What is Progress?
In the 1993 film, Groundhog Day, we saw Bill Murray’s character calling the weather bureau from a pay phone at a filling station during a blizzard. He needed urgent weather information, but could not access the internet via his Smartphone. At the time of the film, Smartphones did not exist yet. He could not even make a call from the comfort of his company’s vehicle, because cellular network reception was limited to large urban areas and the crew was stranded on a traffic-jammed motorway. Mobile phones had only just started evolving from being the proverbial “bricks” in terms of size, shape and weight. Equally, the team was not able to navigate their way back to the studio by way of GPS maps and apps while following the storm’s progress in real time. They had no choice but to return to Punxsutawney.
Technology certainly has its advantages, but everything has a price. When something is gained, something is also inevitably lost. This is a law of nature that most of us understand and, generally, we accept this trade-off. In the context of the film, had advanced technologies been available in 1993, Phil would most certainly have made his best attempts to get back to Philadelphia as soon as possible – and Groundhog Day would not have happened. Thus, the opportunity for Phil’s personal transformation would have been lost. Giving up difficult personal growth experiences for convenience, speed and ease, is a no-brainer in today’s environment. In an instant-everything world, the contrary has little value.
“We are living in what the Greeks called the right time for a ‘metamorphosis of the gods’, i.e. of the fundamental principles and symbols. This peculiarity of our time, which is certainly not of our conscious choosing, is the expression of the unconscious man within us who is changing. Coming generations will have to take account of this momentous transformation if humanity is not to destroy itself through the might of its own technology and science” (Carl Gustav Jung, 1957: The Undiscovered Self, p.110).
Jung was suggesting that we should not get completely carried away with technology and science, to the extent that we lose sight of ourselves (our Selves). Being unconscious and excessively distracted could preclude us from doing just that, because without taking stock of ourselves from time to time, there can be no self-awareness and without self-awareness there can be no self-knowledge. Without self-knowledge, we would not become aware of “the unconscious man within us changing“. This change that Jung was referring to was related to the collective unconscious of humanity entering into a time of transition, the faint beginnings of which he could already sense in 1957.
Carl Jung was, perhaps, not the only person to sound advance warnings, but he was probably the most prominent Western expert in the field of the human psyche and consciousness to do so. Generally though, not many people would have imagined that within 50 years we would be discarding books for hand-held digital devices, history for fiction, cinematic art for special effects and long essays for 140 characters; that we would be connected 24/7 and have our free time dissipate until there would be hardly any left; and how we would end up having fewer face-to-face interactions, limited time for deep inner reflection and little time for discovering our true selves, contrary to the touted advantages of new technologies which were supposed to free up more of our time.
Electronic mobile and wireless systems have been introduced like an avalanche onto human systems. Using so many technologies, platforms and applications at the same time – and continuously – whilst also expecting to maintain an equilibrium with mind, body and spirit, is proving to be an ongoing challenge. Although we are loath to admit it – the idea being counter-intuitive to common perception – the sheer scale of our technological advancement has, in fact, led to regression in some areas, indiscernible perhaps to the blissfully distracted, but obvious to those not completely caught up in the blizzard of new gadgets, apps and platforms.
Various effects of voluntary overexposure to technologies have already been identified through research, with results freely available to the public. Our main interest in this topic is with the impact that technology has on our free time and mind space which are required for personal development and growth. Therefore, in the context of reflecting upon where we have come from, where we are at present and where we are going to, we will now review the exponential boom in technology in recent decades and delve into some of the behavioural and societal changes generally observable in many societies today.
Television and Free Time
Excessive time spent in front of television sets had always been considered potentially harmful to children. “Back in the day” before mobile technologies, it was common practice for parents to restrict TV screen time, typically by having children do homework first and allowing viewing time afterwards as a reward, or by ushering kids out of the house during the day so that they could play with their friends instead of spending too much time in front of the television.
Children continued to participate in activities traditionally considered important for natural child development. Over time, parental management of children’s television viewing habits dwindled and gave way to teenagers having TV sets in their rooms, until eventually even younger children received them – it not being seen as an age-related privilege anymore. Here, we saw the beginnings of a clear trend towards adult rights being assigned to children from a younger age.
Although television played a significant role in people’s lives for decades, it still continued to remain a leisure activity restricted to home life; it was not blended in with school or university or work. Television was only socially significant during home-based activities and in bars and pubs. When people went out of their homes, they left their TV screens behind. When they entered the workplace, school or university campus, they were focused on the activities taking place in their immediate environment, bar the usual natural distractions. Multi-tasking to the extent necessary today was not encouraged or considered very important.
Unfiltered exposure to the immediate environment and direct personal interactions facilitated full awareness of the present moment resulting in a richer and deeper experience. During free time, for example while walking or driving or travelling by public transport (when not listening to music), sights and sounds, imagery and random thoughts were triggered leading to reflections on community, society, culture and life in general. This, in turn, allowed insights and reflections on one’s own life or one’s place in the world, motivating the formulation of future plans to achieve personal ambitions and dreams or reflecting on what had already been achieved. Alternatively, free time simply resulted in the mind taking a natural rest as opposed to being over-stimulated all the time. All of the aforementioned still happen today, but have to compete for mind space occupied and preoccupied with a whole new world online.
In the past, ample – or in today’s terms, “too much” – free time demanded to be filled in, because of “the existential vacuum”. As famous psychiatrist Viktor Frankl explained in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, this often manifests in people as something which could be described as “a void within”. It is this void which tends be experienced as a type of meaninglessness in life, and was originally caused by the combination of the loss of instinct (a built-in guidance system) when humans evolved over time and the loss of tradition (a framework for knowing what to do) when societies progressed to modern individualism.
Traditionally, our extra free time used to be taken up by family time spent together, or being immersed in a personal hobby or distraction-free time spent with close friends, or with being completely caught up in a good book or, perhaps, by spending time at a bricks and mortar social or sports club. Thus, the kaleidoscope of life in the local community had ample room for flourishing naturally and – mostly – distraction free.
Discovering and working on one’s underlying talents, skills and creative gifts were naturally motivated through inevitable, but necessary restlessness and boredom (as depicted in Groundhog Day). Authentic personality development came about through direct face-to-face interactions, and conscious character development was necessitated by having to claim one’s place in the real world as opposed to developing avatars from behind digital screens in a virtual world. Having enough personal time away from social communications created the space for qualifying personal beliefs, values and ethics and fostered the building of strong individual identity within.
The Arrival of the Smartphone
Early advanced mobile phones and PDAs (personal digital assistants) were originally used by people in certain professions such as doctors, lawyers, accountants and Information Technology professionals. These devices were favoured due to their multi-purpose functionality and were known as the technological “Swiss Army knives” of the time, but – very much unlike today – people in general didn’t have much use for them. There was no point in using something one didn’t really need, and people still preferred keeping their lives relatively simple. Basic cell phones with basic functions sufficed for a while longer.
Eventually, fast internet access, along with the further development of mobile technologies and the proliferation of social media platforms and applications, turned once-simple cell phones into advanced and indispensable interactive connectivity accessories. Today, using them for social networking and various other entertainment purposes by far supersedes their traditional purpose and functionality which take up much more time than what basic functions of old phones ever did.
Balancing Smartphones and Free Time
Wherever we go, people are connected and preoccupied with their devices, even when they are together. The ubiquitous Smartphone is ever-present during work time, on campus, at school, at home, during leisure activities, during many sports activities, when walking on sidewalks or in the park, while driving cars, when having meals in restaurants and when using public transport systems. Talking loudly – in public areas – with headphones to someone into a phone is a common phenomenon. In short, virtually all activities which would traditionally have been given a person’s full attention, with few exceptions, have become blended in with Smartphone use. This is the case with people ranging from the relatively young to the relatively old, which is in stark contrast to no more than 10 to 15 years ago when this was not the case.
Technology and Child Development
Lots of parents seem to be making digital devices available to children in their pre-teens, and it is not always clear whether any restrictions are being placed on using them. How parents manage their children is rightfully a parental and private matter, but it can be assumed that many parents are not always completely aware of what their children are doing online, or exactly how much time they spend there. Compared with television, managing internet access on mobile devices is a more complicated matter. From a management point of view, this is one of the areas where we have not yet fully adapted to mobile technologies. This shows how the introduction of complex, boundary-breaking technologies can permanently shake up established habits and practices.
Research points to the fact that many children go to bed with their phones switched on next to them, and a number of parents readily admit that they provide their children with Smartphones or tablets to “keep them happy” or because “it keeps them quiet”, while at home or in the car. Unfortunately, the outsourcing of dedicated parental time to technology is all too prevalent and easy. In the television age, parental controls were considered obvious and necessary, while in the age of the Smartphone the jury seems to be out. There are exceptions, of course, but parental control today is a far cry from what it used to be in the past. When it comes to computers, Smartphones, gaming and television, many children are assigned adult roles in terms of self-management and “are left up to their own devices”.
It’s not only children who spend a lot of time online. Parents, and even grandparents, have much less time to interface with their children; their free time is constrained and their concentration levels are affected. Children and young people are much more vulnerable to being overexposed to technology though, because they have not yet fully developed. Children need both the space (the free time) and the structure (parental guidance and positive role models) to do so. Without these, their personal development can become stinted. In effect, many children are not developing their own individual personal identities naturally – separate from attaching them to their online personas in relation to role models online.
The idea of parents wanting their children to be part of the in-group has led to teenagers – and even pre-teens – receiving expensive electronic goods as a matter of course, with children rarely being expected to contribute to costs. Instead of having to “earn them” in order to instill an understanding of the value of expensive items, these appliances are often provided by parents as “the basic necessities of life”. Often, they are replaced relatively frequently when new models are issued and old models fall out of fashion, which points to how affluent societies have become in terms of access to readily available, highly advanced, but relatively affordable consumer electronics.
Mobile technologies are not forced upon anyone. At the end of the day, the consumption of any products or services, other than the genuine basic necessities, lies in the arena of free choice. Yet, it is also worth noting that following trends has always played a big role in society. Therefore, the question of whether it is appropriate to supply advanced technologies to children under a certain age, for example, tends to be somewhat controversial due to the autonomous status that parents enjoy. Criticising parenting is not considered politically correct when what is being criticised is practised by large sections or even swathes of society. The (often subconscious) reasoning is that “if everyone’s doing it, it must be okay”. Generally speaking, it would seem that normality-bias (when something becomes normalised) sets in as soon as a majority is perceived to have been reached for an activity. Due to high levels of interconnectivity today, it is likely that normality-bias sets in even sooner than before.
Ethics and morality are inherent and present in all people and societies, but they can weaken or shift. When values and morals are discarded over time, they tend to be replaced by new variations on the theme. A case in point would be, for example, when inner, self-guiding personal morals or ethics, combined with independent thought, end up being replaced with external group consensus motivated political correctness – devoid of critical thought – resulting in compromised personal autonomy and potentially contributing to the loss of self-agency. This is also known as de-individuation, i.e. group consciousness takes over from individual consciousness.
There is no doubt that groundbreaking technological developments are and have always been crucial for human advancement. The question that we are grappling with in the current part of our discussion is: ‘’How should advancement or progress be qualified?’’ Should it be framed within the context of improved convenience, speed and ease, without any concern for limited resources or environmental impacts? On the other hand, should progress, perhaps, be applied to the ability of achieving advancement and progression naturally with as little environmental damage as possible and within the concept of limited resources? Put differently, at what point does progress become the contrary?
At this point, we can touch on the issue of rare earth metals. All mobile technologies and computer systems and an array of other advanced modern technologies contain these elements. They are considered to be the “magic ingredients” which make it possible for our technologies to become as advanced as they are. As the name suggests, “rare earths” are difficult to extract and are in limited supply, although not in the conventional sense. They are, in fact, found all around the world, but in small quantities and often in places where mining is not possible or where they cannot be extracted due to other serious complications.
These elements are indispensable and are required in large volumes in the production of green energies such as wind turbines and solar panels. With increased consumer demand for mobile technologies and consumer electronics, the demand for rare earth metals has skyrocketed in recent years. One of the main reasons for green technologies being so expensive to implement is the cost of rare earth metals. For example, one large wind turbine needs as much as 2 tons during the manufacturing process. Modern Smartphones contain as much as 60 rare earths (in minute quantities), up from around the 20 rare earths needed in old cell phones in the mid- 1990s.
Within this context, one might imagine that from a position of responsibility rare earths might be conserved and kept in reserve to be allocated mainly towards critical purposes. The question of whether mass entertainment needs “should take priority” would not arise in the future if there were unlimited supplies of rare earth elements in the ground. Of course, at the present time, we are not running out, but research suggests that it is very likely that shortages will arise within the next few decades due to complexities in relation to the cost effectiveness of extracting rare earths. Several of these elements have no substitutes or replacements at all, which leads directly to the heart of the nature of limited resources.
Rare earth metals being used in consumer gadgets and devices is not common knowledge. It is questionable, however, whether such knowledge would reduce the over-consumption of personal electronics. We can take the example of cheap clothing which started coming into Western stores from Asia a few years ago. The sweatshop conditions of the workers initially generated outrage amongst consumers. It flared up for a while, but over time the ethical outrage subsided to a point where it more or less disappeared. Therefore, we can deduce that there is a lack of sustained will in relation to ethical responsibility.
The bottom line is that people really love shopping, to the extent that they would rather not want to think about where products come from or what goes into them. No one likes their conscience being unsettled. However, the low-cost bulk supply of highly advanced consumer technologies may not be sustainable indefinitely. Somewhere along the line, raw material supply problems will arise and prices will spike, making the current type of planned obsolescence (limited lifespan) type of manufacturing redundant.
The Need for Entertainment
Nobody disputes the need for entertainment and being socially connected. Obviously, we need to relax too, and humans are social animals after all. In fact, we have, perhaps, become the most social animals of all. Human civilisation has progressed to the extent that we are able to prioritise socialising above all else. Through industrialisation and modernisation, we have achieved levels of safety and comfort that negate virtually all previous (“primitive”) survival considerations and demands.
It is not clear, however, whether we are able to curtail our enhanced entertainment requirements. In fact, the concept of limiting entertainment consumption flies directly in the face of everything that consumer culture stands for. Underlying and also unifying our linguistic, ethnic, geographic, historic and other differences in the world, is consumer culture, the dominant culture of the day in many parts of the world. Considering that we have built this culture on the premise of infinite resources, brain science is not needed to determine that, eventually, the proverbial bottom will drop out, considering that we live on a planet with finite resources.
Questions on Necessity & Moral Responsibility
If adults are not responsible for their own consumption management and those of their children, then who is? From a post-modern point of view, it would, perhaps, be preferred that the question would be framed differently, for example: “Is moral responsibility even relevant anymore?” or “Who is to decide what is considered to be morally correct and what is not?” Which brings us to another question: Does progress and being progressive mean, perhaps, having the privilege of being able to forfeit (or outsource) personal responsibility without judgment? If we answer in the affirmative, then we may be tempted to blame our consumption habits on advertising or on marketing techniques or on being enticed by too much choice, or indeed on peer pressure. If we answer in the negative, we may have to conclude that decision-making processes are ultimately up to us as individuals and that they rely solely on our capacity to act autonomously as adults.
The fact remains that when people stop caring and no-one steps in to do the caring for them, responsibility lapses. Personal freedom means that the state rarely interferes with parenting, and so parents have near complete autonomy in this regard. Some post-modern parents, for example, may rightly or wrongly consider themselves to be progressive by outsourcing parental duties to screens, devices and apps, “because everyone is doing it”. Due to moral relativity, positions of “good” or “bad”, or “right” or “wrong”, are perceived as being redundant or irrelevant. Normality-bias then sets the direction of the general flow of doing things, and internal motivations to the contrary don’t feature (anymore).
It has been said by wise men and women (Carl Popper, Eleanor Roosevelt, Nelson Mandela and Viktor Frankl ) that with freedom comes responsibility, but it would seem that “the ultimate freedom” we so yearn for is a freedom from responsibility, a type of return to the womb syndrome where everything is taken care of, for us and on our behalf.
Symbols of Progress
Technology as a symbol of progress means that we feel that by merely engaging with it makes us progressive. “The more we engage with it, the more progressive we become”. Even if we know this not to be (exactly) true, we know that using and owning technology give an outwardly impression of being advanced. For many people, the idea of being progressive provides for a sense of identity, and living by or through technology has caused it to become a type of modern-day religion. We believe that technology will save the day – and it being our appointed saviour means that we cannot “blaspheme” against it. The potential side effects of technology are, therefore, not dwelled upon much. For example, many people believe that if we don’t manage to limit the destructive results of our largesse, we can always colonise Mars and make it habitable with future, as yet undeveloped, technologies. In the same vein, when we run out of resources on Earth, we believe we could go and mine them on another planet, or, perhaps, we will extract them from passing asteroids. When weather patterns really start wreaking havoc, we would develop relevant technological solutions on demand or, for example, should severe draught arrive in parts of the world, our scientists and engineers may create advanced rain-making technologies.
Having these vague and somewhat far-fetched solutions in the back of our minds means that life can continue as per normal. The fact that rare earth metals may be needed to build the space craft necessary to travel to these remote destinations or to develop any of the other future technologies we believe in, is somehow, not factored in.
Information and Distraction
Being overly stimulated and constantly distracted has the effect of a person rarely being in the present moment fully, which has no doubt – and, perhaps, ironically – contributed to a major interest in the popular self-help genre of “the power of (being in) the present moment”. Typically, the more we fill up our free time with online activities, the more the psyche subconsciously craves for more free time, an ever-moving goalpost. The human psyche naturally seeks equilibrium which demands uncluttered personal time and space. When something is out of sync, we will often be guided through intuition to correct the imbalance, and when not resolved the need for balance persists, eventually causing mental fatigue, anxiety and stress.
Blurring the Lines
We do not need to be clinical psychologists to come to know our ego and mind processes – namely, our emotions, our feelings, our shadow parts, our fears, our rational and irrational thoughts, our actions and reactions, our needs, our wants and our desires. On the contrary, we can only get to know ourselves when we think carefully about all these components of our personalities in relation to real life events and experiences. When online events become our main reference points, there is an overlap and reality can become “blurred”. For example, many young people experience their online world to be more authentic, because it is more colourful, interactive and dynamic compared to the perceived drabness of everyday life (offline).
A Point to Ponder
From a personal development point of view, when we don’t have enough real life reference points – because they are shifted into the background – and we are living a filtered and blurred existence with limited time both for reflection and the conscious integration of real life experiences and lessons learned from them, then individuation stagnates.
Given our preoccupation with modern technology, a question worth pondering is: If or when “the unconscious man (or woman) within us” starts changing (individually), as Carl Jung foresaw, would we be alert enough to become aware of it?
“While we do maintain some level of instinct, the human being can go beyond instinct. But that also means the human becomes all the more responsible for its existence. The human has the ability to make choices and to reflect upon those choices and determine whether or not they are advancing in a positive or negative direction.” – Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
“Freedom makes a huge requirement of every human being. With freedom comes responsibility. For the person who is unwilling to grow up, the person who does not want to carry his own weight, this is a frightening prospect… … Many men and women who are far happier when they have relinquish their freedom, when someone else guides them, makes their decisions for them, takes the responsibility for them and their actions. They don’t want to make up their minds. They don’t want to stand on their own feet.” – Eleanor Roosevelt
“We often hear it asserted that most people do not really want freedom, because freedom involves responsibility, and most people are frightened of responsibility. Whether or not this applies to ‘most people’ there is, I am sure, a vital element of truth in it.” – Carl Popper
“With freedom comes responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk has not ended yet.” – Nelson Mandela
© 2016. All Rights Reserved. Gypsycafe.org
This is Part 9 in a series.
To be continued…
J.J. Montagnier is an international travel writer and photographer – he writes under a pen name. He has a career in adult education, is a student of psychology and philosophy and is involved in non-commercial life coaching. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Further reading, citations and references: