Szuhaj: More Tech Isn’t Always Better

Modern interest in technological self-improvement is part of a historical apprehension.

by Ben Szuhaj | 4/10/18 2:10am

7:54 p.m.: My race would start at eight. It was time to take off my bulky Garmin GPS watch, which I wear everywhere: it tracks the distance and pace of my runs, the number of steps I take each day, how restful my never-quite-eight-hours-of-sleep are. The model I had before this one even tracked my heart rate continuously through an optical sensor beneath the watch face. The model I have now ditched the optical sensor for a goofy Tron-esque chest strap that is not only more accurate in terms of heart rate, but also measures “cadence, vertical oscillation and ground contact time.” You know, all those things nobody really needs but that Garmin added to make this model seem better than the last.

I unbuckled the strap, handed my watch to my father, and rubbed my wrist uneasily. It felt naked and scrawny, like how a once-broken limb feels after weeks spent in a cast. I jogged clockwise around the track, letting the light wind buffet my jersey. The sun had set a half hour earlier, and the sky remained bright — cerulean like a tropical sea. The stadium lights eerily glowed around the track at regular intervals. For the sake of my eyes, I tried not to look at them directly, but just as with last summer’s solar eclipse, the harder I tried not to look directly at the light, the more frequently I stole fleeting glances.

All of this is to say that I wasn’t looking down at my wrist, or concerned about my pace, or waiting for my watch to beep and tell me it had found a satellite or that I’d just covered the last mile in seven minutes. I was intensely present, and aware of my presence, and a bit annoyed that instead of getting ‘in the zone’ for my race, my mind was philosophically inclined to wonder why I wear a GPS watch at all. Why does anyone wear FitBits, or Apple Watches, or NikeFuel Bands for that matter?

A simple answer might be: to lose weight; to track one’s activity; to lead a healthier lifestyle. A slightly more nuanced answer might look as follows: “The company incentivizes me to hit a certain number of steps every day because it has become acceptable to view steps as a metric indicating good health, and because my perceived good health allows the company to pay less for employee health insurance.” Or maybe health has nothing to do with it. Maybe people think that Apple Watches and FitBits are fashionable, or exude a certain status. Maybe watch wearers feel like secret agents getting and sending texts from their wrist. Or maybe, and this is what I believe, contemporary society is so thoroughly enmeshed in a paradigm that places a premium on the acquisition and use of new technology as a be-all-end-all cure to any problem that it has gotten to the point that the question of whether or not you should technologize your life isn’t a question at all. Of course you should. It just makes sense.

The paradigm of technological self-improvement has its roots in a much older tradition: that of advice literature, which has been a booming — albeit changing — industry in America for 150 years. What began in 1859 with Samuel Smiles’ bestseller, “Self-Help,” was picked up in 1917 by Douglas Fairbanks, a silent film star who, in addition to being the future inspiration for “The Artist,” was one half of Hollywood’s first power couple. Fairbanks was an American cultural touchstone, and his venture into the fledgling industry of advice literature had long-lasting effects. His book, “Laugh and Live,” laid out the same basic doctrines of the majority of self-help books to follow: Laugh more. Live more. Take yourself less seriously. Happiness will follow. This advice aged well through the Roaring Twenties but, as Americans encountered the Great Depression, new needs developed. What took place over the one hundred-odd years between 1917 and 2018 can be thought of as reflective of American culture in general: The advice-literature industry became less homogeneous; it expanded and diversified to meet the many needs of the American population. From fitness to financial to female-focused advice, multiple profitable niches developed within the industry, and as the literature expanded to absorb more areas of life, so too did the notion of the expert grow. ‘Pull yourself up by the bootstraps’ received the addendum: ‘using this detailed guide written by an expert bootstrap-puller-upper.’ Now anyone could hold in their hands the advice of someone societally-deemed worth trusting. In addition to being highly reassuring, this notion fit right in line with the American ethos of self-improvement that can be traced all the way back to Benjamin Franklin, whose life was one long exercise in self-improvement, or to the Declaration of Independence itself, which enshrined as inalienable American rights “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Self-improvement, in addition to being a fundamental and original part of the American identity, gave rise to a self-help industry that, for the past century and a half, has profited from and marketed to us the importance of self-improvement. I should add to this a crucial date, 1984, the year in which Apple debuted the Macintosh computer. With a single Super Bowl ad, Apple set out a vision for the future: one wherein IBM was Big Brother, and only Apple, that quirky company from Cupertino, could help rescue a sense of independence, agency, self. By using the Macintosh, Apple implied, one would be able to express a truer more creative version of oneself, freed from the domineering dismal clutches of IBM. In this narrative, the Macintosh was the ultimate tool of self-help, a tabula rasa unto which one could project the version of oneself one most wanted to be. This line of thinking — that technology can help people produce better versions of ourselves — has only become more paradigmatic in the years since 1984. Miniaturization and Moore’s Law have certainly helped: Now that you can hold in the palm of your hand a phone millions of times more powerful than the car-sized computers that guided Apollo 11 to the moon, it is no wonder that technology has come to have an almost supernatural hold on people to the point where people talk to their smart devices; or when, if separated from their smartphone, their cortisol levels spike.

The power of technology today is truly astounding; so too is the rate at which technological change continues to progress. Arthur C Clark was certainly right when he wrote that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” But, and here’s the real danger of conflating a desire for self-improvement with the seemingly inexhaustible capacity for technology to alter lives, “magic” does not guarantee a better life. “Magic” is just a medium and can be used for good or evil — see Harry Potter for evidence. In fact, a sizable amount of the data harvested by wearable tech are used to better tailor products and ads to target populations. Of course, some people have no qualms about their biometric data being used in such a way — and I am not here to argue that you should destroy your iPhone and abscond to the furthest reaches of Vermont. I am here to point out that technological progression, while amazing, is not a magical phenomenon with a humanist bend. It’s a market-driven process indifferent to one’s personhood.

If a smart watch cares at all about whether or not its wearer hits 10,000 steps today, it is only because of the economic implications those 10,000 steps have on the healthcare industry. If the indifference of technology appears frightening, it’s not without reason. People have been instilling objects with unreasonable values for millennia — in a large part, I believe, because we need to feel special; because the idea that we are just an accident of chemistry floating through the void on a rock is downright terrifying. I’m not here to knock spirituality — I think it is important, necessary, and just—but I do think that the increasingly religious devotion to technology as the thing that improves our lives and gives them meaning is dangerous.

My watch is just a watch. It’s no sacred object, no idol. And yet it felt strange and unsettling to take it off — unsettling enough to spur me to write this article. If I can draw any conclusion from those few minutes before my race, those few minutes of jogging and looking and listening and feeling the world around me, it is that those things were all worth doing insofar as they were part of experience; and that such experiences are all anyone really has in this life; and that when technology has unquestionably intervened in our ability to experience, it would be irresponsible not to ask: to what extent am I resigned to having my experiences mediated by technology?