iEnvy: Some Observations on Technology Envy Syndrome

19 Jun


For a  few  years I have been wanting to try out an electronic book reader,  so  last summer I splurged on a basic  Amazon Kindle.  Until recently I have been perfectly satisfied with it. On Mother’s day, however, our oldest son sent my wife Diane, a brand new Kindle Fire. With its bright color touch screen and host of other features, the Kindle Fire makes my old one look both clunky and obsolete and Diane is not above rubbing it in. I tried to rationalize by telling myself that my old Kindle is much lighter and that you can read the black and white screen much easier in the sunlight. But no matter how you slice it, compared to the Kindle Fire, my old one is a hunk of junk. Worse yet my ten year-old granddaughter also has a Kindle Fire.

I like to think of myself as being on the cutting edge of technology, but when it comes to e-readers I’m getting shellacked. I did recently upgrade to an i-phone, but my daughter and her husband Jeff insist that their android system is better. Jeff and I always compare notes about computers and smart phones. Whenever I upgrade my computer I have only one criteria, whatever I get   has to be “better than Jeff’s”. I think he upgraded last, so I now lag behind in the laptop division.  I’ve  conceded a long time ago in the television and electronic game system categories. He has a television as big as all outdoors and I’ve lost count of the number of game systems they have. When we visit, our four-year-old grandson patiently explains to me how the video games work,  before he beats the pants off me. All the while his 3 year sister repeats after him, just waiting for her own chance to take the old man down.
I should, however defend myself from the accusation  of unkindness towards my son-in–law. Jeff was a standout athlete back in high school and is certainly not immune to the competitive spirit. When we have played darts, golf, or even horseshoes, he becomes tortured if he doesn’t win and immediately becomes obsessed with the sport and improving  his skills,  until he is able to blow everyone else out of the water.

Aristotle,  said that envy is pain at the good fortune of others. “Technology envy” then would be the discomfort felt when someone else has access to more advanced technology then you do.    

Such “technology envy”  is especially  common in the workplace. This January the Captivate /Office Pulse survey  of   580 North American white-collar workers found  that 30%  of respondents  reported being “very envious” of the devices their colleagues brought into the workplace. The most device-envious people tended to be lower paid  working moms over the  age 30, who have other little  technology hungry beings to consider.

In  the office setting, workers reported that they were most envious of their coworker’s tablets (39%) followed by e-readers (36%),  smart phones (24%), and HDTVs (11%).  At home  the pattern is almost identical, although with  slightly less envy.  The most envied   brand name products  were  the  iphone (73%),  ipads (80%), and  Kindles (50%).  That’s a lot of i-envy.

Australian Technology writer Graeme Philipson has described  what he calls  the Technology Envy Syndrome,  He says it is widespread, and is not easily curable, encouraged as it is by the planned obsolescence  within the industry.   He also questions  if it is only a  coincidence that the  computer  and illegal drug  industries are the only ones that call their customers “users”?

Over the years I’ve noted how the technology competition has advanced at professional meetings I’ve attended. At first phones and computers grew smaller and smaller, then there was a shift when smart phones started using their  screens for a variety of functions and then  tablets started  replacing laptops. The goal, of course,  was to be noticed  by having the latest and greatest technology. Just watch any group  of Information Technology workers compare their phones and you can see such envy at its zenith. 

I believe that, for the most part, technology envy falls into the benign rather than the malicious category of envy.  People are envious of a concrete  possession, rather than a more personal attribute and generally it doesn’t involve the harsh resentment that often accompanies malicious  envy. One exception might be situations in the workplace when a coworker is given access to better or newer technology and doesn’t seem to deserve the special privilege. In such situations it wouldn’t be unusual to want to see your coworker deprived of their unfair advantage, punished severely,  and forced to hand over the new technology   to a more deserving party, such as yourself. 

Psychologist  Sarah Hill from  Texas Christian University  and her colleagues explored both the positive and the negative consequences of envy. They found that on the positive side, envy   helps you   pay attention to people who have things that you want. Thus benign envy can help you better define your goals and see what it takes to achieve them.  On the downside malicious envy  seems to reduce the effort that people are able to  expend problem solving.

Evolutionary psychologists  believe that  envy, is  rooted in the biological drive  for survival.   Recent studies have confirmed that benign envy can actually improve people’s  cognitive  functioning–  increasing  mental persistence and memory. I can imagine that technology envy can lead to learning about, acquiring and mastering new technologies, which has obvious survival value. People who lack the ability to demonstrate any envy whatsoever, would lack this  survival advantage .

I suppose it is also rather shortsighted to envy the technological possessions of others and fail to see the worth and value of what you have been given.  In his description of the ultimate fates of perpetrators of the seven deadly sins, Dante portrayed  “the envious”  as plodding along under cloaks of lead with their eyes sewn shut, because  they are blind to  all of what they have been given. 

In envious comparisons, people tend to be very selective and narrow in what they choose to compare. Generally they tend to look at only the best that someone else possesses, rather than the whole picture.  In this way they cannot help but to fall short.

I have decided to take the first step and publically admit that I suffer from Technology Envy Syndrome. Perhaps with time I can learn to appreciate what I have, control my resentment,  and not care so much about what new wonders  that stinking Diane and Jeff possess.

First published in the Southern Indiana News and Tribune


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