Before logging on or plugging in, consider the environmental and personal consequences

Sitting in a lecture for a Law and Morality class last week, I watched with a mix of horror and bemusement as the student in front of me plugged in his earphones and began to live stream Divorce Lawyers. The rapid slapstick humour and slickly dressed lawyers clashed markedly with the somewhat drier details of Hart’s legal positivism, a poignant commentary on the technological dependence that seems to permeate the U of T student body.

Internet technologies afford immensely transformative possibilities across almost every aspect of modern society. Yet the question remains: do we use technology more than is healthy, not only for ourselves, but also for society and the environment? 

Internet communications technologies are fundamentally mind-altering; indeed, some argue that they are the most powerful mind-altering technologies to permeate society. As Nicholas Carr, author of The Juggler’s Brain, suggests, the Internet promotes superficial learning rather than the depth of thought that is the goal of higher education. U of T is not immune to this trend. Indeed, veteran professors have told me that, since the rise of the Internet, they’ve had to dumb down course material and shorten essays on tests because many students began to struggle with the requisite depth of thought. This should be especially concerning as university has long been concerned with inspiring deep thinking. It is here where we can devote our time to delving beyond the surface level approach common to lower levels of education.

Smartphones are commonly criticized for killing real conversation. I am certain we have all availed ourselves of the distraction of having our Facebook, email, Twitter, and Instagram constantly at our fingertips. It is simply wise to be aware of how we use social media. Social media can help with loneliness and can be a way of supporting friends. However, it is the personalized communication of comments and messages so inherent to face-to-face communication, rather than explicitly quantifiable “likes” or “favorites,” that make us feel connected. Indeed, passive consumption on Facebook solely through posting and scanning through status updates through our newsfeed, twitter, and Instagram is correlated with feelings of loneliness. 

Particularly as students, we should be conscious of the environmental implications of our technological dependence, both because we are most likely to have technology, such as smartphones, and because we will disproportionately bear their future environmental consequences. Indeed, the smartphones which have become so central to our lives contribute significantly to pollution and resource scarcity. On a geopolitical front, China controls the majority of rare earth metal deposits, which are integral to the production of technology, and has cut exports by 72 per cent in recent years, raising economic and geopolitical tensions. There are also numerous human rights issues through the entire life cycle of these devices from resource extraction to assembly and finally disposal.

Science fiction luminary Isaac Asimov wrote, “The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.” In our present Internet era, this seems especially true on an individual level. Vast amounts of information are constantly at our fingertips, yet it seems we still lack the wisdom to healthily limit our dependence on technology — not just for our own sake, but for the health of our society and environment as well.

Sasha Boutilier is a second-year student at St. Michael’s College studying political science and ethics, society, and law.

When it comes to new tech and social media, the benefits outweigh the costs for students

As students, we use technology to help with homework, play games, shop, or watch Grey’s Anatomy. Perhaps most importantly, however, is the frequency with which we use online platforms like Facebook and Twitter to socialize. Indeed, Canada’s Media Technology Monitor reported that 71 per cent of Internet users were also active social media users.

Many (read: baby boomers) have condemned this growing online socialization, arguing that our “technology addiction” makes us narcissistic and promotes superficial relationships. An article by The Atlantic even went so far as to suggest that social media makes us lonely, leading to mental and physical illnesses. 

Students are indeed dependent on technology — I, for one, check my email and social media before I get out of bed everyday. However, it is misguided and reductive to assume this use of technology is inherently detrimental. Social media is just another method of communication that we will inevitably incorporate into our lives, much in the way that tools like the telephone and email have been assimilated.

I have admittedly wasted hours calculating social capital via Facebook likes or Twitter re-tweets. Yet, social media only reflects, rather than creates or exacerbates, the unavoidable popularity contests of our teenage years. One only has to think of Mean Girls to realize that toxic social relations between students were a pervasive problem long before the widespread use of social media.

So when incessant social competition becomes less important to us, we can use social media in more productive ways. As someone from outside Toronto, social media’s rapid and multifaceted interface allows me to easily maintain relationships with my distant family and friends. The mass communication with college or course mates through Facebook groups is also incredibly useful for resolving various personal issues that may be out of scope for a registrar or professor. Being a commuter student, Skype and Google Hangouts also provide me with an ideal replacement for in-person meetings.

Perhaps most underrated is the role of social media in providing news and spurring debate. On the most basic level, my peers’ engagement with political problems or international events increases my awareness of issues worth caring about. For example, frustration over the University of Toronto’s Students’ Union’s (UTSU) recent Board of Directors meeting manifested itself in several informative Facebook statuses. 

What’s more, following various Tumblr blogs or Twitter feeds amplifies marginalized voices and prompts dialogue in a continuous, organic way that traditional media cannot replicate. Most notably, conversations concerning sexism, racism, or other types of oppression provide a powerful alternative to the narratives we learn through mainstream media and schools. See, for instance, #YesAllWomen, which highlights the magnitude of misogyny and harassment directed at women across the continent. #Ferguson provides ground-level reports of police brutality during the city’s media blackout.  

We need to stop condemning social media as merely a facilitator of procrastination or anti-social tendencies. It actually holds enormous potential for improving our daily lives, from strengthening relationships to exposing us to alternative viewpoints. Students and youth are at the forefront of using social media for these positive gains and deserve credit, not criticism, for doing so.

Victoria Wicks is The Varsity’s associate comment editor. She is a second-year student at Trinity College studying political science and philosophy.