I wonder how healthy technology’s obsession with increasing viewership and usership is. Social media companies want to hold our attention as long as possible and at all costs. Websites pump out clickable and sensational content to lure eyeballs to their corner of the web. Everything on the internet wants to draw us in because that’s how most internet-driven businesses make money. Everything runs on viewership, usage, and length of time spent consuming content.

But, my question is, do we ever stop to think whether any of this is good for us?

One of the ideas I’ve always ruminated on is this idea:

Maybe instead of our goal being to increase usership, shouldn’t our aim as technologists be to make technology that enables us to use technology less?

If we know that overuse of technology is bad for us, shouldn’t our goal be to make technology less addictive, less controlling of our lives, and less of a hindrance to health?

Shouldn’t we build technology that gives us more control over how we spend our time rather than trap us into an addictive spiral of dopamine dependence?

Shouldn’t we build technology that makes us happier and healthier even if “makes us happier and healthier” really means “makes us use technology less”?

Desire For Simplicity

I draw a parallel here with my fascination with simplicity. I love things that are simple, straight-forward, intuitive, and easy to understand. I also love the effect that simplicity has on me. I feel calmer and more able to experience that heralded “sense of flow” when I participate in simplicity.

For me, participating in simplicity means engaging in things that are intentional rather than passive and consumptive. The activities that are consumptive often have hidden layers of complexity to them. When I sit and watch TV from a streaming service, there is a baffling set of complex processes happening there. I turn on a smart TV, which connects to my home internet via wifi facilitated by the router plugged into the electrical system in my house. I then navigate to Netflix via a software application running on the operating system of the smart TV. I then turn on some show written by dozens of writers, filmed by hundreds of film industry workers, and played out by a cast of dozens of actors. Although all of this takes place below my attentional awareness, I still feel this complexity at some visceral level. I imbibe it; I’m saturated in it. These things don’t happen out of sight and out of mind like I’d like think they do. They play out in my body, a ground-swell of noise and chaotic pulsations that I consume without my consent.

But, when I return to simple preoccupations, I give myself space to opt out of this unwitting engagement with complexity. Lately, one of my preoccupations has been planting new grass in my backyard. The act of planting grass is simple. I first prep the ground with a rake to loosen up the soil and remove any unwanted leaves and debris. Then, I spread the seeds, trying to make sure I spread them evenly. Then, I cover those newly planted seeds with sod. Finally, I finish up by watering the area. The only tools involved in this process are a rake, grass seed, sod, water, and my hands. The entire process is something that I can wrap my head around. Granted, there is a complex web of natural processes involved in the actual germination, sprouting, and eventual maturation of the seeds themselves. But, these processes are natural as opposed to humanly-introduced. My involvement is the only human touch in this otherwise natural process.

The magic in something as simple as planting grass is exactly that absence of external human involvement. In my everyday life, I feel constantly bombarded by the demands placed on me by other people. I live in a society in which I have no choice but to participate in the capitalism I was born into. I buy and consume products, foods, and services that I am increasingly less in touch with the process of making. I consume even more digital content generated by faceless human beings that I neither know personally nor will ever meet. All of this, whether I realize it or not, makes me feel entirely not in control. The complex modern world in which I live tries at every turn to get me to give more and more control of my life over to other human beings. Modernity beckons me to hand over my autonomy in exchange for comfort, for ease, for a thin sense of safety.

But, the hidden cost in this exchange is that I lose the space and time to do things that I can actually control and understand. The weird thing is that I so easily forget that these are the things that give my life meaning and fulfillment. Contrary to what we’re told, the things that I can wrap my head around are the things that free me. They, not modern conveniences, are the things that restore me.

Being the frail and small human that I am, I also recognize that there is precious little that I can wrap my head around fully. There isn’t much that I am truly capable of understanding fully. But you know what I can understand? The simple things.