How Modern Technology Can Shape Our Lives For The Better–And Also The Worst

Lily Cole, actress, social campaigner and National Geographic UK guest editor, reveals how modern technology can help us build a better future and why putting down her smart phone remains one of her biggest challenges.

Photographs By Jessie Lily Adams
Published 23 Feb 2018, 09:40 GMT, Updated 5 Nov 2020, 06:04 GMT
Portrait image of Lily Cole

Not long ago, Lily Cole received a hand-written letter in the post. These days, that’s curious enough. Even more curious was the message it contained. It was from a friend of hers called Mark Boyle, informing her he had decided to abandon technology in all its forms. Boyle now lives off the grid in an old house in County Galway, in the west of Ireland.

Boyle had previously lived for three years without money and it was that legacy which first connected him to Cole, when she co-founded Impossible.com as an online gift economy to connect strangers in cities.

In preparation for her guest editorship of this issue of National Geographic, she wrote back to Boyle, quizzing him about his eschewal of technology, and the effect on his life. (Telephone calls or email were obviously impossible.) At the time of this interview, the delays of the international postal system meant she still hadn’t received a reply.

Pros and Cons of Modern Technology

Handwritten note in pencil is indicative of the simple life Mark Boyle has opted for including living without any form of modern technology. Lily Cole received the letter a few days after the interview had taken place.

Like all of us (except for the Mark Boyles of this world), Cole appreciates the pros and cons of modern technology. But this actress and social campaigner admits there’s always a love-hate relationship at play. She uses her mobile phone as an example.

“I’m potentially addicted to it,” she says. “Of course, there are enormous benefits to mobile phones but it’s crucial we all stop to question the role of digital technology in our lives and how it impacts our brains and our lifestyles.”

On the rare days she kicks the habit and turns her phone off, Cole finds herself thinking about unread messages, or emails she should send. At the same time, however, she notices an improvement in her mental state. “If I’m on holiday and I haven’t had reception for a few days, I feel much calmer. Is there one particular part of the brain we use when we’re on our phones or computers? If so, I worry we’re over-using that part of our brains.”

Cole compares digital technology temptation to the lure of food. “Imagine if food had been invented only 28 years ago, when the internet was invented. Yes, food is important and you need it to survive, but you wouldn’t consume all day long, as we do our mobile phones. Perhaps–as Mark Boyle puts it–we are technologically obese.”

Renewable Technology

Lily Cole believes that modern technology can enable a city's infrastructure to operate more efficiently. Cole says, "The smart cities of the future can be less polluting, less congested, less noisy".

Impossible has since diversified its tech offering, and one project they have collaborated on is a smartphone called the Fairphone, which is built from ethically-sourced materials, easily repaired and with replaceable modules.

Fairphone is careful to only use conflict free minerals in their supply chain, and its modular proposition means that you don’t have to upgrade and replace the phone every year or two. But, crucially, Impossible designed a feature that reminds owners how long it is since they last used it. “It encourages people to cut back on their usage time.”

Cole is excited by the possibilities technology might offer for smart cities–where digital technology enables the city’s infrastructure to operate more efficiently. She reels off potential benefits such as automatically staggering energy use in domestic homes to avoid energy surges; or self-driving electric cars and car-sharing services.

Cole believes it’s not too unrealistic to imagine that, in the coming years, we’ll see autonomous flying cars in the cities’ skies. “They’ll be part of mainstream public transport,” she predicts, aware that right now it sounds like the backdrop to a sci-fi movie.

Simple life

Could modern technologies, such as electric cars, help the cities of tomorrow to be a better place to live? Lily Cole believes that technologies, including self-driving vehicles and staggering energy use, can make a positive impact.

“Don’t get me wrong, I would love for everyone to do a Mark Boyle: move to the wilderness to live a simpler life closer to nature, but as our global population continues to grow at a rate of 240,000 additional people a day, cities will inevitably get denser and we need to make adaptations for that. The sky maybe the only place with any space left.”

A few days after this interview Cole received a letter back from Boyle; hand-written, in pencil, of course. It turns out he has been living without technology for over a year now. “Language, an axe, smartphones, sex robots, even this pencil I write with could all be considered technologies,” he writes.

“I no longer wish to use industrial-scale technology–things that I couldn't possibly make from the landscape I’m trying to live as part of; things that discourage me from developing a direct and immediate relationship with the life–human and non-human–that surrounds me.”

So Boyle has abandoned electricity, gas, oil, solar power and running water. He has no car, no phone, no internet access, no fridge, no freezer. His reasons for such a drastic change in lifestyle?

Impact of Industrialism

image taken from the top of Shanghai's Lupu Bridge illustrates the traffic and air quality problems that face so many of the world's cities.
Photograph by Fabian P.; National Geographic Your Shot

“The political ideology of industrialism is driving the mass extinction of species, wiping out tribal peoples–and their languages, cultures, ways, perspectives–while creating a toxic biosphere,” he adds.

“Whether you use your smart phone or laptop once a day, or fifty times, its initial production requires oil rigs, quarries, mines, factories, armies to enforce international contracts, deforestation, bottom-trawling, transport networks and everything else required to feed and support the industrial economy required for their production.”

“Technology also separates us from the natural world and our immediate community. I hear many people spend more time in bed touching and playing with their smart phones, than their lovers,” he concludes.

Life values

It’s a notion Cole has much sympathy for. She appreciates “all the amazing positive things that technology can do”, but warns “we have to be mindful that there can be as many negative effects”.

“We shouldn't blindly, naively carry on with life as normal, assuming that technology will save us,” she adds. “Perhaps we need to prioritise making changes to our values and behaviour patterns whilst developing all this fancy technology.”

 

Lily Cole is the guest editor of the February 2018 issue of National Geographic magazine out now in all good retailers

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