I don’t have an iPhone or any other kind of smart phone. I’ve been told by quite a few people to get one and, I’m not going to lie, some of those iPhone apps seem handy and the Android does look cool. But frankly I don’t want to become part of America’s newest epidemic: technology overload. Technology overload refers to the constant presence of and our over-reliance on phones, music players, televisions, computers and all of their hybrids. We have long thought of these appliances as useful, enabling us to do things faster and better, but recent studies have suggested that technology is literally changing how our brains work.
We all intuitively know that technology can be distracting, but cell phones have long taken the brunt of the blame as technological tools for distraction and doom. Technology overload leads to additional, more insidious effects. Heavy technology users, who may think of themselves as multitaskers, lose the ability to focus and get more stressed. This is problematic not just on a professional level, but also on a personal level. In a recent article about the neurobiological and sociological effects of technology, the New York Times provided a list of signs to help readers self-diagnose as technology overloaders. These ranged from constant e-mail checking to, most depressingly, choosing to spend time online instead of hanging out with friends or family. Hopefully, most of us have not abandoned real face-to-face social interactions for online ones, but it is likely that many of us do check our e-mail or phones more often than we want to admit.
So why can’t we let go? Part of the problem is that from childhood we are told that multitasking is a desirable, enviable skill. Talking on the phone while writing and researching a paper while keeping track of a key playoff game on the TV not only can be done, it should be done. Unfortunately, multitasking is overrated. Few of us are actually good at it and researchers contend that multitasking is actually just a series of distractions that, even after we turn off our phones or computers, impede our ability to actually focus and complete tasks. Researchers have found that multitasking also provokes a constant urge to seek out new information. This is something that I can certainly relate to — who wants to miss that all-essential e-mail or piece of news?
There is also a sense that the latest technology is necessary. I am a sort of techno-dinosaur in that I can remember when elementary school kids didn’t carry around cell phones and most families had one home computer that used dial-up to connect to the interwebs. Life wasn’t so bad. Really. Now the only time I don’t have regular access to the Internet and my cell phone is when I travel out of the country. And there truly is something liberating about this, once I get over the initial anxiety over missing some work-related e-mail. There is spontaneity to life that is lost when you can look up everything you want to in a few seconds.
Technology is, obviously, not all bad. In fact, there are some benefits for our brain — regular Internet users are better able to find information and video games can improve hand-eye coordination. Personally, easy access to the Internet and to analytical software is essential for my life as a science graduate student. I like being able to regularly keep in touch via Google Talk and Skype with old college friends and family who I don’t see often. Having a cell phone makes me feel safer. But as with most things in life, we need to be careful to use technology in moderation. So, sorry, Apple — I’m not a hater (hey, I own a MacBook and an iPod!) but I will continue to pass on the iPhone and I know I’ll be just fine without one.
Saheli Sadanand is a fourth-year graduate student in the Department of Immunobiology.