Virtually alone together

Our parents were right, technology is taking over our lives. Graphic courtesy of The Washington Post


“Don’t stare too long at the television, you’ll hurt your eyes.” “Your generation relies too much on technology!” “You’re killing your brain cells from spending so much time on your screens.” You probably heard this, or something similar, while growing up. 

I was given my first screen when I was 7 years old. It was a 3rd generation iPad, with the home button and the old Photobooth app. Even though my dad had bought it as a Christmas gift, he had no idea what it was or how to even use it. All I knew, though, was that I was going to take so many pictures. It wasn’t something that was technically new, but we had never actually been near a tablet or smartphone. It was definitely a learning curve and the start of a new, fascinating addiction for my family. 

Every corporate collaboration, every phone or laptop, every new “groundbreaking” technology announced — my family managed to get their hands on it; they were enthralled by it. It didn’t matter that it was expensive, what mattered was that they believed they had a choice in their obsession. 

The new Vision ProApple’s “revolutionary” $4,000 VR passion project — is meant to be a bridge between reality and the virtual world. While they aren’t exactly virtual reality headsets, they are not exactly artificially intelligent glasses either; Apple calls them a “spatial computer.” It would be exactly like having your phone or computer constantly on you, except not in your pocket or bag, but on your head. 

In about two decades, technology has rapidly advanced, and we have been first-hand witnesses to it. From blocky computers and televisions to our most recent advancements — AI and VR — we are seeing that this technology has now become personalized and easy to carry around in our pockets. Sadly, it’s the reality of the world we live in. In the last couple of years, we have been introduced to VR worlds, glasses and headsets that are eventually going to keep evolving to be in our daily lives, just like the smartphone. The overconsumption and targeting by tech companies have been a growing issue throughout the past few years. 

Alexander Carter, an assistant professor of strategic communication, learned how tech companies target different populations in order to get people to buy more products. 

“The amount of private information that is being gathered is concerning,” Carter said. “[Tech companies] are using it to target people in order to commodify time and what we do. I do think companies look at [VR], especially with younger audiences, to limit advertising to [those audiences]. It presents a whole new avenue to reach a different audience now.” 

New technologies open up opportunities for companies to be in our homes and in our personal lives even more. They can find out just about anything going on in our lives and make it easier to market to us. Having this information about people helps tech companies figure out what they put out and be assured of what will be bought. It’s about what they have to know in order to keep those same companies in business, as well as newer technology becoming more invasive. 

As a society, we rapidly evolved in creating new technology for our benefit, but unfortunately, we have not caught up with it. There is constant innovation for new products and trends, we are overstimulated and constantly hit in the face with something new. 

This is especially true when it comes to newer developed VR technology. Of course, AI makes things more accessible and we have more information available at our fingertips, but we tend to forget how it is actually affecting us as a society. Since we were introduced to digital tech at a young age, we learned how to use them almost proficiently. Although we have become more and more proficient, we have become more involved in our devices and detached from others. 

The loneliness epidemic rose around the same time COVID-19 peaked around 2020. It was almost impossible to see anyone who wasn’t in your home, and it led to many people relying on technology in their homes as a means of entertainment and communication. Since we grew up with technology, we obviously gravitated towards it when we wanted to see other people. Some argue that it helped relationships with other people, but others argue that it changed those relationships. 

Yamir Palacios, a first-year organizational communication and leadership major, would argue talking online is easier than in person for some. 

“I see it as comforting,” Palacios said. “It could be helpful for building up confidence. Not in saying you have an AI friend, but in making it easier to communicate with others later on.” 

Being alone for so long made it incredibly difficult for people to have actual conversations face-to-face. Not that it was anyone’s fault; we weren’t able to go outside of our homes to see others when we wanted to. When being online became normal for a period of time, we expected that to always be normal. 

Constantly being online was a rising problem before the pandemic, but it was a catalyst for this behavior. Relying on tech made it so that we would be online most of my day. 

Even with cases of COVID-19 lowering and lockdowns lifted, we did not leave our little screen-filled wormhole. In fact, companies kept giving us new toys to try so that we could think we were more “connected.” 

“You can make an avatar of yourself, but that’s not the real you,” Carter said. “There’s a difference in physical presence and mediated presence. [VR] is gonna strengthen the issues of what to do in your time away from people. This idea of blending digital and physical reality is going to continue to break down the barrier of reality.” 

VR had been popular in the gaming industry, but companies figured out they could cater to people who just wanted to talk to other people. Soon the idea of VR was to be a computer you could carry at all times around your head. 

See? It’s so accessible. You don’t have to wait to get home to turn on your laptop or pull out your phone when you feel a buzz. 

Although people get to live their lives like normal with the headsets, they are being separated by a screen. Wearing it feeds into the idea of constantly being online and being surrounded by multiple screens. Having so many screens in your face feels unproductive and overwhelming. 

Stephen Barnard, an associate professor and chair of the sociology and criminology department, expresses the change in how youth experience the real and virtual world. 

“A decade ago, there was a lot of perception amongst youth that what happened online was not real,” Barnard said. “It was less than real, less meaningful. That sort of fetishizes the interpersonal relationship and it glosses over [what is] happening in day-to-day life.” 

Unfortunately, it isn’t the same anymore with how social media has developed. Now, we see people connecting and sharing their life through social media. Influencers romanticize their life to make them look more glamorous to the rest of the digital world. This doesn’t only occur with their life, but with themselves and what they do. It makes people more likely to do or buy what influencers have. 

“If you think digital media provides, for some populations, a better experience, then there is some benefit there,” Barnard said. “Because young generations have increasingly grown up in this world, they have a greater awareness and more sophisticated set of tools to navigate through [modern trends].” 

We have seen that older people are more prone to clickbait and scams than younger generations. We grew up learning how to get around them and identify them so we are more knowledgeable about these types of things. 

Although technology has been taking over our lives little by little, growing up with it has made us more aware as to how technology invades our lives. We are more hesitant to accept what is put out and question how it might change our lives more than our older counterparts. Technology will keep growing but if we are aware of its harms, it won’t be able to take over our lives more than it should.


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