This is the transcript of the talk that I gave on Digital Wellness and “Wellness in the Age of Technology.” To learn more about the Global Wellness Institute and our Digital Wellness initiative, please visit http://globalwellnessinstitute.org.
We’ve had a lot of interesting conversations this week about technology and wellness. And I think most of it has been pretty optimistic, wouldn’t you say that? I’ve heard a lot of excitement about a lot of new tools that we have available to us now that help us with wellness. I’ve heard about artificial intelligence, virtual reality, wearables, apps. We heard about voice activation this morning, big data, nanotechnology, genetic testing, telomeres, the list goes on and on. And all of these things are exciting. We’re right to be excited about it because all of these innovations have the potential to have a massive positive impact on human wellness.
But I want to spend a few minutes talking about the potential costs of this technology. Because it seems like the more we outsource wellness to technology, the more dependent on technology we become, and the less able we are to take care of ourselves.
There is an interesting theory that scientists have that maybe the reason we’ve never discovered life on any other planet yet is because any civilization that becomes sufficiently advanced in technology eventually goes completely online. So it’s not that there is no life on other planets, it’s just that they have gone into their own virtual worlds so we don’t see evidence of them.
I find this theory very interesting. Terrifying . . . but interesting. And partly it’s interesting because it’s kind of believable, right? If you see the relationship that we have with our technology and the way that things are going, it seems like we’re moving in that direction.
This theory also showcases what I think is the problem with technology. The problem with technology is not that it is bad . . . it’s that it’s too good. Right? We love technology. I mean every person in this room has a device in their pocket, or in their hands for some of you, that has every book, every movie, every song ever made, the answer to every question that’s ever been asked, and a connection to every person that you’ve ever met (and depending on what apps you use, the connection to some people you’d like to meet.)
So, we should love our technology, it’s amazing how good it is. The problem with technology is not that it’s bad, it’s that it’s so good. So we love it, but maybe we love it too much. We love it so much, we don’t always realize the sacrifices we are making for the sake of our technology. We make sacrifices in physical movement. We make sacrifices in our relationships. We make sacrifices in our attention, in our time, in our sleep, in our connection to nature. And we’re making all of these sacrifices today, for technology that didn’t exist 20 years ago. And think for a second about how much better this technology is going to get 20 years from now, 50 years from now, 100 years from now. It’s going to get way better. So what will we be willing to sacrifice then, when the technology is infinitely better than it is today?
It becomes easy to see how we might eventually just completely forsake our non-digital humanity and go into the cloud. We just become the machine. And I don’t know about you, but I find this kind of scary.
Now, it’s easy to make fun of the doomsday prophet. Because there has always been innovation, there is always progress, there are always new technologies that come along. And there is always somebody like me who comes along who wants to rain on everyone’s parade and warn of the impending doom and gloom that we’re going to have because of progress. And progress happens. Things seem to work out. We make progress, we have innovation, we develop new technologies and life goes on. We enjoy our modern conveniences. And really, nobody ever wants to go back. We don’t want to give up our technology. Nobody wants to return to prehistoric times or to the age of our tribal hunter-gatherer ancestors.
But the question that we need to ask is not necessarily would we go back, but would our ancestors want to come forward?
If we were to take one of our Neanderthal ancestors and bring them to modern earth, what would they think about what we’ve created here? Would they look around and say, “Yeah, I really love what you’ve done with the place!” Or would they say that we’ve paved paradise to put up a parking lot. Would they see us as being slaves to our corporations, chained to technology, disconnected from our planet, and disconnected from our families. It’s hard to say how they would view what we have created here. But certainly, they would be able to see better than we can what has been sacrificed along the way.
And the reason why I think this Neanderthal perspective of technology is a good one to take is because in this case, as we think about our future, we are the Neanderthals. We are the primitive ones in the present moment trying to imagine what this digital future is going to be, and having a hard time understanding what the world is going to become.
There’s no question that our descendants who live in the future, who are semi-robotic, cybernetic, virtual descendants of ours, they’ll be OK with the modern digital world that will have been created because that’s going to be all that they know. It’s only here from our primitive viewpoint in the present that we can see the sacrifices that maybe get made along the way.
So, it seems to me like we have an opportunity. If the wellness industry is about living a well life, we need to think about, how do we help humanity thrive in the age of technology. And I think maybe we need to think about a new field of “Digital Wellness.” There are a lot of these sub-disciplines that are emerging, people that are starting to do research and advocate for different ways of relating to technology, but I really haven’t heard anybody take a holistic view of really thinking about what our relationship to technology should be and how we should collectively think about the way technology impacts our wellness.
It seems like we have a window of opportunity right now. Unlike our ancestors—they didn’t understand evolution and science and technology – we have some knowledge of those things today. We understand what’s happening. We can see, in a way that previous generations couldn’t, the direction that we’re headed in. So I think we have an opportunity to take some control of our destiny and to influence the way that we go. But we also have to think about the fact that our technology will eventually outsmart us. And that could close the window of opportunity that we have, so it’s kind of important that we think about these things now.
There are a few things that I think we could all be doing to help with this. One is, we should not assume inevitability. Because I think there’s a tendency to think that the way things are is the way that they have to be and that we don’t have that much control over it. We assume that we have to give up our data, if we want to use these technologies. Do we really? Is that the only way that we could have all this technology? I’m not so sure.
Do our search engines and social networks have to be controlled by corporate advertising? Is that the only way? We should question these things and we should question the status quo and we should push back on the ways that we use technology if it doesn’t feel like it’s supporting human wellness.
There was a TED talk by Sam Harris on artificial intelligence and he said, “The train has already left the station and there’s no brake to be pulled.” And actually, I don’t like that mindset, because what do you do in that case? Do you just give up and go along for the ride, and we don’t have any influence over where we’re going or how we get there? I think we need to take control of our relationship with technology and really think about it.
An example that I use is the Amish community. Kevin Kelly who was one of the founders of Wired Magazine and a writer on technology has spent a lot of time in the Amish community. And he says that people have a misconception about the Amish. We tend to think of them as being anti-technology, but actually, he calls them “Amish hackers,” because he says that they are always bringing in technologies. Most people don’t think that, but they usually will have in their community a radio, a gas powered engine, or they might have a machine. But they use these technologies in a very limited way and for a very specific purpose. And they only use them when the elders of the community approve their use. And once the technology is tested, when the entire community agrees that that technology is aligned with the values and goals that they have for their community. So I think there is something that we could learn from the Amish on not just accepting technology as it is.
The other thing that we can do is to establish guidelines around Digital Nutrition. I’ve been hearing a lot this language of “Digital Nutrition.” Because there’s a great analogy between food and technology. Technology is like food in the sense that it’s not inherently good or bad, it really depends on the quality and quantity of what we’re using it for. This is a Mental Food Plate that was created by a tech ethicist, David Ryan Polgar. And he’s written about this concept of mental obesity. That we’re just constantly overconsuming information in the age of technology. All we do is consume consume consume and we get into this state of mental obesity where our minds are completely overloaded by all of the information coming in.
So he suggests a balanced plate, where we balance mindful consumption of technology with reflection on the things that we’re learning, with assessment about whether the technologies we’re using and the information that we’re gathering is beneficial to us or not. And I think there are some ideas here that we could incorporate into what we all do.
And then the third thing, and maybe the most important one, is that we should really cherish and hold sacred our non-digital humanity. This is what I think about with my kids. I have two boys, 5 and 7 years old and I want them to grow up knowing what it means to be a human without technology. I want them to find non-digital activities that they can participate in, that will bring them into flow experiences where they are in their bodies, they are in their minds, they are in their emotions, experiencing what it is to be a human, and completely losing themselves in the love of what they’re doing so they never think about looking at a device.
Now whether that’s possible or not, I’m not so sure. Because I talk to a lot of parents that have kids older than mine, who tell me that their kids are spending their lives in their bedrooms staring at screens. But I think we need to really protect, encourage, promote and cherish these kinds of quintessential non-digital activities. And we should think about non-digital humans and protect them the same way we might protect an endangered species because actually, we may be an endangered species in the near future.
Now, I want to end with a couple of areas of hope that I see on the horizon. So the first one is mindfulness. And I think it’s not a coincidence that we have seen the rise of mindfulness come at the same time as we’ve seen the emergence of all of these new technologies. Mindfulness is basically our ability to observe and potentially alter the automatic programs that we have inherited from previous generations. The faster the pace of change, the more technology comes, the more the world around us changes, the less those automatic programs that we have inherited will serve us. And the more important it is that we have that ability to separate from those or adapt them to the modern world that we’re living in. So I don’t think that mindfulness is a fad, I think that it is a critical skill that we are going to need to navigate this digital future that we’re moving in to.
And the second area of hope that I see on the horizon is, ironically, technology. Because, we’ve talked about all the amazing things that are coming. I mean, these tools are amazing, and technology is benefitting us in many ways, so this is not a black and white issue. It’s a complex issue.
The way that I think about it is technology is the greatest threat to human wellbeing that we have ever seen, but it’s also the greatest hope for our future. I said that technology would eventually outsmart us, and we’re going to need that intelligence to help us solve these complex problems.
So the challenge is how do we create a technology that is an ally in developing humanity in a way that brings wellness to everything that we do. If you were an outside observer, looking at life on earth, you might assume that humanity exists to help technology flourish. And I think our job is to make sure that technology exists to help humanity flourish.
by Jeremy McCarthy