Girl in the Machine

Have you ever opened your phone to check the weather and found yourself stuck in social media for half an hour without understanding why? ‘Zombie Scrolling Syndrome,’ the mindless scrolling out of habit, is becoming more and more common.

But why does this happen? Most online platforms are designed to maximize their users’ time on the screen, exposing them to more advertisements and getting more of their data. This can create unhealthy relationships between people and technology; what starts as thirty minutes of scrolling through instagram reels can become systematic and evolve into a serious addiction.

Over the past two years, technology has proven itself an incredible ally. It has allowed us to stay connected to each other despite lockdowns, as well as empowering many to work from home. It has democratised knowledge, allowing anyone with an internet connection to access a global network of data (including this article!). However, the increased connectivity has also led to an unhealthy work/life balance, an inability to ‘turn off,’ as well as addiction. 

 A study conducted in China in 2020 showed that 36.7% of participants were suffering from internet addiction, and almost half of them (43.8%) reported an increase in its severity after the COVID-19 outbreak in 2019.

The whole world at the tip of our fingers

The first smartphone was only released in 2007, and through this 14 year span, the constant access to the online world evolved from something unimaginable to something most people can’t imagine living without.

Over the past five years, the number of smartphone users rose from 3.6 to 6.3 billion, and this number will continue to grow in the future, according to Statista

Being able to find any kind of information anywhere using our phones is certainly an advantage. But it is easy to become addicted to the instant gratification provided by our phones.

 But what is really an addiction?

According to the NHS, ‘addiction is defined as not having control over doing, taking or using something to the point where it could be harmful to you.’ When someone is addicted to technology, their personal life can be completely disrupted; their sleeping and eating habits change, and their interpersonal relations can be affected. The similarities between this and drug addiction are startling.

Just like drug addiction, addiction to technology can lead to withdrawal symptoms when not using it, creating stress, anxiety, and even leading to psychosis in certain cases. Tolerance also starts developing, meaning that there will be a need for the user to spend more and more time on screen to get the same ‘buzz’.

This ‘buzz’ is the result of dopamine, part of the ‘reward centre’ of the brain. Technology addiction, similar to drug addiction, tricks the brain to releasing this chemical when scrolling online. The excessive dopamine-related activity in the brain affects the functioning of the neurons in the prefrontal cortex. Among other things, this part of the brain is responsible for impulse control, and its malfunction can lead to addiction. The frontal cortex is also responsible for processing sensory information. Therefore, changes in its normal behaviour can alter the way an individual perceives reality. 

But, like other issues, we can’t look at addiction as a mere outcome of chemical processes but as a reflection of other problems. It can be an escape from personal worries, and it is deeply influenced by much more profound societal problems.

Girl in the Machine

But as technology ingrains itself further into our lives, we should wonder what the future might look like. Nobody would have guessed the impact of technological giants like Google and Facebook a decade ago. Grappling with these issues is not just the remit of policymakers and technocrats. Art invites us to confront these issues by creatively presenting us with familiar scenarios. 

Girl in the Machine, a play being presented at Spazju Kreattiv, explores the lives of Owen and Polly, a couple that sees their relationship torn apart after Owen brings home a VR gadget to help Polly relieve her stress. In this dystopian narrative, we can catch a glimpse of what society might look like if our reliance on technology goes too far. Wth META’s recent announcement that they intend to create a new digital universe (metaverse), the issues explored by Girl in the Machine may well become tangible issues in the not-so-distant future.

The idea of finding an escape from the monotony and the pressure of daily life in the virtual world is very tempting, but it’s easy to become attached to this false reality. Polly’s dependence is hauntingly similar to what many of us feel. Zombie Scrolling isn’t just an impulsive habit; it could also be an escape into a world where we can better control how we present ourselves. A place where we can curate what we want to see, rather than be victim to uncertain circumstances and depressing news cycles. But how can we break the cycle, and should we?

More information about the play can be found on Spazju Kreattiv’s website, and tickets can be acquired here. Girl in the Machine premiers this Friday (3rd December) at 8 pm.

All photograph’s courtesy of Monika Kopčilova

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