The downside of technology

In my lifetime, technological progress has given us television, jet aircraft, computers, cell phones and a spacecraft that’s headed for Pluto at 36,000 mph. It has made it possible for us to work less, suffer less and live longer.


Trouble is, our natural inclination to be lazy, pleasure-driven beings makes us suckers for anything that will make life easier, more interesting or more exciting. We acquire a computer, an Xbox and a TV set, and our whole lives change. Instead of spending our spare time outdoors and getting some fresh air and exercise, we become slaves to technology.

I’ve never paid much heed to those warnings on products, but as long as manufacturers are required to put them on, here’s one that every piece of electronic gear ought to have: RELIANCE ON AND OBSESSIVE USE OF THIS GEAR MAY BE HARMFUL TO YOUR HEALTH.

Lots of times, with nothing but a pocket compass, I’ve taken a 14-foot boat miles out onto Cook Inlet to fish for halibut, but I wouldn’t do that with only a GPS. A GPS, like any electronic gear, can fail. I’ve been there when a fog rolled in, hiding the sun and the shoreline. Without a compass, I might’ve ended up on the west side of the inlet, or dead. But that compass, the technology of which was available before the Vikings discovered North America, has never let me down.

Electronic devices let you down at the worst possible time. If I can’t have an uninterrupted conversation on a cell phone with someone a few miles away — I’m rarely able to accomplish that — I’m not about to have confidence that a cell phone will get me rescued when I’m lost or injured in the wilderness. A cell phone might be useful, but a topo map and a magnetic compass is more reliable.

Obsessive use of electronic gear causes no end of grief. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), obesity now affects 17 percent of all children and adolescents in the United States, triple the rate from just one generation ago. The cause is glaringly obvious. Kids are eating and drinking too many calories, and they’re not getting enough physical exercise.

This isn’t news, but it bears repeating: Kids aren’t playing outdoors as much as they used to. The CDC reports that children 8 to 18 years of age spend an average of 7.5 hours a day using entertainment media — TV, computers, video games, cell phones and movies. Kids spend about 4.5 hours of that time watching TV.

The consequences of spending all those hours being inactive in front of a TV set or computer are grim. The CDC says, “Obese children are more likely to become obese adult. Adult obesity is associated with a number of serious health conditions, including heart disease, diabetes and some cancers.”

A recent study in Australia found that, after age 25, every hour spent watching television reduces the viewer’s lifespan by 21.8 minutes. Hours spent sitting in front of a computer are equally hazardous.

Technology also deserves credit for other, more subtle damage to our lives. Over-use of cell phones and other mobile communication devices is eroding parts of our culture that once held it together, made it civilized. For example, when we approach someone in the Post Office, the grocery store or in a parking lot nowadays, we seldom acknowledge each other’s presence. The nod, the smile, the friendly “good morning” are relics of yesteryear. Nowadays, we’re too busy texting or talking on our cell phones to acknowledge that others exist. At night, instead of talking or playing games with our families, or helping someone with something, we’re on our cell phones, or watching TV or glued to our computers.

Not that technology is all bad, but it has a downside. If we rely too much upon it, it can kill us. If we over-use it, it can turn our bodies into immobile, disease-ridden hulks. If we let it dehumanize us, we run the risk of neglecting others, who can come back to haunt us.

Who knew that something that feels so good could be so bad?

Les Palmer can be reached at