In his article, ‘Is the digital age destroying our inner life?’ Sebastian Smee explores the notion that we should all be more than a little anxious about what we are relinquishing by spending countless hours on a phone, obsessing about our Instagram, Facebook and Twitter accounts, relentlessly checking our emails and being glued to the latest sports highlights, comedy or music videos on YouTube while downloading podcasts that are listened to when driving or walking or watching Netflix, Stan or Amazon Prime.
His thesis is that companies are shaping our new reality, both of the individual and of society, and that powerful tools are framing this new reality. This is not the realm of science fiction. Right now tools, or algorithms, connect us on social media, identify, target and even diagnose us through surveys, questionnaires and tests. This may be to win our votes, enlist our support, or to promote ‘their’ goods and services using pop up advertisements. While all this is happening, evolving, ‘smarter’ efficiencies are developed and found.
This paradigm perverts the capacity to create an inner self, in large part because, from a very young age, children “are encouraged to present formative versions of themselves online, and these versions, concocted from who knows what combination of software design, peer pressure and fantasy, appear to take on greater substance in the formation of their character.” ‘Intelligent’ software manipulates us to behave in a certain way, to invent a persona for the world to see – often at odds with who we really are. This dissonance causes confusion, isolation and anxiety.
As a parent and educator (and user of digital devices), I do not have the answers or solutions to all the ills associated with technology. However, helping to set limits and expectations around the use of devices forms a starting point. Alerting our children to the manner in which technology pervades and influences our thoughts and actions is another.
Most importantly, though, it is our willingness to work with our children to assist them to understand that much of what they see, read and follow should be viewed through a critical lens. Furthermore, developing an appreciation that a public image projected via social media (does anyone ever look like they are having a bad day on Instagram?) rarely equates with a person’s permanent state or inner-self. We know that imperfection, failure and disappointment are part of a normative experience – for children and adults alike – and dealing with these realities, rather than avoiding or trying to immunise against them, is a fundamental step in personal evolution.
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