In the Treadmill of Digitalization

By Janina Bühler

We might see ourselves confronted with the claim that we are on the way to an addictive society. Addictive to social resonance experienced by technologies. Digitalization and social media have become an integral part of our daily life. The iPhone as omnipresent manifestation of digitalization represents one of the biggest temptations: it suggests constant and immediate reward in the form of social feedback. Formerly, it was promised that digitalization would render our social connections effortless to both develop and maintain. The promise was kept. But at the same time, digitalization has isolated us and has led us into individual solitude in the social space. We all know the picture of people sitting in the tramway, listening to music from their earphones, their head directed downwards and their gaze paralyzed looking into a little square between their fingers. They seem absorbed by another world. Their world does not take place in the present, but rather in clouds of virtual posts, likes and tweets. Today, we are confronted and exposed with a fulminant amount of attractions that minutely arrive from email accounts, social media, news, and smartphone messages. We become driven individuals, driven by impulse reactions to our smartphones. Based on biochemical processes, these virtual signals are potentially addictive because they send impulses to the same brain synapses that are also activated by cocaine consume. This leads us to the fundamental question of whether we actually control our use of modern communication technology? Or are our feelings, behaviors, and cognitions controlled by digitalization?

I often hear the apprehension that digital development can no longer be impeded. Definitely, technologies and digitalization proceed and have changed our lifestyle. Our ways to communicate with each other have become diversified. In our pocket slumber in one tiny machine social media, communication channels, offers from the Internet, news streams, and a range of personalized apps. But I claim that we are not passively on the mercy of the treadmill of digitalization. We are not non-involved observers of an ever-changing system. We are part of this system and can countervail by taking part in decision-making and the shaping of rules. In order to set these rules, we have to reestablish a culture of authentic interconnection and to redefine self-care in an era of digitalization. It is our task to relearn how to endure moments of silence, how to withstand periods of standstill and how to tolerate times of stagnation. We have to accept that we will miss events when we are not incessantly accessible, locatable and involved. Through this putative lost of involvement, we will regain one decisive thing: our self-determination and inner freedom. It is our responsibility to cultivate such as culture.


Why is digitalization, particularly a smartphone, so tempting for us? Smartphones are tailor-made for our habits and for the fulfillment of our needs. Few other things satisfy our personal needs in this cinch and effortlessness as smartphones do. Especially our fundamental need and basic motive for relatedness is efficiently rewarded. In all life stages, relatedness is of relevance for the well-being of human beings. However, this need is most pronounced among adolescents. In no other life stage, the individual carves for social connections and approval in such a manner as when being adolescent and searching for one’s place in the world. Why are approval and acceptance so essential? Humans strive for being socially accepted and being seen in their individuality. They fear to be overlooked and ignored. Nowadays, the fear is to be digitally dead. However, receiving approval and appreciation from a virtual world does not saturate in the same manner as real interactions do. The constant social undernourishment therewith leads to permanently striving for more acceptance and feedback from the community. This might explain why teenagers today receive more messages than busy managers. We cannot be alone anymore. Alone means isolated from the social community. The potential social isolation is encompassed by the phenomenon of “Fear of Missing Out”, as it was labeled by social psychologist. Especially adolescents and young adults feel that they become unimportant when they are not permanently involved and on track, as the sociologist Sherry Turkle summarized in her book “Alone Together”.

Smartphones do not only make us permanently available. They also affect our capacity for self-control. Do you remember the Marshmallow experiment? The illustrious experiment of Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel that has revealed the significance of delay of gratification for social, emotional and professional success of a person. Maybe – in some years – this test will not be done with a fluffy marshmallow, but with an iPhone. It seems like a hard burden for children to resist. But would we as adults be able to resist? What kind of role model are we to the next generation and to our children? Resisting a Marshmallow or iPhone is not just relevant for the moment. The capacity of both self-control and delay of gratification has an enduring impact for our personal development and our outcomes year and decades after having overcome the temptation: being able to resist has implications for our satisfaction, our health, and our job performance. Do we loose this capacity in face of the new technologies? Are we too much used to know everything feasible?

Having the lucrative temptation of a smartphone in mind that constantly holds the possibility to relate with others and to experience immediate need satisfaction, we can’t resist ourselves anymore. Every second of a potential vacuum needs to be filled. While sitting in the waiting room of the gynecologist or while riding in the elevator, we can order from Amazon, check the New York Times, or rate four potential dates on Tinder. We behave, as we were stimulus-reaction-machines and have forgotten how to pause for a moment. However, permanently being on digital standby undermines the possibility to experience a flow state. But this flow state lets us experience the moment and makes us feel alive. Little else is such a significant ingredient for happiness than being completely absorbed in the activity we do. Potentially, this longing for flow and for proximate experience explain why hotels and – ironically – apps that help to be offline are gaining in popularity. There is a growing need for self-centering, but our capacity to achieve it seems weaken.


What does it mean for our family, our partner, and our close friends that we are all permanently connected via smartphones? While trying to find an answer to this question it is difficult to avoid the impression that digitalization, i.e., a smartphone, has two sides of the coin. On one side we become more flexible. At all times and locations, we can connect with people and meet them. On the other side, we appear contactless in the social room. Moreover, we risk to become uncommitted with our close others as every appointment can be changed until the very last minute.

On a daily, and rather superficial level of broad social connections, we stop interacting with each other. Waiting for the bus, I no longer smile at the old woman next to me; Sitting in the café, I no longer try to make eye contact with the smart-looking guy at the bar; Walking through the streets of London, I no longer ask for the way when I loose orientation. On a deeper level of social integration and with regard to romantic relationships, apps like Whatsapp nurture insecurity and negative feelings. Having sent a message, we can see and directly trace when our counterpart has received and read the message. This opens the mind for manifold speculations and dangerous interpretations: Why did she not read it? Why does he not answer? Through this mediated way of interacting we permanently live in a second, virtual, relationship that bears the potential to tell our mind a different story. Moreover, online dating platforms and trolley-like apps such as Tinder hold the danger to get engrossed by someone other than the partner: the grass is always greener on the other side. This constant presence of a potential new mate and the ready seduction impede tight and sincere commitment to the romantic partner. However, it is this commitment that is the essential link between two people and one of the most important parts of a trusting and long-lasting romantic relationship.

Further, platforms like Facebook inhibit our feeling of happiness. Already Charles de Montesquieu remarked that “if we only wanted to be happy, it would be easy; but we want to be happier than other people, and that is almost always difficult, since we think them happier than they are.” Facebook represents a fruitful podium for this tendency: friend A has just uploaded a picture from Sri Lanka, friend B commentated the head-over-heels in-love picture of friend C, and friend D posted the certificate of her finished diploma in interior design. What am I doing wrong that I am not in sunny Sri Lanka, not happily in love, and do not hold a certificate in my hands? It is hardly difficult to image how this continuous comparison affects our self-value and our sense of self-esteem. The digital world is a world that follows us on a permanent standby modus. Therewith, every interaction and moment becomes a little less intensive. Permanently, we are accompanied by a digital social-media-thinking. Sceneries do not have just to be great in the moment, they also have to comprise a good picture or at least a good story to tell others. Therewith, the experiencing self constantly develops into a remembering self. Thinking and behaving in terms of this remembering self goes hand in hand with less well-being and more intriguing thoughts.


Facing the personal and social consequences of the treadmill of digitalization, we have to ask ourselves: Are we like the animals of the American psychologist Martin Seligman that have lost their control and acquired a state of learned helplessness? Do we have to wait until the social environment re-changes or can we develop our own coping strategies in the face of the digital acceleration?

It is often considered as the most comfortable way to appeal to the bigger picture and to make key actors and stake holders responsible for this development and therefore responsible for change. Some companies try to modify their philosophy, for instance by blocking email accounts on weekends. For sure, these innovations point in an interesting direction. However, something revolts and struggles inside me. Do we really need someone exterior that blocks our email account? Have our precursors not battled for decades to become mature and responsible decision makers of their own actions? Is change only possible and desirable when it develops in a top-down process? By no means. We should not wait until the systems changes – for three reasons. First, because changes like these take a long time. Second, we are not passive observers of the situation. Third, waiting undermines our mature mental independence and most notably our sense of self-determination. The system has to be changed in a bottom-up process. Systemically thought, each of us builds the whole picture and we, collectively, are the system. Only if each individual stepwise changes its behavior, the whole system will change. We should not wait that social coping strategies pop up out of the blue. We should take charge ourselves. First, we have to acknowledge the consequences that new technologies have on our behavior and on ourselves. Technologies, digitalization and social media affect our sense of self and our connection to our close others. Second, we don’t want to become stimuli-reaction-machines that get activated when a message drops in and rest passive when nothing happens. Third, we as adults have a responsibility to act as role models for our children. How can children learn to be in the moment, when adults reach for their smartphones as soon as it sounds or vibrates? Relearning these self-monitoring capacities enable us to activate parts of our brain that are responsible for delay of gratification. With this capacity, we are able to strive for long-term rewards and success, which give us the chance of reaching what the Ancient Greeks called eudemonia – a state of happiness and human flourishing – instead of a drug like feeling of happiness.



In the pursuit of the beautiful soul we need to raise our eyes for the consequences of the proceeding digitalization. I explicitly don’t want to speak against technologies or against the use of smartphones. They encompass a vast range of beneficial achievements and imply clear advantages. I rather want to pander to the capacity of self-directed behavior of the individual. Self-directness, self-monitoring and delay of gratification may sometimes be hard work. But it is no obligation; it is a luxury. It is a way to hold the pen of our life in our hands and to pursue a successful and satisfied life. In the end, it is about self-care and care for our close others. Children can only learn to pause for a moment and to reflect, when they have adults that teach them to do it. Therefore, children (and adults) need to learn a new form of media competence. Several years ago, media competence encompassed the use of word, the save handling of the Internet and working with Microsoft Excel. Today, media competence includes a wide range of personal skills, the management of needs in face of media enticements, and the emancipation from the permanent digital involvement. We as adults should seek for moments offline and celebrate them. We should learn how it feels to get lost in the streets without Google Maps. We should learn how it feels to make an appointment and to wait, because our friend missed the train. Although it seems at first glance that we loose achievements and have to leave our comfort zone, we will regain one decisive thing: our self-determination. The development of technologies cannot and should not be stopped. The only thing we can do is to decide how we want to live our lives. When we do not want technologies to decide the rhythm of our lives, then we have to play the rhythm ourselves and start to act.