Written by Jasmine Davis
Design by Ellen Stanton
If I had a pound for every minute I’ve spent scrolling through social media since lockdown began, I could stop my hopeless search for graduate jobs and retire in sunny Santorini. And I’m not proud of it.
I could have used lockdown to my advantage: learned Portuguese, taken up oil painting, or read War and Peace in these excruciating months of forced hibernation; instead, I lay around watching reels, vlogs and TikToks.
But hey, this is 2020, and technology has infiltrated every nook and cranny of our lives. My phone has become a feature of my body, an extension of my hand, an organ I can’t live without.
But why do we allow these devices to dictate our daily lives? Can we blame coronavirus for our internet addiction? And what does the future of our tech-obsessed society look like?
Mobile phones, messaging apps and social networks have radically revolutionised the way we interact with others. Our friendships can now exist entirely virtually on Facebook, we communicate through captioned selfies on Snapchat, and we curate a perfect gallery of the highlights of our lives to share on Instagram.
We hope to land jobs by designing oh-so-professional LinkedIn profiles, while we hit up Tinder and Bumble if we want a cheeky flirt. And, while the humble lunch-date or coffee catch-up is still a thing, we substitute it with sharing videos, tagging each other in memes and group chat banter.
Virtual interaction has fast become a vital component in how we connect with people every day; as a result, our lives are governed by the invasive ‘ding!!’ of notifications, commanding an instant response.
Entertainment, too, has been transformed by tech. Subscription services like Netflix and Spotify unlock an overwhelmingly addictive world of content, while YouTube and TikTok invite us to whittle away hours creating our own videos as well as binge watching others’.
While five-year-old me used to hang out in the garden digging up my dad’s tulips for fun, kids these days spend their early years staring into iPads, becoming confident users before they can even write their own name.
But nothing proves our dependence on technology more than the COVID-19 pandemic.
Confined to our houses and forbidden from driving anywhere except Tesco (or Barnard Castle, for some people), we’ve still been able to chat with mates on Facetime, compete in quizzes on Zoom, and hold interviews and meetings on Skype.
We’ve even been able to binge our favourite shows all day, stream rave music in our bedrooms when the clubs were shut, and look up Mary Berry recipes for banana bread when we went through that weird phase in May.
Technology has enabled aspects of ‘normal life’ to continue throughout these strange times. But, perhaps that’s the crux of the matter.
What once were impressive novelty inventions have now become devices and services that we depend on to function in society. I don’t remember signing away my freedom and independence when I bought my phone and yet, without it, I would feel utterly lost.
Even in a pre-COVID era, we happily stored our bank details, tickets, photos, job applications, relationships, and favourite Nando’s orders inside an alarmingly steal-able and hack-able device. And yet, these days, you’re advised to put everything onto your phone, to reduce social contact.
Our phones don’t just symbolise freedom and interconnectedness, but they’re actually facilitating our return to a new normality; if we weren’t glued to them before, we certainly are now.
Restaurants, shops and bars are now relying heavily on tech to allow ‘business as usual’ to resume in a safe way. “Just scan this barcode and download our free app,” they say, “and you can order and pay from your table”. That’s all great if you’ve got an up-to-date phone with a generous data package and enough tech-savviness to know what you’re doing, as most of us do.
But, what about older people who aren’t familiar with downloading apps, or people with lower-spec devices and limited internet access? Are they to be exiled from high-street eateries, unworthy of buying a tuna melt because they lack this equipment or knowledge?
If society is shifting towards virtual bookings, online orders and “pay-on-the-app” systems being the norm, I can’t help but worry about the social division this could create between those who have easy access to new technology, and those who don’t.
What’s more, excessive consumption of technology can have damaging effects on the mental and physical health of users, particularly when it comes to social media.
In lockdown, these platforms suddenly became our only way of interacting with friends, our only window into other people’s lives – inviting us to compare them with our own. We endlessly scroll through our feeds, observing people’s achievements and investing in their stories. We manufacture our own moments to post, in return for the gratification of likes and comments. We measure our popularity in the number of hearts we get, intrinsically tying our self-worth to an image on a screen. It has become our duty to upload aesthetic content and maintain a vibrant, stylish grid, supposedly representing how we live.
But, by publishing our lives online, we’re creating a dangerous culture where our experiences only seem to ‘count’ if they’re shared with, and accepted by, the world, and we can strategically select elements to promote or conceal from our followers.
Plus, the more time we spend hunched over our phones, worrying about how to present ourselves online, the less time we’re actually appreciating our unfiltered surroundings, enjoying the fresh air, and being active – all things that boost our mood and improve our physical wellbeing.
Alas, I have no crystal ball, so the future of our society’s relationship with phones and tech will have to remain a mystery. Perhaps technology will continue to develop and take over more and more aspects of everyday life, until artificial intelligence overhauls humanity and robots enslave us (think Terminator, The Matrix or any other dystopian sci-fi movie).
Or maybe, just maybe, our obsession with our phones will fade, and people will actively reduce their usage of devices in favour of a more private, offline lifestyle. There does seem to be a change in the wind; lockdown restrictions like the one-hour-outside-your-house rule certainly forced us to reconnect with the surroundings we might have previously taken for granted.
Our growing awareness of the potential dangers of social media perhaps signals a shift away from aimless scrolling and towards sensible, balanced usage. Celebs and influencers, for example, are taking #digitaldetoxdays, advocating time away from screens – such steps are a positive response to tackling the mental health and obesity crises our tech-centric society faces.
No-one can be sure where the next advances in technology will steer us, especially in such turbulent, unpredictable times. But despite all the ways my phone is helping me adjust to the ‘new normal’, I think I’ll try to scroll, stream and surf a little less, in favour of a slightly more analogue lifestyle. Who knows – maybe I will read War and Peace, after all.