How is technology overload affecting our physical and mental health? 15.08.19

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A panel of experts brought together by Icon discuss the impact of digital devices on our minds and bodies – and ask how better design can help draw us back to the physical world

Technology is an inescapable part of our lives. We drive cars and take trains, cook with ovens, clean ourselves with showers and watch video media on screens. Most occupations involve using machinery, with the significant part of each day spent in front of a computer in the case of office jobs. And in the past few decades, the quantity and calibre of digital technology has grown so prodigiously that it has come to dominate our daily existences.

This technological profusion has, in many ways, made our lives easier; we can do many things more efficiently and conveniently than the generations who came before. But it has also changed our bodies and minds – and not always for the better. Myriad studies have
noticed a correlation between rising technology use and depression. Between 2010 and 2015, a period of rapid growth in smartphone ownership, the number of US teenagers who felt useless and joyless – symptoms of depression – surged by 33 per cent; at the same time, teen suicide soared by 31 per cent. In 2012, the neuroscientist Manfred Spitzer coined the term ‘digital dementia’ to refer to the loss of cognitive facilities due to overuse of the internet.

Read more: How smart technology infiltrates architecture

One negative consequence that the abundance of digital technology can inculcate is the sensation of over-stimulation. Huge quantities of information and media are available at a moment’s notice. We are constantly privy to a never-ending, potentially exhausting stream of news stories, notifications, emails, tweets, WhatsApp messages and social media posts. The average US citizen consumes 12 hours and seven minutes of digital material each day, whether through scrolling down a smartphone or simply hearing music piped through a connected device. ‘Digital content,’ says Michael Phillips Moskowitz, former chief curator at eBay and founder of the behavioural tech company AeBeZe Labs, ‘has practically become the world’s most ubiquitous material, after water and carbon.’

Occupying our mind

Technology is not merely physically present everywhere, with digital signals constantly travelling through the air, but it also occupies our minds. ‘I do think,’ says London-based designer Christoph Behling, who works with Geberit on smart toilets and lowering water consumption, ‘that the avalanche of information has deprived us of mental space.’ It has also come to colonise our time. ‘When we’re bored,’ adds integrative psychotherapist Hilda Burke, ‘we look at our phones. Fifty years ago, that might have been a space for random associations, thoughts, creativity, or just being bored. I think a lot of us use our smartphones as a kind of pacifier, to avoid boredom.’

Burke recently authored The Phone Addiction Workbook (2019), a book that draws upon her extensive experiences with clients. For her, the trouble partially stems from the licence that technology gives us to act more easily upon particular desires. Some want validation through work, which technology obliges by keeping us ever connected to the office. Others seek the approval of partners, family and friends, or else the excitement of shopping, gambling and pornography. ‘The phone,’ Burke says, ‘is really the access point. It’s the means, not really the end.’ It is less the technology, more the changes in behaviour it enables that causes problems.

Digital overstimulation

According to Professor Charles Spence, experimental psychologist and founder of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at the University of Oxford, technology is distorting the balance of our senses. ‘The problem with these digital technologies,’ he says, ‘is that the stimulation tends to be primarily in the auditory and the visual. Most technologies are unable to stimulate our more emotional senses. It’s a sensory imbalance as much as an overload.’ Digital technology’s failure to connect to the senses that promote emotional wellbeing – smell, taste and touch – has disrupted the natural harmony of sensations.

Solving the problem of digital addiction

A potential solution to these issues is to regulate the way in which we use technology. Moskowitz posits the idea of digital nutrition, where one pays attention to the sort of content one consumes. ‘What if,’ he says, ‘we allow people to use technology to alter their brain chemistry in ways they find desirable and agreeable?’ His app, Moodrise, stimulates users with sounds and images that trigger positive neurotransmitters such as endorphins, oxytocin and dopamine. ‘I tend to think of us,’ he says, ‘as the world’s first truly digital drug company.’

Another route towards rebalance is to return to experiences that technology is unable to replicate – to spend more time in nature, for instance, absorbing the stimuli of the world around us. Another is through renewed attention to material design, through the way that the physical objects we encounter enhance our lives. Even the protagonists of digital technology are becoming conscious of this: an installation by Google and John Hopkins University at this year’s Salone del Mobile in Milan proposed a combination of furniture, light, scent, music and art to foster wellbeing. ‘Everything on display in a design showroom wants to give you the maximum benefit, a great experience,’ says Behling, ‘and I think we need to engage this world a little more.’

Faced with the seeming hegemony of digital technology, this might be more easily said than done. But designers, with their understanding of the physical, might offer our best hope to foster a much-needed return to the real.

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