Neil Webb

You click on the picture of your grandbaby and feel a zing of joy, so you click on the cat video and chuckle, and then on What Former Child Stars Look Like Now and whoosh, another hour of your life is gone. Your coffee is cold, your morning momentum has dissipated into the cloud and whatever you would have done with that time is no longer an option.

That’s the technology paradox, says commerce professor David Mick, who first studied our conflicted relationship with technology back when it was as simple as an answering machine. Before that, if you weren’t near the phone you simply missed the call. But now a decision had to be made—whether to listen.

“Suddenly you have to have a new routine of checking the machine all of the time,” Mick says. “Occasionally it may misfire and you have to re-record, or it gets too full of messages. These are things you have to become vigilant to, and now you have to deal with something that just recently you didn’t have to manage or maintain, and that requires not just time but psychic energy. And maybe you don’t wind up talking to another human being but to their machine, and something in the relationship shifts.”

Fast forward to smartphones and social media, and the constant sense that you will never quite catch up, and further that you’re somehow incompetent or old for not adopting the newest “it” thing.

“One of the top things we saw in our research is the way technology gets sold to us,” Mick says. “We believe in it as something that gives us a kind of freedom, to do more, to control our lives, to be somewhere else almost immediately by typing an email or doing a search, but at the same time that it frees us it enslaves us. We become so attached to it that we lose the ability to get those same benefits out of other things in our lives, and while it gives us a sense of power and control, we’re only one step away from having the opposite, a kind of anarchy when our technology fails.”

There’s a cost even if it doesn’t break down.

“You see college students walking side by side, supposedly together, and they go into a restaurant and they’re all on their phones,” Mick says. “Many of us think being with someone is looking them in the face and being present with them, but you have a generation adapting to these technologies that tends to think they’re together with the person who is by their side and with the person they’re texting with.”

“Technology alters our reality,” Mick says. “What does it mean to have a friend? In the past it would be hugs and tears and pats on the back. Technology as it evolves shifts our habits, our knowledge structure, our sense of what is real and not, it changes our definitions and concepts of what we thought was true, what is a friend, a home, what does it mean to communicate?”

All of which should be taken into consideration when you enter a relationship with a new technology. It will change your routines and expectations, you’ll have to invest time to understand and maintain it, and you’ll have to give up something—whether television or a Sunday drive in the country or reading to your child—in exchange.

“When buying technology you have to think through the potential paradoxes,” he says. “Is this something I’m going to be able to live with and use its capacity to be closer to other people, or am I going to get carried away with the other side of it, to be disconnected or blocked?

“Technology puts up these tensions pretty consistently, so you have to ask yourself what you think it’s going to do, and weigh that against its potential to do the opposite.”