Why tech is threatening our inner lives

Vida Simples Brazil,  January 2018

(originally published in Portuguese)

We can all name the benefits of the digital technology around us. Being able to reconnect with old friends on Facebook; using apps to find taxis, order food or get our laundry done; expanding our knowledge through Wikipedia or studying with the best university professors via an online course.

But a new study by a psychology professor at San Diego State University in the US has confirmed what many of us have been thinking for a while: that there’s a downside to the technological revolution and that it’s more serious than we thought.

Professor Jean Twenge looked at data collected from over 500,000 American teenagers and found that those who spent more time on digital media were more likely to agree with remarks such as “The future seems hopeless” or “I feel that I can’t do anything right.” Those who used screens less were less likely to report mental troubles.

Professor Twenge herself has acknowledged that the data may be showing correlation rather than causation.

It’s possible that instead of time online causing depression, depression causes more time online,” she says.

But other studies have suggested a link between screen use and emotional problems and it seems that technology is having the effect of reducing what has become known as our emotional intelligence.

Emotional intelligence has had a hard time asserting itself in a world in which cognitive intelligence is regarded so highly. Since the first industrial revolution, which revealed the astonishing ability of machines to increase human productivity, we have tended to prioritise “hard” skills, such as problem solving, project management and the ability to use resources efficiently. Skills such as empathy, listening, self-awareness, compassion and resilience, tended to be pushed down the pecking order, seen as things that were somehow less useful, less able to contribute to economic growth – a trend that was continued by the digital revolution that added to that the attractive solidity of data.

This is why we now have apps that (they claim) will help us find love, increase our happiness and boost our sense of purpose, areas of life that are much more to do with emotion than with cognition. But, as anyone, who has spent another fruitless session on Tinder awkwardly knows, technology hasn’t been the magic bullet we had hoped it would be. And the reason is that it isn’t able – yet – to tap usefully into our emotions.

Emotional intelligence is about improving our understanding of the parts of our thinking that we associate with feelings – things like courage, determination, anxiety, happiness, excitement, embarrassment, confidence… The list is long and it represents a whole untapped area of our minds that technology tends to neglect in favour of the mechanical, the cognitive and the rational. But these emotions are just as real as our intellectual thoughts and arguably more potent. And now, as artificial intelligence moving into almost every area of our lives, it’s time for us to find ways of cultivating them better.

And cultivate them we can. We tend to think of someone’s emotional aspects as traits that somehow someone they do or don’t have. (“She’s very confident”, “He is prone to anxiety” etc). But even the slightest glance at our emotional world reveals that really they are tools that we bring to the business of dealing with the world.

And they are tools that have universal benefits, even in the technological world where so much, from the buttons on our smartphones to the knowledge that tiny bits of data about us our zooming around large, anonymous server farms, can make us feel like little more than cogs in a huge digital machine.

Cultivating emotional intelligence starts with self-awareness, because it is about tapping into a large part of our minds that we have tended not to pay much attention to. We know we have emotions but we don’t really spend much time thinking about them except when they overwhelm us – as when we are in love or depressed or panicking about something. But our emotions are ticking along all the time, just as our cognitive thoughts are, and, for me, emotional intelligence begins with bringing them more into our consciousness.

One way to do this is through mindfulness, in which we focus simply on the thoughts and feelings that are going through our minds at any single moment. Another is psychotherapy, in which we speak about our thoughts and emotions, bringing them out into the open for us to consider. A third way is simply to write down  – or film or record – how we are feeling, maybe for ten minutes first thing in the morning or after a particularly challenging moment or event. It doesn’t really matter what approach you take. Just find one that suits you. But, whichever you choose, try to do it regularly, at least once a week. Then, like any skill, it will start to become automatic and you will find yourself checking in on your emotions without really noticing.

One advantage of doing exercises like this is that we begin to understand much better how we function when we are faced with the myriad little challenges of life. They simply make life more enjoyable, more in tune with what we want. But a second – and in my mind even more powerful advantage – is that we understand other people better. Even though it may not feel like this from our point of view, we are all, inside, a bubbling pot of emotions and those emotions are common to all of us. We all have self-doubt. We all feel thrilled when something exciting happens (and then embarrassed that maybe we are not reacting maturely). We all beat ourselves up when we feel we are not doing what we ought to be dong (but seldom ask ourselves if that’s what we ought to be doing anyway). And so on. That’s what our thinking, feeling life is made up of and we’re all experiencing it.

The better we can tap into others’ emotional experiences, the better we will get to know them as real human beings, rather than disembodied entities in the digital world, people who somehow don’t seem to have a real life but whose opinions about us – both real and imagined – seem to matter. We know that many social-media users are mortified by the online comments even of total strangers. And we know that face-to-face contact is much more rewarding than communicating with someone through a screen. But communicating digitally is so attractive, so easy, so much less risky than communicating in real life. No wonder we are all tapping away at our screens.

The truth is that we are in the adolescence of the digital age. We are thrilled with the amazing possibilities that our new technology offers and are only just, as Professor Twenge has shown, beginning to understand its downsides. Some people – including me – have long been arguing for the downgrading of the presence of technology in our lives. (Twenge has suggested we reduce adolescents’ screen time to two hours a day.) But this may not be realistic. If anything, with the arrival of devices such as Amazon’s Echo in our homes, we are increasing our the amount of time we interact with the digital world. And that may be a tide we can’t resist.

Instead building our emotional intelligence may turn out to be a way of steeling ourselves against the more harmful sides of our digital lives – and, along the way, of finding out who we really are, how we really feel and what we really want to be. It’s not going to be an easy project – those screens are very seductive – but it will be a rewarding one, a way not only of improving our mental wellbeing and that of the people we interact with but of improving the whole business of life itself. It has taken a long time for us to understand the extraordinary possibilities of developing our emotional intelligence, but at last, thanks to the incredible advance of unemotional digital technology into our lives, I’m thrilled to say that its time has come.