A consequence of the current pandemic is an increase in computer use. Almost everyone’s feeling it: students are doing classes by Zoom, employees are online for team meetings, musicians are performing to their phones, consumers are ordering food, clothes, and a hundred other things to be delivered, television shows recorded in front of live audiences are now being filmed in living rooms, and streaming services and even porn sites are seeing increased usage.
I’m at the computer more than I used to be. My classes and office hours have all shifted to virtual formats, which means a mix of standard online and real-time activities via Zoom. The fifteen to twenty hours I spent each week walking around a classroom, writing on the board, sitting next to students and going over work – these are now spent at the computer.
There are several consequences of this increased time at my computer. The most noticeable is tendonitis in my upper arms from mouse use: first in my right arm several years ago, at which point I taught myself to use the mouse left-handed; now in my left arm as I mouse and click hours a day. This is debilitating, but as far as work-induced ailments go, it’s better than black lung or mercury poisoning. Other physical effects are decreased flexibility from sitting in a chair all day, back strain, eye strain, poor circulation – you know all of them, I’m sure, and depending on your work and leisure habits, you probably experienced them even before the pandemic called for many people to stay home.
I’m interested in the psychological effects as well as the physiological ones. The chief psychological effect I observe is that happiness is now located in a place, in an object. Amusement, connection with others, intellectual stimulation, information, employment, and relaxation are all derived from the same thing: the desk in my spare room with the screen on it. An umbilical cord has begun to grow between me and it, and I can feel myself getting restless if I’m away too long. Maybe someone’s emailed me or sent a chat message. Maybe there’s a new comment on a blog post. Maybe there’s news I should read. Maybe Netflix has new movies posted. Cat memes, gossip, travel photography, even church services are all calling to me, and – if I’m not careful – time spent away from my robot overlord leaves me anxious and bored. My brain is being trained to expect instant gratification. It used to be, for example, that the once-a-day mail delivery was something to look forward to; now mail can come at any time, and, if I leave my speakers turned on, can summon me to look at it no matter what I’m doing. And this would all be much worse if I had a smart phone and carried it with me everywhere – which my employers would like me to do.
Over the years I have resisted being tied to a computer, because of these physical and psychological concerns, but I’ve had diminishing success. I avoided teaching online classes whenever I could, but I could never avoid them completely. I read books rather than watching shows (although Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Shetland sucked me in for a while). I never even intended to write for a blog, and certainly I never intended to start my own blog.
While I enjoy reading a few blogs and had mostly positive experiences writing for InternetMonk over the years, I have never felt that blogs, while great for immediate experience, are the best way to communicate information. I would write something on InternetMonk that would stimulate much discussion, then several days later the same topic would arise, and the same people would weigh in afresh to the discussion, with no reference to anything that had been discussed earlier. The blog form is by its nature ephemeral, and the information my readers absorbed had all the longevity of a soap bubble. However, when I published many of the same essays in book form, they gained a solidity in the minds of readers that they hadn’t had before. I’ve had acquaintances come up to me several years after reading my book and quote passages to me that meant something to them. I have never had that experience with my blog writing.
So, a few years ago, I completed a book manuscript about sane living, which dealt at length with keeping one’s distance from encroaching technology. The publishers who looked at the manuscript, and the advice I subsequently researched, were unanimous: no one will publish a non-fiction book unless the author has a “substantial online presence.” Publishers don’t market authors as they used to, preferring to jump onboard someone’s already moving train. The irony of their recommending that I start a blog to gain publicity for an anti-digital message was not lost on me, but modern life consists of ironies, and I started the blog.
I’ve enjoyed it, actually, and I feel my thoughts have taken better shape as a result of the exposure and feedback. But it’s one more obligation that requires me to be sitting by myself staring at a screen. And yes, that’s what I’m doing right now.
Mankind is at a crossroads. First global warming presented an unanswerable argument for unplugging much of modern industrial life; now the pandemic and its resultant restrictions have shown us an alternative to the way we were living. In many ways the pandemic has been a disaster, ranging from the loss of life and health, through threatened economic collapse, all the way to the necessity of sitting at the computer all day. But we’ve seen the brighter side, too: with fewer people commuting, skies are clearer and waters are cleaner, slowing the effect of climate change as a result. People have also been reminded that physical contact with people and the outdoors is precious, and neighborhood interaction is a blessing and not a burden.
I’m not sure which way enslavement to computers will go in the next few years. It could be that people will wake up and think, “Sure, computers are convenient, but online education is infinitely worse than face to face, online relationships are unsatisfying, and shopping, parties, and physical gatherings are important.” Or their robot overlords might have insinuated themselves into their brain chemistry to such a degree that life disconnected from the internet feels irredeemably dry and dull. And it might be hard practically as well as emotionally to unplug: both employers and employees may opt for the lower overhead and shorter commutes of working from home; consumers may prefer shopping online, particularly when local businesses fail because of having to stay shut for so long; and people in general may grow even more uncomfortable with awkward physical contact than they have in the last decade or so of social media, texting, and, well, blogs instead of conversation.
It seems to me that we stand at a great divide, a great point of change, comparable to the transition between human-scaled industry and the Industrial Revolution. Our homes, our family structures, our work, and our economy may shift as drastically as they did in 1800. There will be suffering whatever path we take, but I believe that while there are many paths that lead to greater harm to the environment and to human beings, one of the paths open to us will ultimately lead to a more human-shaped society in balance with nature, and with a whole lot less time on the computer.
This post originally appeared on Damaris Zehner’s blog, Integrity of Life.
Photo: Attentie Attentie on Unsplash
Freia Sidanius says
Thank you for the insight a well expressed truth this cyberspace dependence and its negative effect on our health and dissconnection from face to face meetings and nature experiences. As well as the benefits for Mother Earth.
Im in my senior age and feel blessed I dont have to use the computer than just an hour a day at most.
Spend time with Nature and more with Trees than in Zoom with people.
Praying for less people and more bees after the Corona!
Nadia Simonini says
Many thanks for your article. It is true that this Covid19 pandemia with its social distancing requirements has dramatically increased the time we all spend connected online. Some people are even glad they have been allowed to work at home/ no commuting etc/
However this way they remain alone without collegues, maybe if we’re talking about school teachers and classes there still is some amount of community, but when we’re talking about big companies – I read that from now on all Twitter employees will work at home – employees become single workers working in solitude , each single worker alone with a distant faceless employer who could replace him/ her if working hours/ productivity aren’t enough, the employers will be able to choose new slaves from any part of the planet. This is the ultimate total loss of social life (Margaret Thatcher famously said: “There is no such thing as society, only men and women and their families”). Also surveillance capitalism will get to know you better than your family!
How can we change all this?
Freis Sidanius says
How can we change this?
Its alteady here and will continue to increase…
Im grateful I dont have to many years left in this new Robot in control world…
John Young says
So how should we describe the next step? Do we graft the computers etc into our bodies or transfer our selves into a complex of interconnected devices?
The economist Schumpeter saw classical capitalism is self-destructive: Requiring us to acquire incompatible hard-wired hard worker and hard consumer traits. These days, the corporations seem to be hard-wired to kill more and more of us off faster and faster in a world they’re making less and less compatible with human life.
Not to worry. We’ll work hard and pay whatever we’ve got to turn ourselves into robots capable of functioning in the new environment, able to export the expand or perish business models we also embody to the furthest reaches of the cosmos. Cyborgs vs Borgs capable of traveling though black hole wormholes to ever new horizons.
But right now I want to get back to the fights I’m engaged in regarding the hopefully upcoming November elections and against the three LNG export operations targeting my local Port of Brownsville (next door to South Padre Island TX USA and the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge).
Comic books & SciFi enriched my ability to see such patterns to be more effective real time. As a drug bust community service, Timothy Leary said drugs were a way to open a door that once opened no longer needed that key. Supposedly his frozen head is still circling the earth above our heads. Dystopias and mind fucks are still a part of me but the real battles I’m fighting real time are more real, meaningful and rewarding. Now and then I wave in the direction of Leary’s head. Now and then I briefly visit threads like this. But now I’m transferring my focus from here to a letter to the editor of a Middle Eastern news outlet regarding “Mubadala expects a U-shaped global economy recovery in 2021 with growth rebounding to 5%,” Jennifer Gnana, 05-21-2020, TheNational, https://www.thenational.ae/business/mubadala-expects-a-u-shaped-global-economy-recovery-in-2021-with-growth-rebounding-to-5-1.1022609 to try to drive a wedge between Mubadala Petroleum and Petrochemicals and NextDecade (the parent company of the Rio Grande LNG project targeting our local Port of Brownsville).
John Young says
Oops, I just checked and found that due to money problems his whole body was cremated and the ashes mixed with the ashes of other and launched into space on a rocket that returned to and burned up in our atmosphere 6 years later (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timothy_Leary)