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Coronavirus is a chance to reset our relationship with our phones | Nancy Jo Sales | Opinion


We are in for a long haul. We, who have become accustomed to expecting things now, are going to have to wait. It could be months before our world returns to normal, if it ever does. Or if it even should. We are experiencing something unprecedented: a pandemic in the digital age.

Yet this is a unique opportunity which we should not pass up. In this moment of pause, we have the chance to reset our relationship to tech. For the last decade, tech has been running us. Now is our chance to reset that relationship.

It wasn’t so long ago that we all started carrying smartphones. We gave them to our kids. These devices seemed like such cool things to have – they gave us everything now: information, transportation, entertainment, food, even sex. We never liked to think about how they were changing our behavior. Making us more aggressive with each other. More judgmental, narcissistic, impatient, impulsive. More likely to treat each other as objects to consume and discard or “ghost”.

We surrendered our power to companies who used these devices to modify our behavior, with algorithms designed to do just that. We agreed without agreeing to become programmed – something we still don’t like to contemplate – because the convenience of everything we were getting so quickly felt so good.

That is, until it didn’t feel good anymore. Until we began to feel more anxious and depressed. The companies making these devices promised that they would bring our world closer together. Yet we felt less connected, not more.

When medical professionals began to insist on “social distancing” as a way to curb the spread of coronavirus, people reacted with alarm. It’s scary to think that we can’t connect with each other. We need each other. We have evolved to need each other – not only to feel good, but to survive.

And yet, if we’re honest about it, we began this process of social distancing years ago. About the same time we started carrying around these phones, we found ourselves having fewer in-person conversations; we visited each other less; we had fewer parties and dinner parties; we stopped going on real dates. It seemed easier to just not deal with each other. Humans are difficult and complicated and messy; it was easier to have our primary relationships with our phones. All of this served tech companies quite well. Every click, scroll, swipe provided them with more data, which translated into more money in their profit columns.

But now we’re in a moment when we need each other more than ever. We will need each other to provide information, comfort, solace, distraction, entertainment, jokes. We will need each other to listen. We will need to support each other, like family members do, or should; we will need to see ourselves once again as all belonging to the same family of humankind.

And we can use these devices to do just that. We can revert our relationship with tech to the utopian vision of the early days of the internet, when it was seen as something that was going to help us grow and evolve and learn new and better ways of communicating.

But in order to do that, we have to modify our own behavior – behavior that has been perversely modified by the companies seeking our data, over these last few years. We cannot troll. We cannot be the snarky one with that smartass comment that gets attention at the expense of someone’s feelings. We cannot neglect or ignore those to whom we bear responsibility. We cannot spread negativity. We cannot spread nihilism and death, by which I mean the death of social connection.

In order to do this, we will have to use social media very consciously. We must think before we post. We must use this unprecedentedly powerful medium with the same sense of consciousness Kafka once wrote about, in a passage that seems more relevant than ever in the time of the coronavirus: “We human beings ought to stand before one another as reverently, as reflectively, as lovingly, as we would before the entrance to hell.”

We can start by simply asking each other: “How are you?”

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