In the early days of the web, the acronym “IRL” was frequently used to differentiate things “In Real Life” versus online. As the Internet expands into every corner of our world, the border between the actual and the virtual grows ever fainter. Social media in particular has hastened this erasure of the line between our physical versus digital lives.
Is this a good thing? Was the border between the physical and digital life false to begin with? What are the implications of our digital life?
A recent Pew Research Center “canvassing of technology experts, scholars and health specialists” asked the following:
Please share a brief personal anecdote about how digital life has changed your daily life, your family’s life or your friends’ lives in regard to well-being – some brief observation about life for self, family or friends. Tell us how this observation or anecdote captures how hyperconnected life changes people’s well-being compared to the way life was before digital connectivity existed.
The common themes of their anecdotal responses may sound familiar.
The Pros and Cons of Our Digital Lives
It’s simplistic to characterize our lives in the digital age as all good or all bad. As with all technology from the printing press to the PC, the human experience is varied, with unexpected boons and challenges.
Among the positive themes were “glorious connectedness,” the ability to reinvent our lives and careers, the ubiquity of “life-saving advice and assistance,” and dramatically more efficient transactions. By and large, the digital life is the domain of “frictionless” interaction. But these relative rays of sunshine also cast their share of shadows. Negative themes centered on “connectedness overload,” “trust tensions,” “personal identity issues,” and an increasing amount of “focus failures.”
Most of us have had experiences on both ends of the spectrum. The World Economic Forum has produced a video series on Digital Media and Society, which highlights seven critical areas:
They’ve also examined questions around our productivity. For some, like Northwestern University’s Robert Gordon, “innovations in areas like information and communications technology (ICT) cannot be expected to have as big an economic payoff as those of the past, such as electricity and the automobile.” But what if “they may actually have some negative side effects that undermine productivity and GDP growth”?
There are no clear-cut answers. And that’s a good thing. To remain flexible, open, and curious about our digital lives, we should be mindful of how we use powerful new technology.
Mindfulness within Our Digital Lives
We can minimize the negative aspects of digital life without losing the positive ones by using mindfulness techniques. Empowered, we can choose to use technology on our own terms.