Technology changing our emotions

Bored, Lonely, Angry, Stupid: Changing Feelings about Technology, from the Telegraph to Twitter by Luke Fernandez & Susan J. Matt (Harvard; £25) reviewed by Alina Ivan.

02 December 2019

Is airbrushing a behaviour of our digital times, or did earlier generations simply express this behaviour differently? Are we lonelier, more readily bored and more distracted than previous generations? Informatician Luke Fernandez and historian Susan Matt seek to answer these questions in Bored, Lonely, Angry, Stupid… They demonstrate great insight into cultural history and how technological developments over the past three centuries have shaped Americans’ emotional lives.

There is no shortage of texts depicting technology as a malign force, from toxic online behaviours and social media addiction, to dystopias such as Frankenstein and more recently Zed by Joanna Kavena. Rather than villainising technology, Fernandez and Matt examine the premise that emotions are not purely innate, stable constructs triggered in response to life events and they have, instead, adapted organically to a collective past. The book offers a refreshing perspective, bringing together two centuries of letters, memoirs, marketing slogans, illustrative artworks and diverse interviews to contextualise narcissism, loneliness, boredom, attention, awe and anger.

The book illustrates how norms around narcissism changed through the centuries as perceptions of vanity steadily relaxed. In the 19th century it was deemed sinful to be overly preoccupied with one’s image, in recognition of the transitory and insignificant nature of life. Yet as photography became more accessible and mirrors were mass-produced, subsequent generations turned their attention ever more towards self-representation.

Options for refining one’s image started to emerge. One photographer achieved success by devising false slim ankles that could hang out of ladies’ long dresses. Nowadays, we swipe right to pick our favourite Instagram filter and perfect our online image from the comfort of our sofas. Perhaps, the book suggests, heightened concern with one’s self-significance has come at the cost of experiencing awe and wonder in the presence of something beyond the human condition, such as a landscape.

Notions of loneliness, too, have changed. Once seen as an inevitable part of the human condition, technologies have created new expectations around human connectedness. The book also describes a trend towards higher levels of boredom, with less tolerance for moments of non-engagement. Periods of inactivity, once thought useful in fostering creativity, are now targeted by slogans such as ‘An app a day keeps the boredom away’.

We now live at the intersection of our online and embodied selves. Fernandez and Matt’s impressive debut provides a well-articulated and nuanced analysis of the overlooked symbiosis between the cultural history of emotions and technological developments.

Reviewed by Alina Ivan, Psychology postgraduate and research assistant at King’s College London