Ein Mann und eine Frau, die intelligente Geräte tragen, schauen auf ihre Uhr.Ein Mann und eine Frau, die intelligente Geräte tragen, schauen auf ihre Uhr.

3 November 2020

Not without my gadget: How digital companions affect our lives

Everyone has gotten used to the smartphone in their pocket: messages, e-mails, social networks – everything is within reach. But the use of other smart gadgets such as the Smartwatch is increasing, and with it, networking.

Smart Gadgets for all purposes

Whether you want to record your Saturday running route as a map or the vital data from your workout: with the Smartwatch on your wrist you can not only manage your activities but also optimize your life. In most cases, this requires integration into the cloud, where the data is stored and evaluated. We don’t even want to talk about data security at this point and ask whether a European cloud would be a solution. Because if you use a fitness tracker, you inevitably have to agree to personal data ending up on a server overseas.

But if you analyze your health with a technical gadget, you should at least be aware that companies and secret services can read along. But it’s just as convenient to measure your physical activity, get an overview of your mileage and see your progress, read and answer emails and WhatsApp messages on your wrist, or skip to the next song. With such a gadget, it’s like having a private car: after a certain amount of time, you never want to go without it again.

The same is true for the vacuum cleaner robot: Daily cleaning in your absence (since increased presence by home office, perhaps less frequently) is often one of your favorite habits. The robot is rarely carried around with you, but even the robot likes to send a map of the apartment or house to a server in China. Not to mention the smart speaker with which you can play music and receive all kinds of information on demand. But therefore do without it? Because someone might be able to play around with our data? Probably not. Maybe it’s like the washing machine: The fact that it could leak and flood the whole apartment is such an abstract danger that we accept it for the great convenience of no longer having to wash our clothes by hand in a tub.

What does that do to the individual?

The effects of smartphones on the human psyche have been studied many times. The spectrum of dangers ranges from stimulus satiation, states of exhaustion and negative effects on our sleep to disturbed face-to-face communication and accidents because we are constantly distracted.

Just a few years ago people met to exchange ideas in the pub or on the market place, today people meet on Facebook. So it just takes work off our hands? The work of moving out of the house or making appointments? What was there before? The need for news? Or has availability made us dependent on new stimuli? Because there is a new stimulus behind every click; because Infinite Scrolling tempts us to never put the cell phone down; because we forget tasks like cleaning, because the robot does it for us? Reading maps because the navigation system does the job for us? Writing by hand, because voice control is everything?

A gadget that first awakens a need and then makes us dependent – does that make us sick at some point? It’s not all that bad, says the German Ministry of Education and Research. “Digitalization is noticeably relieving the strain on people in their everyday lives. Innovative solutions make life safer and more comfortable: They promote health, provide support at home or on the road in traffic.

If we were to compile a list of gadgets that have made our lives easier over the past, say, fifty years, one thing would stand out. They can be divided into two categories: Those that relieve us of work and those that satisfy needs we didn’t know we had. A camera is a technical gadget, first analog, then digital. Does it do the work for us? Maybe because we can no longer paint pictures by hand, but with light. With a laptop we can create and send texts in no time at all, without the detour of the post office. It gets more difficult with mixed products that can do more than just one thing. The smartphone links the camera with the phone with the navigation system with the mailbox and above all with access to social networks.

Eine Person trägt eine Smartwatch, eines der neuesten und beliebtesten Smart-Gadgets, am Handgelenk.
Now indispensable for many: regularly checking your pulse, step count and calories burned

How much network is bearable?

So when is a gadget a servant and when does it make us dependent on itself? Perhaps the degree of networking is also decisive here. When more and more information is revealed by us, when we are integrated into a network of other gadgets and users that makes it impossible for us to break out of it without harming our social life. So when it’s not the networked person who is the exception, but the person who doesn’t use a gadget, because he or she might not get the invitation to run together.

As sociologist and technology consultant Felix Sühlmann-Faul writes: “Digitalization must not be an end in itself. Technology – and that includes digitalization – is always a tool and can certainly be used to achieve a more sustainable world”.

At the latest when the first person has to be rescued from starvation in their home shortly before they die of hunger because their networked refrigerator “forgot” to reorder food from the delivery service, we will have to start worrying.

Do you have any further questions?