Technology-Induced Depression and Other Follies of Our Modern Digital Age
I was shaking uncontrollably. It started with my hands, and I remember holding them to my face, looking at my own flesh as though it were foreign. The tremor quickly traveled down my arms, towards my legs, and within seconds my whole body was vibrating as though every atom in my being had matched a resonant frequency and moved me in unison at a macro level. For a moment, I didn’t know where I was – I was in a taxi. I forgot where I was going – I was traveling to an airport. I couldn’t remember why I was there – I was supposed to fly home. But I did know how I felt -I was scared.
In a fraction of a second, my body had revolted against my life decisions and was denying me, with every ounce of its being, the ability to keep going forward towards that airport. But I wasn’t afraid of airports; I was afraid of my life. I was afraid that if I showed up at LaGuardia for my return flight to Toronto, I would instead get on a flight to some far corner of the world. I couldn’t bear the idea of flying back to my adopted hometown and facing my real life. I was a broken down, husk of a human, shaking uncontrollably in the back of a taxi, unable to even form coherent sentences to describe what was happening to one of my closest friends on the phone. And all of this had been set off by a simple buzz in my pocket.
That buzz was the straw that broke the camel’s back. That buzz was one notification too many. That buzz was my life, crying out for my attention when I had nothing left to give. That buzz was the reminder that my phone was the portal to so many issues. I had been dealing with an inordinate amount of personal and professional anxiety in my life. I was trying and failing to remotely deal with serious health issues in multiple members of my family. I had been traveling non-stop for months and barely had a stable home of which to speak. I was juggling multiple difficult and demanding clients, all the while questioning the value and purpose of my work. I felt the increasing guilt of losing touch with close friends. My calendar looked like a mason’s pride and joy; blocks stacked upon each other to make solid walls of my weeks. I drank to bury it all away since I couldn’t confront it head on. And this powder keg and tiny fuse was lit by one little buzz.
Sadly, this was not an isolated episode. I get anxious, depressed, and near manic at times but I don’t tell anyone that. The irony of publically announcing this in a globally distributed magazine is not lost on me, however, I’m getting to a point where I realize that if I don’t speak up, I am fueling the very problem that plagues me. I say this because I believe my struggle and mental health challenges are not completely of an internal origin, but a product of the increasingly technologized life I creep towards with each passing tomorrow. And though I realize the folly of attributing personal challenges to external factors, at the risk of sounding paranoid, I’m legitimately concerned that the future is trying to kill me.
I’ve always had a complicated relationship with technology, particularly novel gadgets and tech-heavy science fiction. As someone who was infinitely curious about the world, technology historically fascinated me and provided my mind with a tangible outlet for envisioning the future. However, while I was always an early tinkerer with new tech, over time, I became a very reluctant early adopter, particularly with communication devices. I was a late-bloomer to the mobile phone game in 2003 and, even then, I only got one when a job required it. That phone was ceremoniously destroyed the following year when I left the position, as it represented a distraction from the important people and things in life. I wouldn’t choose to get a smart phone until 2009, when I biked across the country and wanted a device to blog updates from the road. These best intentions would turn out be the beginning of something dark.
In the spring of 2014, I had an anxiety attack in the back of a taxi. I often use modifiers to soften that statement – anxiety thingy, panicy moment, nervous episode – but I’ve learned enough now to know what really happened. It was one of the scariest and most confusing moments of my life. I felt completely helpless and out of control and it was only the kindness and compassion of a few close friends that I was able to mitigate just how bad the situation could have become. However, for as negative a moment as it was, there was a sliver lining in my eyes being opened to the increasingly dangerous impact technology was having on my life and the lives of many around me.
We check our phones at the dinner table. We browse Facebook at work as though it were a resting state. We give the same priority to a tweet as we do a face-to-face conversation. We’ve traded genuine presence for digital omnipresence. For some – particularly those raised and socially indoctrinated under a digital life – this lifestyle works. Those raised outside of these norms, however, find themselves in increasingly uncomfortable situations and conflicted by the competing social and information priorities laid out for them.
After my episode, I became more conscious of technology’s impact on my life. I started to realize that I had let friendships lapse because following someone on a social network had given a false sense of connection without actually staying in touch. I saw that some of my relationships were affected by the fact that I was unable to be fully present in the moment; one eye was constantly on the digital world, wondering what I was missing out on. My sleep patterns were erratic, as I watched my phone right up until bedtime and periodically forgot to put it on DND before placing it on my bedside table. My work was slow and inefficient from constant popups and notifications sneaking into my field of view. I had become addicted to technology.
While taking a sabbatical after the episode to deal with my life and issues, I recognized these problems and began to put different barriers and rules in place to protect me – a process that I have reevaluated and updated every few months as new tech creeps into my life. I banned my smartphone from my room. I turned off 80% of my push notifications. I set office hours for my work email to reduce afterhours notifications. I set personal rules about how I would use social networks. I left my phone in my pocket, not on the table. I grew wary of technology. I grew skeptical of online communication. I changed from a gadget freak into a bit of a Luddite. I did all of this, and continue to do it, to protect myself.
It seems every new year brings with it yet another notification we must integrate into our lives – new social networks, new personal monitoring, new media sources, and new friends through channels as varied as the individuals we connect with. However, with each year and notification comes an increase in the growing number of counter-culture trends: neo-Luddites, tinfoil hatters, minimalists, hikikomori (reclusive adolescents or adults in Japan who withdraw from society). Very different types of individuals and challenges, however, all potentially an acknowledgement that there is something wrong with the way we live.
We should see these departures from the digital norm as a growing signal of human behavior; a rejection of this hyper-connected lifestyle. With the flux of technology as high as it is, we don’t have the time to anticipate or plan for the implications of new developments. As such, we need to take our modern digital world for exactly what it is: an experiment that may or may not be the right path. Human beings haven’t always historically embraced technology this way, however, to argue against this way of life, raises issues that are anti-consumer and anti-capitalist, which creates a big problem for both individual companies and the economy as a whole.
In this face of this growing tech-skepticism, how do we create more, sell more, and engage more? How do we increase our bottom line and grow the GDP when it potentially comes at the erosion of mental health or human value? This is not a new problem and the economy has always found a way of adapting with something new. When agrarian economics began to stagnate, we evolved beyond commodities and focused on differentiated goods. When goods became lackluster, this gave way to the service economy. As services become dull and transactional, organizations such as mine help companies evolve into experience businesses, attempting to derive value from how people feel. Even looking forward, as our feelings become commoditized, Joseph Pine and James Gilmore (originators of the “Experience Economy” concept) have predicted that a new type of “transformation business” – where value is derived from the state change you invoke in a consumer – will flourish.
Isn’t this all starting to sound like some convoluted Ponzi scheme, but instead of a pyramid of sales with limited resources underpinning it all, we actually have the opposite issue. We have more underpinning basic resources than we’ll ever need, but in order to offer continual growth to the economy, we keep building false problems, solutions, and constructs overtop ourselves. In reality, beyond our basic commodities and needs, the only economy that should matter is the happiness economy. Naturally, some of us will derive happiness from aspects of products, services, experiences, or notifications. However, in business today, it is all too easy to lose sight of this and contribute more to the problem – in this case, mental health – than the solution: happiness.
Both personally and professionally, this means challenging and expecting better of yourself. It means that as trends continue to shift social power and awareness away from end users and towards organizations, you need to be vigilant on maintaining the power you have. You need to curate the technology in your life so that the notifications, screens, and interactions around you don’t burden, but instead provide joy. You need to set your own rules and limits. You need to realize that this is all an experiment, not hard fact or certainty, and you can choose to experiment on your own as well. You get to decide what is harmful, what is unacceptable, and what makes you happy.
Recently, I’ve been trying a new experiment of my own. I’m fashioning my own tinfoil hat of sorts and playing around with the idea of what it looks like to revert to the old ways. I’m trying to rediscover my happiness economy. I had my fun with social media, I dove into the deep end of the digital world, and I tried living as a modern-day cyborg. Now I want to see what it’s like to live more analog again. I want to see if there are more smiles from a hug than a “like.” I want to see if I’m happier with fewer, deeper interactions, than more surface ones. Will I miss certain information, discussions, and even people by not being more engaged in the online world? Probably. However, will I see so much more by regaining my focus, presence, and energy in the things I chose to engage with completely? We’ll see… but this is where I’m starting to realize that the old adage of “less is more” may hold true.
Shane Saunderson is the VP of IC/things at Idea Couture.