We're already cyborgs: how screens have stolen our eyes

Some coffee shops have stopped, or refused to even begin, offering Wi-Fi in their establishments. The goal is noble: to get people to either talk to each other or bury their heads in books or notebooks. It might be an effective strategy if not for the prevalence of 4G even 3G connections in those areas as well. But while almost comic in nature, anecdotes such as these do hint at an underlying truth: that people have become attached, even dependent, on their mobile devices to the point of almost becoming a part of their body, if not their person. They have, become, to some extent, present day cyborgs.

The modern, hi-tech society

At a certain point in history, some societies, or at least some families, frowned upon things like watching TV while eating dinner. Meals, whether at home or outside, were considered almost sacred, a time for human to human interaction and not for technology. Changes in lifestyle and family dynamics would later mean that meals were no longer taken together. Today, even if still taken as a group, meals are punctuated by regular periods of silence as people check their smartphones or even smartwatches.

This is the kind of almost anti-social behavior that some would paint today. It does happen, of course, but some would wonder if it is that bad. Or whether it's bad at all. Countless examples of accidents, even deaths, would seem to answer a resounding yes. But of course it's sensational stories that make it to the news, not the day to day, banal, boring experiences of everyday people. There is, however, no denying the fact that people have become almost literally glued to their screens. And it isn't because devices themselves are addictive but because they instantaneously deliver something that almost all humans desire most: knowledge.

The "now" generation

Humans are inquisitive by nature. They desire knowledge, either for knowledge's own sake or for some practical purpose. It doesn't matter if it's some hifalutin piece of trivia or simply the weather 2 hours from now. It could even be the knowledge of what comes next after clearing all those candies or to know if it's even possible to accomplish. In ages past, access to that knowledge was slow and limited. Those who have followed computer science history would be aware of how it took days for hulking mainframe computers to finish a calculation that today would take hours at most.

But progress in computer technology and the birth of the Internet have made all of those available at a snap of a finger. Depending on the speed of your connection, of course. It seems that our entire culture, at least for the past two to three decades, have become obsessed with getting what we want here and now. Fast food, video on demand, Twitter. Technology conspires against us and feeds into the human desire to know, which has practically become the need to know now, which, in turn, has become the need to know now always.

But is that really a bad thing?

Through rose-tinted, OLED glasses

There is nothing wrong with wanting to know. That's part of human nature, after all. Wanting it now or wanting to be constantly updated might be questionable at best, but not exactly life threatening. The problem, however, starts when we let our mobile devices replace our eyes, both figuratively and almost literally. We no longer see the world as our eyes see them directly but through the filter of our smartphones and tablets. It isn't just about being able to enjoy the beauty of the world and of other people as they are. It's also about mistaking what's on the screen for the real thing.

Media ha proven that it can be a great vehicle for information and knowledge, especially in places where such information is unavailable or, worse, censored. But history has also proven how it can also be abused to become a fast and easy vehicle for misinformation. Fortunately, media today operates in an almost democratic fashion, where one outlet can freely contradict another to offer an alternate perspective. There are times, however, when our own immediate circles are flooded with the same misinformation that it's easy to take them to be the truth.

Being glued to our screens is one thing. Living in them and perceiving them to be the only and whole world is a dangerous leap to make.

Everything in moderation

Smartphones and tablets are, in the end, just tools. And like any other tool, they can be used for good or for ill. They are excellent vehicles of information and knowledge, coming from otherwise inaccessible places and in record-breaking time. But they can also be used to spread misinformation, even hate, and can easily replace our eyes, coloring the way we see the world.

Mobile devices feed into our hunger for knowledge and, as such, can be terribly habit forming. With just a few taps, you are immediately presented with information, one of the best psychological reward systems. And like many habits, once acquired, they are hard to break. They are, however, easier to replace.

It seems almost fitting, if not ironic, that we are also to technology to try and curb this growing trend. Smartwatches are being marketed to pry your eyes away from smartphones long enough for you to actually be present in the moment. Then, however, people start habitually looking at their watches instead. Google once proposed the Glass to be the answer, though the privacy implications of the device outweighed its potential benefits in that area.

Sadly, the solution isn't going to come from technology. At least not until the day we can actually control our brains and behaviors with a flip of a switch. We have to make the decision ourselves to impose a limit on our own urges. It would be like installing filters between our eyes and the smartphone screen. And there, technology, or at least apps, can help, with notification blockers or distraction-free apps. Still, it all boils down to self-control or at the very least the commitment to self-control.

We do live in a technological, instant world, there's no denying that. But it doesn't mean you have to lose yourself in it. Like the cliché goes, take some time to stop and smell the flowers, or, in most cases, avoid those manholes.