One afternoon, two summers ago on a crowded bus in England, I noticed that my pocket felt lighter than normal. Immediately I realized what was missing: my iPhone. I frantically checked my other pockets and my bag, then pushed to the front of the bus. I asked the driver to let me out and bolted back to the station where, minutes earlier, I had been playing a game on my phone.
Of course, the shortest known measurable unit of time, used by particle physicists around the planet, is the time it takes for an iPhone lying on a crowded sidewalk to be snatched up by some unscrupulous passerby. So the frenzied search I conducted in the following hours was, inevitably, futile. I confronted the stark reality. My beloved iPhone was gone.
After reading this, I suspect my readers will be split into two camps. One group will completely understand my desperation; in fact, it will likely remind them of their own lost smartphones. The other group will think, “How on earth did the world get this ridiculous?” The undeniable truth of the matter is, whether good or bad, technology has fundamentally changed the way we live our lives. We are more dependent on technology than ever before and in many aspects of our lives, our traditional human processes have been replaced with technology. For most of us, our devices are never more than an arm’s length away. According to a Pew Research study, 91% of American adults own a cellphone and 56% own a smartphone. Globally, the World Bank found that 75% of adults own cell phones. We use our phones for everything; and when we don’t, we use our computers or tablets.
Considering how large a part these devices have come to play in our world, it seems obvious that there will be consequences, both positive and negative. Some of these are readily apparent; for instance, it’s easier for us to reach each other on short notice — and to pick a relatively indisputable negative effect, if not terribly profound — they have made it easier to waste time. I’d like to address a rather more abstract consequence of the onslaught of these devices: what effect does technology have on truth in our modern society?
As a teenager growing up in the twenty-first century, one of the most drastic ways modern technology has affected my generation is in the way it has changed how we present ourselves to each other. In the history of human culture, it has always been important how we are seen by others. This of course is far older than technology; it’s one of the basic motivations for humans. Changing or hiding our “true” self from others can take the form of the mother who puts on a fake smile for her children but is actually scared or feeling vulnerable, or the boy who goes to school wearing a fake Rolex but is far less wealthy than he’d like his peers to believe.
Technology, such as smartphones and high-speed computers, or communication on the Internet, has allowed and even forced us to calibrate our appearances like never before. Because we interact so extensively on social networking websites, our online profiles have become a vital part of our outward selves. Personally, as a Facebook user, I have memories of hours spent trying (and undoubtedly failing) to seem witty in my comments and statuses, agonizing over which photograph to select as my profile picture, even carefully selecting which pages to “like” or which subjects to add to my “interests.” The knowledge that everything I have said or done on the site (aside from the messaging feature which, not coincidentally, is the only function of the site I still regularly use) would be visible to practically everyone I knew was at the forefront of my mind. I am confident that the vast majority of my peers, as well as the older users of the site, are just as deliberate about this as I am. The result of this collective online self-customization is that as we trapeze through the virtual world of our friends, acquaintances, enemies, or lovers, people we see in the flesh every day or never at all, we are not really interacting with their true selves. Rather we’re seeing and confiding in fictional characters, manufactured for us as well as by us, for the rest of world.
There are of course a number of different ways one can define truth. It is obvious that the availability of modern technology has made it tremendously easier to procure information as we have the means to quickly access a staggeringly large amount of it online. With access to the Internet, we can learn about practically anything we want; we can get definitive answers to all kinds of factual questions; we can find trustworthy statistics and facts to help determine the validity of any argument and make informed decisions based on them. Clearly we have greater access to truth, or at least information, with technology than without.
But I would argue that this immense wealth of information is as limiting as it is expanding, and poses some deep challenges to truth. As we increasingly look for answers to all our questions on the Internet, we are susceptible to blindly trusting what we read. If an article seems well-written, includes statistics or mentions a scientific study, or is written by a seeming expert, what reader who isn’t already knowledgeable about the subject is going to read it with a skeptical eye? Chances are the article is correct, or closer to correct than whatever an uninformed reader would have arrived at. But we are nevertheless at risk of merely adopting the opinions we find online. When everyone who looks up a topic they’re curious about — let’s say a political issue — finds and subscribes to the opinion in the online article, it is possible the entire society becomes more conformist, if they are willing to believe what they read and not look at differing opinions elsewhere. Where otherwise a separate “truth” may apply for each individual, based on their specific social status, ethnicity, passions or beliefs, there is instead a mere two- or three-line, store-bought, one-size-fits-all, piece of information deemed true.
If this is too abstract a complaint against the overwhelmingly giant amount of information accessible by modern devices, here is a more concrete one, which is ironically supported by a number of studies: having so much information accessible so quickly is terrible for our memory. This is intuitive. Why waste valuable mental storage space on information when it is only a few clicks away? Memory plays a huge role in shaping us as individuals and forming our beliefs or personal truths. Rendering memory unnecessary has been a big focus for modern technology. For instance, Google recently released a program called Google Now, which can tell you what you want to know before you know you want to know it. The program notices, for example, that you normally pick up your child at 3 o’clock, and this program makes sure you don’t forget. It will tell you how to get to your meeting without you ever telling it you had a meeting. It will remind you that today is your wedding anniversary. All these could potentially be useful reminders, and yet, it would be all too easy to become dependent on services like these — to let them lead our lives, to let them tell us what to do and when to do it. Of course, human dependence on Google Now would be wonderful for Google.
There is one last thing to remember about the worlds that are accessed through or created by modern technology: we are made extremely vulnerable by them. We are vulnerable to big corporations, whose ultimate goal may be for us to spend as much money as possible on their products, and may be only too happy to shape the world in a way that exploits humanity in the face of electronic usage. We are vulnerable to governmental or institutional agencies who may wish to invade our privacy and violate our rights as well as destroy information provided by the free press. We are vulnerable to each other, in a world where everyone is hidden behind a cloak of anonymity.
When all is said and done, what we experience within technology is not reality. We are not truly together if there are screens between us. The world we live in more and more is created and tailored for us, and thus is designed to isolate us, to contain us, to limit us. Am I advocating a complete withdrawal from technology, that we all throw away our cellphones and computers? Not at all. Technology provides tremendous potential for propelling us towards a better and greater understanding of ourselves and our world. But we should recognize the pitfalls on the path of progress and take great care to avoid them. We need to find the truths that really matter to us — our relationships with one another, our own ideas about the world, who we are as individuals, as human beings — and make sure we never lose sight of them.