Technology & Behavior: Benefit, Bane or Both?

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There’s no question that technology is changing our behavior. The question is this: Is that a good thing or bad thing? A benefit or a bane?

Perhaps the best answer is yes.

Let me illustrate.

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I recently leased a new Subaru that comes with all sorts whiz-bang 21st-century features I’ve never experienced in a car before. (And, yes, I promise this’ll be the last blog mentioning my car.) One of those is a real-time mileage indicator, right smack dab in the middle of the instrument cluster. (I know these have been around for a while, mind you, but my last car was from the previous millennium and was not, it’s safe to say, the Millennium Falcon when it came to technology.)

So on the way to Denver from Colorado Springs for a movie last week, I decided to see just how efficiently I could drive, with my handy-dandy mileage-o-meter giving me feedback the whole way. I used cruise control a lot, drove just under the speed limit and tried to drive in such a way that I didn’t have to brake or change lanes.

In other words, I drove slower and probably more safely than I ordinarily do, because I was paying very careful attention to absolutely maximizing my mileage.

In this case, the technology influenced my behavior in a way that’s largely positive.

On the other hand, my new car—as well as most other new vehicles these days—has so many so-called “infotainment” features that after we signed on the dotted line, the car salesman said I needed to come back so he could show me how to use it all.

Seriously.

And he wasn’t kidding. It feels ever-so-slightly like I’m driving George Jetson’s car, minus the hovering capabilities. There are several buttons on the steering wheel I still have no idea what they control. I can sync up my phone and MP3 files and … and …

Instead of just driving, there are all these little technodoodads that I can choose to focus on. Features that might very well make me a less safe driver.

That snapshot of this particular technology experience in my life feels like it could stand in for lots of others. Almost every day, it seems like new tech comes online (either literally or figuratively) that promises to revolutionize some aspect of our lives.

Most of the time, the promise of this technology is to make our lives better. And at least some of the time, I think it delivers. But for the tech-addicted among us, these advances also create more and more opportunities to interact continuously and perhaps obsessively with our technology.

For me at least, the dark side of all these technological advancements and the benefits they promise is the possibility that I’ll fixate on the data they provide in ways that ultimately become excessive and unhealthy. I’ve seen that with my smartphone. Internet access anywhere, anytime becomes an oh-so-easy distraction to choose if I don’t want to engage or, shudder, if I’m bored. Indeed, a new Pew survey of teens’ Internet usage found that 24% said they were online “almost constantly,” largely thanks to advances in smartphones.

I don’t know about you, but I can remember a time—and not that long ago, really—when I drove cross-country at Christmas … without a cell phone (or a mileage meter, for that matter). What would I do if I had a problem? Well, I’d use a pay phone and depend on others for help.

These days, however, ending up at the grocery store and remembering that I’ve forgotten my phone can practically cause a panic attack. (I kid here … but only just a little.)

Technology is almost always a mixed bag, offering revolutionary advances in one area even as it creates new dependencies, habits and obsessions (um, social media anyone?) that didn’t even exist 10 or 15 years ago.

Does that mean we throw it all out and embrace our inner anti-tech Luddite? No. I don’t think so. But I think we’d do well to pay attention to new ways new tech creeps quietly into our lives, striving to maximize these gee-whiz gadgets’ benefits while minimizing the obsessive, compulsive, addictive and anxiety-producing side effects that sometimes come along for the ride.

Who wrote this?

Adam R. Holz is a senior associate editor for Plugged In. He also writes for Focus on the Family’s Clubhouse magazine and has been a Boundless contributor. In his free time (which there is sometimes precious little of) Adam enjoys playing guitar and constructing LEGO kits with his son. Adam and his wife, Jennifer, are the proud parents, in fact, of three children, one boy and two girls.

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