The press of a button

Technology is inherently minimizing. Our generation holds cell phones as indispensable, pocket-sized opportunities for a virtual world. We scroll past headlines of obliteration and death in favor of a changed profile picture. The profile picture garners a like on our part — maybe even a love — and then we move on with our lives, now inspired to pose for our own new profile picture.

We open The New York Times app with ease. The headlines scroll by, optional and often unattractive, as quickly as our thumbs will let them. We scroll through for as long as it takes to feel good about ourselves — how many headlines must I read in order to be an informed citizen? — and then quit the app for Snapchat.

Some of us do read the news. But regardless of who we are, or how much news we read or “read,” as long as we’re on a cell phone, there’s an off button. If we read an upsetting headline or article, it takes just the press of a button for the screen to turn black. It’s the same reason why many of us watch scary television shows on our phones: it gives us a feeling of control over the situation, allowing us to escape discomfort.

This, however, is where so much of the problem lies. There is nothing wrong with teenagers watching a scary Netflix show on their phones in order to instill within themselves a sense of control. However, the power to disengage from scary news is false control. As the world continues to spiral sickeningly into pain for many people, some of us turn off our phones — just as we might handle an upsetting episode of Stranger Things — and go on with our day.

Technological socializing is similar: less problematic than minimizing the news, more so than minimizing fiction. Through text, we render ourselves faultless. Similar to the power of a comma — “let’s eat, grandma” versus “let’s eat grandma” — the tone behind our written words alters  their meaning entirely. Tone is created dually by the sender’s intention and the receiver’s reception. Now, a similar claim can be made about face-to-face interactions: intention can clash with reception, even when we speak. However, the infamous off button shrouds us with denial. We grow numb to our  effects on others, our words becoming products of both our minds and the technology through which they are sent to others. We absolve ourselves of responsibility for our own actions by teaming up with inhuman, ambiguity-inducing machines.

On a larger scale, drone strikes and other forms of mechanized mass violence effectively detach people from the results of their actions. Primarily, it becomes harder for these individuals to comprehend the magnitude of said actions. This process essentially fuses — from their perspectives — the real and the artificial, trivializing human life and rendering serious decisions extremely simple. The resulting misconception of the magnitude of actions leads to a lack of appropriate forethought preceding an actually tremendous decision. Thoughtless text messages are a microcosmic example of this.

Cell phones, while providing us with access to an endless world, also make our worlds much smaller. They allow us to interact from a distance; they inspire us to conflate reality and fantasy. They detach us from the truths — good ones, horrific ones, unknown ones  — of other human beings by turning on and off at our command. They allow us to construct our own realities in order to relieve ourselves of discomfort.

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