“Technique has penetrated the deepest recesses of the human being. The machine tends not only to create a new human environment, but also to modify man’s very essence. The milieu in which he lives is no longer his. He must adapt himself, as though the world were new, to a universe for which he was not created. He was made to go six kilometres an hour, and he goes a thousand. He was made to eat when he was hungry and to sleep when he was sleepy; instead, he obeys a clock. He was made to have contact with living things, and he lives in a world of stone. He was created with a certain essential unity, and he is fragmented by all the forces of the modern world.” ~ Jacques Ellul
There is no denying the fact that we are now living in an era in which the proliferation and ubiquity of digital technologies have radically changed the way we relate to one another. The traditional public sphere has virtually been reconfigured to provide anyone and everyone with the space to not only express their opinions but also to share the banality of their lives with the world. Commercial transactions are taking place without any physical interaction between seller and buyer. Within the household, family members can be communicating with each other without a single word being spoken.
The digital revolution has brought with it both possibilities and perils. While many have benefitted from it, many others have suffered as a result of its disruptive force. It is thus important for any discussion on the impact of digital technologies on society to consider both its advantageous and adverse effects. In other words, the issue has to be deliberated from a critical lens that is not distorted by any technophilic or technophobic aberration. For a start, it would perhaps be useful to consider the fact that social changes such as industrialisation and globalisation are not driven by some celestial or natural forces. There are people behind these changes, people who are powerful and are bent on maintaining their power and everything else that comes with it through these changes. Such awareness is necessary as it is closely linked to the issue of accountability. As it is, powerful people are rarely held accountable whenever things go south, because it has always been more convenient to just blame the victims.
It is the same with digitalisation. It is not something that just happens naturally, like the movement of tectonic plates, but is very much driven by those powerful tech giants in Silicon Valley. Unlike globalisation, however, there is an entire industry behind digitalisation that is constantly engineering immersive and addictive experiences to ensure that consumers of digital technologies are kept hooked. The standard technocratic selling point is the way these devices can make our work, study, and play more productive and efficient.
Indeed, it was this very obsession with efficiency that drove the French sociologist Jacques Ellul to launch a critique on what he referred to as the ‘technicist society’. His critical analysis of technique, which is more relevant now in our digital era than it was deliberated almost seven decades ago, warrants our urgent attention. Technique, which for the most part has been wrongly described as referring to machines, technology, or procedure for achieving an end, is defined by Ellul as “the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency… in every field of human activity”. In other words, technique refers to an ensemble of ways and means that are considered rational based on mathematical calculation and quantitative (as opposed to qualitative) measurement, so as to ensure the most efficient and profitable way of doing things. This ‘rational’ ground conceals the inherent problem within technique, which is that it “enslaves people while proffering them the mere illusion of freedom, all the while tyrannically conforming them to the demands of the technological society with its complex of artificial operational objectives”.
An example would be the rise of performative parenting, the phenomenon whereby parents post on social media about their children’s achievements, with the underlying intention to brag about how they have performed as parents. This technique has led to a sort of psychological enmeshment in the parent-child relationship, whereby children have become props and a good family moment is one that can garner likes and shares on Facebook and Instagram. It has also created a culture of ‘relentless comparison’ that aggravates inequalities between families of middle and working classes.
In the same way that digitalisation exacerbates pre-existing social inequalities, it also reinforces pre-existing habitual activities such as certain social practices and rituals. Let us take the digitalisation of work as an example. While it has transformed the workplace into one that is more fluid and flexible, it does not make an authoritarian employer less authoritarian. In fact, employee surveillance has been intensified through the use of invasive technology such as employee-tracking wristbands. Even for those workers on a hybrid or mobile working arrangement, monitoring software has been installed on their computers to keep tabs on productivity and efficiency.
The same can be said for the habitual activities of the family. While digitalisation has improved communication on so many levels, it may not be the case for a family whose members rarely talk to each other in the first place. While we have seen how digital technology has helped families stay connected despite being separated geographically during the pandemic, we have also observed how it can simply disconnect families and friends while sitting and having a meal together at the same table. It is not a rare sight at eateries to see a family eating together without having any conversation because everyone is glued to their smartphones. Even toddlers have digital gadgets such as tablets in order to pacify them and to ensure that they sit still in their highchairs. Here is where digitalisation can amplify individualisation in which family members nonchalantly retreat into their own digital world, isolated and alienated from each other.
This is how, in the words of Ellul, “the machine tends not only to create a new human environment”, but also to modify our very essence as human beings. In the case of toddlers, it is in their nature to not sit still, to talk and be talked to, and to seek love and attention from those adults closest to them. It is thus imperative that they be provided with the opportunity to experience those familial interactions. Depriving children of these developmental needs by forcing them to sit still and consume whatever appears on the screen in front of them leaves a negative impact on their social and emotional development. In fact, many studies have shown the adverse effects of electronic gadgets on children’s development, be it social, emotional, cognitive, and even language. Consequently, children who are so used to interacting with a lifeless gadget may grow up being socially awkward and not knowing how to communicate with other children and the adults around them. They may also develop a solitary habit and prefer to keep to themselves rather than to engage with their parents, siblings, or peers.
Conversely, parents who are frequently on their devices in front of their children or during family time are causing a strain not just on the parent-child relationship but the children’s psychosocial development as well. This problem might have been aggravated during the pandemic, when a lot of parents were working from home. While such a working arrangement may be seen as promoting a work-life balance and beneficial to families, it may not be the case for parents with work demands that require them to be in an ‘always-on’ mode. This has inevitably blurred the lines between private and work life, between the home and office. As a result, children struggle to compete with gadgets and devices for their parents’ attention.
The tension gets built up when children start to act out in their attempt to reclaim the attention that has been seized from them, only to be scolded or given some form of negative response from their irate parents. It has indeed been shown that parents who are constantly on their devices not only have less interaction with but are also hostile towards their children, resulting in the latter developing behaviour problems such as “sadness and withdrawal, hyperactivity, and temper tantrums”. However, to claim that these problems are directly caused by digitalisation would be off the mark. As mentioned earlier, digitalisation merely exacerbates pre-existing habitual activities and social practices.
Families that are driven by values of love, care, concern, and respect would ensure these values are upheld be it offline or online. In the digitalisation of care, for instance, the use of sensor technology has allowed children of elderly parents to monitor their vital signs from afar and making sure they are fine. Respectful parents recognise the rights of children to shape their digital lives, which include the right to digital participation and the right to privacy. Respect also entails the provision of freedom for children to have their own experiences and make their own mistakes.
The idea of freedom, however, has too often been erroneously construed by adults and children alike to refer to outward or physical freedom. For some adults, particularly those who uphold the idea that discipline and proper conduct are the cornerstones of a good upbringing, to provide freedom to children would mean to open the doors of hell, where parents will ultimately be stripped of their parental authority when children are given the freedom to do as they like. This somehow leads to the fear, on the part of parents or guardians, to allow any sense of freedom to permeate within the household.
On the part of children, the idea of freedom simply means freedom from abiding parental rules and regulations or from participating in any family activity that makes no sense. As pointed out by Erich Fromm, the way society understands ‘freedom’ today is based on an essentially negative conception of the term, which “is freedom from and not freedom to, because we are mostly concerned with what we are against and not what we are for – against whom we should defend ourselves rather than what we are living for”.
The freedom that our children need today is freedom that will provide them with the necessary space to realise and further develop their productive orientation – the freedom to think, to question, to decide, to be an active and responsible unalienated participant in the learning process; the freedom to speak without being ridiculed, to pose and define problems be it in school, at home or within the larger society and to analyse and put forth solutions to those problems; the freedom to learn and discover without any fear or anxiety of being monitored or assessed – in other words, the freedom to be rather than to have, be it offline or online. ⬛
1 Ellul, J. The Technological Society. Vintage Books. 1964 (first ed. 1954). p. 325
2 Alter, A. Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked. Penguin Books. 2018
3 Ellul, J. The Technological Society. p. xxv
4 Quoted in J. A. Fowler, A Synopsis and Analysis of the Thought and Writings of Jacques Ellul. Jacques Ellul Papers, Folder 66, Special Collections, Buswell Library. 2000
5 Lim, S. S. Transcendent Parenting: Raising Children in the Digital Age. 2020. p. 145
6 Livingstone, S. and Byrne, J. Parenting in the Digital Age. The Challenges of Parental Responsibility in Comparative Perspective. pp. 19-30; in Mascheroni, G., Ponte, C. and Jorge, A. (eds.) Digital Parenting. The Challenges for Families in the Digital Age. Göteborg: Nordicom. 2018
7 Christian, A. Workforce monitoring continues to increase amid remote work, with no signs of slowing. Is surveillance the new norm? BBC. 2022, June 27. Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20220621-the-employee-surveillance-that-fuels-worker-distrust
8 Carson, V., et al. Physical activity and sedentary behaviour across three time-points and associations with social skills in early childhood. BMC Public Health 19, 27. 2019
9 Suhana, M. Influence of Gadget Usage on Children’s Social-Emotional Development. Advances in Social Science, Education and Humanities Research (ASSEHR), Volume 169. 2018
10 Nugraha, A., et. al. The effect of gadget on speech development of toddlers. J. Phys.: Conf. Ser. 1175 012203. 2019
11 Wong, R. S., et. al. Parent Technology Use, Parent–Child Interaction, Child Screen Time, and Child Psychosocial Problems among Disadvantaged Families. The Journal of Pediatrics, (226). 2020. pp. 258-265
12 Timsit, A. Smartphones are disrupting the crucial connections between parents and their babies. Quartz. 2019, July 31. Retrieved from: https://qz.com/1674835/technology-is-interfering-with-the-parent-child-relationship/
13 Madigan, S., Browne, D. T., and Eirich, R. Technoference: A habit parents should ditch during 2019. The Conversation. 2019, January 1. Retrieved from: https://theconversation.com/technoference-a-habit-parents-should-ditch-during-2019-107954
14 Fromm, E. Freedom in the work situation. The Literary Estate of Erich Fromm. 2004 (first ed. 1959). p. 1
15 For a clear conception of the differences between the being and having modes, read Erich Fromm’s To Have or to Be?, Bantam Books, New York, 1976.
Muhammed Shahril Shaik Abdullah holds a Master of Education (Leadership, Policy & Change) from Monash University and works in a library. His research interest includes the critical use of technology and radical children’s literature.