what they see, we all do. And we do more than imitate it. 

I’m old enough to remember that, before the advent of smartphones, expert recommendations of how many hours of screen time were advisable for small children had settled around zero, as research showed Baby Einstein and other programs weren’t helping kids.

At the New York Times, Jonathan Rothwell rounded up research of how we learned that television makes our brains shut down. After the early promise of Sesame Street, as the show seemed to raise literacy levels, the later evidence showed that actually, watching TV hurt IQ scores — and not just in children. 

Adults are affected the same way because our brains are efficient systems that offload whatever they can.

My son drew my attention to a coming book by Pulitzer Prize winner Walt Hickey, who looks at the 21st century and sees the awful truth: We Are What We Watch: How Movies and TV Affect Everything, billed as explaining “the power of entertainment to change our biology, our beliefs, how we see ourselves, and how nations gain power.”

Third: Media isn’t neutral because it reconfigures power.

How does entertainment change “how nations gain power?”

The writer George Orwell noted that the fewer words we have at our disposal, the fewer thoughts we can have. If our minds lose the language necessary to criticize and question, we will be puddy in the hands of forces that want to use us for their own good. In his novel 1984 about a dystopian future, he warned that tyrannical governments would deliberately limit the words the people know in order to limit the thoughts they can have.

Niel Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Deathbegins saying that Orwell was right about where we were headed, but that Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World better described how we would get there. Writing in the 1980s, his words are more relevant now than they were then:

“Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.”

His argument extended Marshall McLuhan’s insight that “the medium is the message” — the method of a communication is as important as its content. In a world where presidential debates need to get ratings on prime-time TV, presidential debates become soundbite theater instead of in-depth discussions — and then what we look for in presidents changes. 

Worse, is a world where clicks are currency, clickbait is king, building an Outrage Machine keeping us perpetually afraid and angry.

My son has a number of tools he recommends. 

He promotes “Distraction-Free YouTube that keeps YouTube from actively recommending and suggesting videos to you, or trying to claim your time and attention.

He also uses a Lightphone that bills itself as “designed to be used as little as possible.” He uses it to call and text, and for GPS. He recommends the Wisephone also.

The most important thing he does, though, is Spaghetti Wednesdays, when he and his suitemates have anyone and everyone over to his dorm rooms to eat a meal together and talk. 

Technology isn’t neutral, and human interaction isn’t neutral either: It’s healing.

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