20 years of tech has made life easier, not better.

Lately, I’ve felt nostalgic for the cluttered aisles of the local video store. It was more than a place; it was a portal, a weekend ritual that promised adventure, laughter, and the thrill of discovery. You would step inside, greeted by the scent of popcorn and the soft buzz of fluorescent lights, and the world was at your fingertips. Selecting five movies to savour over the course of a week was more than just a task; it was an event, an experience that modern streaming services have struggled to replicate.

The magic of the video store was partly in the ritual. Leaving your home, engaging with community members, and physically browsing titles was a deliberate process that added weight to the choice. Each VHS or DVD case you picked up was a potential treasure, its physical heft a promise of the story contained within. The commitment of your selections carried a sense of permanence, a pledge to invest your time in the narrative worlds they offered.

In contrast, streaming services, with their endless options, often lead to a paradox of choice. The ease of scrolling through titles and the lack of commitment required to press ‘play’ can lead to a hollow feeling, an entertainment ennui. The excitement of choosing has been replaced by the apathy of abundance, where nothing is special because everything is available.

While attempting to replicate this with ‘curated’ suggestions, streaming services miss the human touch, the serendipity of chance encounters. The communal aspect of discovery and the shared excitement of weekend releases have been diluted into the solitude of our living rooms.

There was an inherent value placed on our time and choices when the number of movies you could rent was limited. Returning to the store to swap out titles created a natural pacing to our consumption. We were more likely to sit through a slow-burn thriller or give a critically panned comedy a chance because it was one of our five for the week.

Today, with streaming, the immediacy with which we can abandon one title for another cheapens our engagement. The ease of access and the ‘always more’ ethos of streaming platforms have turned viewing into a race to consume rather than an experience to be savored. The anticipation that built up around watching a weekly rental has been extinguished by the instant gratification that streaming offers.

Every year brings a dazzling new array of technological innovations, each more “exciting” than the last. Smartphones have become smarter, homes have become more connected, kitchen appliances (for some unknown reason) have integrated with more social networks, and virtual assistants cater ever more eagerly to our passing whims. But reflecting on the last two decades of tech, I’ve found a disquieting thought emerging: Has all this innovation actually made my life measurably better?

There’s no denying that technology has infused convenience into our lives that our ancestors couldn’t have fathomed. With a few taps on a screen, we can summon food to our doorsteps, video chat with someone across the globe, or easily navigate a foreign city without bothering to learn the local language. The world has become high-tech, but only in the most superficial sense of the phrase.

We celebrate the ability to work remotely, but this same technology shackles us to an ‘always on’ work culture that blurs the lines between professional and personal life. We can shop online from the comfort of our couch, but our local high streets have become ghost towns, the communal aspect eroded by convenience.

Our psychological well-being hasn’t kept pace with our technological gains. We’re more connected than ever, and yet loneliness is at an all-time high. Our world is smaller, our reach is wider, but our relationships are thinner.

Social media platforms promised to connect us in ways unimaginable, to weave a global tapestry of shared experiences. While it’s true that we can comment on a friend’s new tattoo in real-time or watch a cousin’s wedding live from a thousand miles away, the depth of these digital connections is often as shallow as the screens they’re displayed on. The community feels more like a collection of curated profiles than a network of deep relationships, leading many of us to question whether our social fabric has been enriched or merely expanded.

The unfettered access to information was heralded as one of the crowning achievements of the technological age. But as we drown in the deluge of unverified, unfiltered, unfettered data, wisdom is becoming a scarce resource. The ability to ask ChatGPT for information is not equivalent to understanding that information, and the sheer volume of available “content” — the vast detritus of the internet — spreads ever more confusion and misinformation. Our cognitive filters struggle to sift through the noise, leaving us not necessarily better informed but somehow always ready to regurgitate bytes of useless trivia or blatant propaganda.

The narrative that tech billionaires have improved our quality of life is compelling. But a narrative is all it is. We laud the genius archetype, we celebrate the venture capitalist, and we collectively masturbate over the latest hoody-wearing white dude with an app. And it’s reasonably safe to say that almost none of it is progressing the noble cause of humanity.

The question then becomes: How do we measure ‘better’? If ‘better’ means more time — technology, ironically, has consumed it rather than freed it up. We spend hours tethered to screens, chasing the ephemeral satisfaction of likes and shares. If ‘better’ means healthier — the omnipresence of technology has, in many cases, exacerbated issues of mental health, from anxiety to sleep disturbances.

Are we accomplishing more in less time or simply rushing through life with technology urging us on? The allure of multitasking, powered by tech, is fracturing our attention span, and the quality of our work and the depth of our engagement with the world around us are suffering.

If technology serves us, shouldn’t it be judged by how much joy it brings into our lives, how it enhances our relationships, and how it contributes to our sense of purpose?

The disappearance of video stores marked the quiet end of an era. It’s about more than the loss of a business model; it’s the fading of a culture that celebrated the collective joy of exploration and the inherent pleasure of constraint. Streaming services may have replaced the video store, but for those of us who grew up marvelling at the curated shelves and talking to passionate clerks, they have yet to replicate the excitement and the community that came with it. The video store wasn’t just a store; it was a shared experience, a tangible part of our lives that tech, in all its sleek pseudo sophistication, can never truly replace.

While technology has streamlined the minutiae of our daily routines, it has not elevated our quality of life to the exalted heights forecast by the pundits and prophets of Silicon Valley. Ours is an age of marginal convenience, not measurable betterment.

For all my ranting and raving, I don’t believe the solution lies in a wholesale retreat from digital advancements. If I’d had either more or less coffee today, I’d have a far more intelligent analogy, but something about closing the barn door after the horse has already gone viral, etc., will suffice.

The key may be to cultivate what one might call ‘technological mindfulness,’ an approach that embraces the tools of modernity while maintaining an acute awareness of their place in our lives. This isn’t about eschewing devices but about recalibrating our relationship with them. It involves asking ourselves whether each new app or gadget truly serves us or is merely filling a void with the white noise of convenience.

I am redefining my metrics for a ‘better’ life. If the last two decades have taught us anything, a life measured by the number of tasks completed in a day may miss the essence of what it means to live well. Perhaps, then, ‘better’ can be understood as the quality of our relationships, the richness of our experiences, and the depth of our engagements with the world around us.

Hope lies in our adaptability. Just as we have learned to navigate a world of constant notifications and digital demands, we can learn to set boundaries that prioritize human connection, creativity, and mental well-being. It’s about harnessing the conveniences of technology to enhance these aspects of life rather than overshadow them.

Technology, after all, is a tool — and it is only as beneficial as its purpose. By reorienting our use of technology towards enriching the human experience rather than merely facilitating the mundane, we can begin to close the gap between the convenience provided by the last 20 years of tech and the genuine betterment of our lives. This is not a regression; it’s an evolution towards balance and a step towards a future where we control Silicon Valley’s shiny toys and not the other way around.

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