For most Australians, our lives are more comfortable now than at any point in history. Not only can we keep milk from spoiling in the refrigerator, but our networked appliance can order more from the store when we run out.
Yet we’re no happier; instead, as Richard Watson observes in his book Digital vs Human (Scribe, $35), the Western world is facing an anxiety epidemic. In the US, the incidence of anxiety has risen from 4 per cent in 1980, when it was formally recognised as a diagnosis, to almost 20 per cent in 2014.
It’s a trend that is starting early. Children today are more anxious thanks to the extra pressure they feel at school - caused by what Watson calls our “toxic obsession with ranking at school and exam results” - and the inescapability of social media. “Back in the 1970s you could be bullied at school but when you got home it stopped, but these days if you’ve got a phone in your pocket it never stops,” he says, via a Skype interview from London.
Adults are also dealing with high levels of stress. Work is less secure and relationships are more fragile. Trust has fallen significantly too, says Watson, and “it’s fallen fastest with younger people. Baby Boomers seem to trust each other more than Millennials.” Why are young people warier and less trusting? Lying governments, global financial crises and corporate scandals have understandably made young people more cynical than their elders.
Technology is supposed to be making our lives easier but is proving another source of anxiety.
Volatility in the geopolitical sphere is making us more anxious too. “Up until mid to late eighties, you could see the future, or people thought they could, which made them feel deeply relaxed,” recalls Watson. “The future was seen as an extension of the present, and everything was fairly stable.”
The countervailing forces of the US and the Soviet Union dominated global politics. Then came the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, followed by 9/11, financial crashes and the emergence of new superpowers like China and India. The result is a world that “is not as balanced as it used to be”, observes Watson.
In this unstable modern world, technology is supposed to be making our lives easier but is proving another source of anxiety.
“The things that used to be simple and easy to understand - if they broke down you could fix them yourself - have now become extremely complicated,” says Watson.
The problem with extreme complexity, he says, is that it is often synonymous with failure. “Once you start connecting everything and creating networks, you can have a small failure in some remote part of the network, which then cascades through the entire network. Everything freezes up.”
Technology, although convenient, can be isolating.
The 2008 global financial crisis is a great example. “If that had happened 20 or 30 years ago it would have been an American banking problem, and the rest of the world would have barely known about it,” he says. “But because of the connectivity - money and debt in particular was networked - it affected everybody.”
Technology, although convenient, can be isolating. “Stuff that used to be communal and shared - televisions, radio, computers - is now personal, and you can take it where you like and disappear into your own bubble,” says Watson.
As more people live and work on their own, loneliness due to fewer opportunities for human interaction becomes a problem. “If you’re an 80-year-old woman living on your own, and you haven’t seen anyone all week, I don’t think it would be good if you’re forced to use a self checkout terminal [at a supermarket],” says Watson, who flags medicine as another area of concern.
If you’ve spent the entire day staring at a screen, then it’s maybe time you got out and interacted with some people.
“It’s very easy to substitute people with technology and save a tonne of money, but I’m not sure that it the best thing to be doing, especially if the people you’re meant to be treating have mental issues, not just physical issues.”
Technology is not bad in itself. Used judiciously, Watson believes it can have positive effects on our relationships, such as keeping in touch with family via social media. “The problem is when it becomes obsessive, and we start staring at our screens more than each other,” he says.
Simple strategies can keep our relationship with technology healthy. We should set boundaries around its use, such as regular screen-free days and turning technology off at night.
“When we go on holidays let’s not take phones with us, let’s actually talk to our own families,” suggests Watson. “It’s just common sense. If you’ve spent the entire day staring at a screen, then it’s maybe time you got out and interacted with some people.”
Richard Watson's new book, Digital vs Human, is published by Scribe Publications.
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