How To Use Technology And Not Be Used By It: A Psychologist’s Reading List

recommended by Margaret Morris

Left to Our Own Devices: Outsmarting Smart Technology to Reclaim Our Relationships, Health, and Focus by Margaret Morris

Left to Our Own Devices: Outsmarting Smart Technology to Reclaim Our Relationships, Health, and Focus
by Margaret Morris


Many people are now worried about the impact of tech devices and social media on our brains—and believe they could be harmful to our psychological wellbeing. Psychologist Margaret Morris, author of Left to Our Own Devices, argues for a more nuanced approach and talks us through the books that shaped her own approach to technology.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

Left to Our Own Devices: Outsmarting Smart Technology to Reclaim Our Relationships, Health, and Focus by Margaret Morris

Left to Our Own Devices: Outsmarting Smart Technology to Reclaim Our Relationships, Health, and Focus
by Margaret Morris

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These days there’s been a bit of a reaction against technology, with many people worrying about its downsides. Before we look at the books you’ve chosen about how to use technology, one question: as a trained psychologist, what’s the verdict about the electronic devices that we have in lives? Is technology good for you, or is it bad for you?

It’s the classic answer of ‘it depends.’ I would make a strong case that it depends on how creatively you use tech and how much you align it to your personal objectives. The public debate is really stuck in this binary right now—at least in mainstream media. It’s ‘technology hurts your brain’ or ‘it’s not good for kids’ or ‘it’s causing loneliness.’ Or it isn’t.

I think it plays out in a much more nuanced way. It’s not just how much time you’re spending with technology or what technology you’re using; it’s about how much you are making it your own. People who are able to fit things into their lives and into their relationships will do better than those who fit themselves into the interests of a technology company.

How can you get the self-awareness to use technology in that way?

There are a lot of different approaches to self-reflection. One way is just to have more conversations with yourself and with other people about what’s important to you, what your struggles are, what you’re going after in either your personal ambitions, your health or your relationships. Then you want to ask yourself, ‘Okay. Is the way I’m using my technologies, my social media, and so on helping me get there? So those are the first two steps: What am I after, and is the way I’m using these technologies congruent with that? Maybe you realize it’s not really, and then you’re at least recognizing there is dissonance and that could help you start thinking and experimenting with what you could do differently.

“ What am I after, and is the way I’m using these technologies congruent with that?”

There are also more formal ways to do it. What I and some colleagues who’ve taught classes on social media do is have students keep a journal of what they’re using and how they feel about it. I have the students do a pretty thorough process of a ‘Life Story Interview.’ They look back over their own life, as if they’re interviewing someone else, and find the themes, the major chapters, pivotal people and experiences.

That interview process was developed by psychologist Dan McAdams, who wrote one of the books that I’ve recommended, The Stories We Live By. I first ask students to do that interview with themselves. It’s a pretty personal and in-depth thing just to acknowledge the major chapters, themes and struggles in one’s life. Next they integrate a description of the technologies that were significant at different points in their lives. Then they find points where where their technology use might be either exacerbating certain struggles or certainly not helping them move on. They might recognize what Dan McAdams calls ‘a narrative rut.’ Then they can start thinking about what to do differently. So that’s a pretty explicit, deliberate approach.

Some people I’ve interviewed are less systematic about it, but still find meaningful ways to use technology. For them it’s less about, ‘Okay, I’m going to take control’ and there’s more serendipity involved. I’ll give an example. In Left to Our Own Devices, there’s a story about a man who notices someone new has stepped on his bathroom scale. He figures out that the friend who has been staying with him must have a new boyfriend. And he thinks, ‘OK, this is an opportunity to deepen the friendship with her by congratulating her in a kind of teasing way.’

It’s not like he examined his life in this very deliberate, self-reflective way and said, ‘What could I do differently? I know! I’m going to use my scale!’ It didn’t play out quite so systematically, but I do think he was aware and probably had conversations with himself like, ‘Okay. I am someone who would like to have a family. I don’t. But I do have lots of people visiting and they’re sort of a surrogate family.’ That awareness may have been enough of a grounding for him to use technology in a way that’s building relationships and deepening them.

Let’s move on to the books you’ve chosen about how to use technology and not be used by it. Top of the list is Kenneth Gergen’s The Saturated Self. This is quite an old book, from 1991, so actually before we had quite so much technology in our lives. But it’s touching on a lot of those themes, isn’t it?

Today’s technologies are of course far more saturating than those around when Kenneth Gergen wrote The Saturated Self. He’s talking about, ‘What do you do when you come home and you’ve got 10 different voicemails and electronic mail inviting you to a party that conflicts with a trip?’ The predicaments that he describes almost seem quaint because now people have so many more streams of communication.

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But I think the idea of saturation from intense involvement with many people is still relevant. There are possibilities to enact different selves and to have different presentations of ourselves with different people. One of the nice points that Gergen makes is that it’s not like an inauthentic theatrical performance. Instead, he describes a splintering of investments and multiplicity of roles. I think that’s probably increasingly true, so I think his points still hold even though, as I was rereading The Saturated Self on the train and the flight here, it certainly did not seem like it was written in this decade.

Does he end up being positive about technology or is he more concerned?

He expresses both tones as he explores romantic, modern and postmodern conceptions of the self. I read a cautious liberation in the way he describes this multitude of investments and opportunities to express different selves and take on different roles. There’s something really positive about that. It runs counter to a notion of the self as this singular coherent entity. That kind of concept of self can be illusory and imprisoning for people, if they say, ‘This is the kind of person I am.’ They’re trapped.

I realize this is not the only way to read The Saturated Self. You could say, ‘Oh, we’re distracted; we can’t be true to our families because we also have these other conversations.’ But in part due to technology we have ways to explore the different selves we can be and I see that as positive.

That’s so interesting. It’s almost like living overseas. I’ve always found that very liberating, because people have no preconceived notions about who you are. You can be a different person.

There’s also the idea that who we are, at a given moment, is dependent on the context of who we’re talking to and where we are. Having opportunities through technology to have more of that exploration can be enriching.

Continuing with our list of books on how to use technology, let’s talk about the Dan McAdams book next, The Stories We Live By.

There’s a lot of similarity between what I take away from The Stories We Live By and The Saturated Self. McAdams writes about how we construct ourselves through narrative, i.e. the stories we tell about ourselves. His focus is on the autobiographical story, whereas Gergen suggests that it’s not just the stories we tell about ourselves, it’s the clothing we wear, it’s where we put ourselves.

“Life stories aren’t just a transcription of what happened; the stories determine who we are and they give shape to our lives”

But I think both would say our life stories aren’t just a transcription of what happened; the stories determine who we are and they give shape to our lives. They create this narrative truth that is the crux of identity.

So McAdams has done a lot of research using the life story interview and examines different types of narrative arcs. One is the redemption narrative, in which commitment to certain values allows someone to move through painful circumstances to a place where they can help and inspire others. He traces how people like Oprah Winfrey and many leaders embody this narrative, and its resonance in American culture.

Why is this book important in a discussion about how to use technology?

Two points. As we talked about before, I have used the ‘Life Story Interview’ to help people figure out themes in their narratives and opportunities to use technology differently. After examining their own life stories, some of my students this year were saying, ‘The most important thing in my life right now is succeeding in school and yet I’m procrastinating terribly.’ So that’s an opportunity for them to do something as simple as putting the phone in another room while they’re finishing a paper. That’s one way that McAdams’s work on stories is important: It can give us a way to think about how we use technology.

The other way it’s important is that when we’re tweeting, or putting up selfies on Instagram, or blogging, these are all conceivably part of our autobiographical stories. We’re always in the process of working on little bits and pieces of our life story and how we present ourselves.

It makes sense that some parts of that self-presentation are aspirational. There’s concern that people put only positive things up on social media, and that its inauthentic. But another way to look at it is that they may be putting up something they want to move towards. They may be creating a future self, or different future selves. It might be something that pulls one in a positive direction.

One example in my book is called ‘Social Climbing.’ It’s about a college student who was reclusive, unhappy and sedentary in her first year at school. Her parents arranged for her to volunteer in a national park over the summer. She encountered these climbers, fellow volunteers, and they become quite close friends. And she realized she really wanted to become like them.

“There’s concern that people put only positive things up on social media, and that its inauthentic. But another way to look at it is that they may be putting up something they want to move towards”

So she started posting pictures from her hikes with them and was really thrilled when they included images of her on their group hikes. She compared the pictures that she posted with the pictures from their social media accounts: ‘How much of a difference is there? How can I how can I make my pictures more like theirs and as epic and courageous as the ones that they’re posting?’ It was a way of becoming for her, of embracing and living up to this identity that was very much a positive self for her.

I guess if you were looking at it in a negative way—if you were a friend of hers who only knew her when she was hiding out in her dorm room and procrastinating—you might say, ‘That’s not really her life.’ But from my perspective, it’s positive, putting up a something she wants to be and climbing towards it.

That’s the standard critique of Facebook posts, isn’t it? ‘It’s only pictures of people looking amazing on holiday, it’s not real life.’ But then you also get a lot of people saying, ‘My life is really shit, this terrible thing just happened; help me out, people!’ I wonder which way it normally goes.

I’m sure someone is doing the most up-to-date analysis of that as we speak! I was thinking of something that’s become like a refrain, ‘Social media makes you depressed because you’re looking at other people whose lives are better than yours to begin with AND they’re just posting the better pictures of their lives, so don’t look at it.’

Which book offering psychological insights on how to use technology shall we talk about next?

Why don’t we go to How Emotions are Made. I think there is a clear thread from Gergen to McAdams to Lisa Feldman Barrett, which is that we are continually constructing ourselves. We’re constructing ourselves, in part, by how we engage with others and how we represent ourselves using our technologies.

I appreciate Lisa Feldman Barrett’s argument that we can become “the architects of our experiences.” She pushes against the idea that events trigger emotions in a predetermined way and suggests we find the most specific language possible to describe our experiences and feelings. This specificity may propel us to move forward from challenges in a constructive way.

So it has parallels to McAdams’s The Stories We Live By. We are not just this objective summary of what has happened to us. We are our interpretations of things, and how we articulate them. Feldman Barrett and McAdams both focus a lot on language. I think you can probably also extend that to the images people use to make sense of their experiences and describe them to others.

In terms of projecting your experiences, I suppose in the past you would just have shared it with friends, whereas now, you’ve got this bigger audience that you can address via social media?

Yes, you’ve got a broader audience and you’re also telling people who might have something in common with you. With social media, you have the possibilities for finding people who’ll connect with what you are saying, whereas if you are telling a small group of friends, they may not have had similar experiences. That’s one difference.

Another reason Lisa Feldman Barrett’s work is relevant in technology is that in affective computing—where technology and emotion meet—a lot of the work has been done on trying to classify emotion. It could be analysis of your facial expression, your heart rate variability or the language you use. Her work suggests that perhaps what’s going to really help a person is actually not technology that tells them how they’re feeling, but something that helps them articulate how they’re feeling. That’s a very powerful message for people who want to develop emotionally helpful technologies.

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I actually created a ‘mood phone’ with some of the assumptions that I just critiqued. To detect stress, it used a heart rate variability sensor and different ways for people to indicate their moods and situations. Then it offered in-the-moment therapies—from breathing exercises to cognitive therapy. The idea of that closed loop between sensing and feedback did appeal to people. But then we tested it in longer field trials—minus the sensors that weren’t that robust at that time—we found that the self-reflection and mobile therapies alone had value.

I talk about one man’s experience with it in Left to Our Own Devices. He said the reason he signed up for a trial of the mood phone was because he thought it was going to tell him how he was feeling. But in fact, what it did was make him more confident about how he was feeling and about expressing that. For him, it was largely about expressing himself to his spouse. There were a lot of tensions around—childcare responsibilities, and so on—and he felt they had hit a wall and it was hard to have discussions. But as he became more confident about his own feelings he felt he was better able to come up with words that helped him describe them, and also became more curious about how his wife was feeling.

I think that system, in part maybe because it didn’t have the sensor that said ‘you’re stressed’, was relying more on self-report. It perhaps did allow him to exercise what Lisa Feldman Barrett calls ‘emotional granularity,’ this ability to express emotions with more specificity and detail. A sensor would probably tell you, ‘Guess what! Your arousal is high.’ That’s probably not going to be that helpful in a discussion with a partner compared with, ‘I’m feeling a little resentful that I work all day and still have to . . .’ So that’s one way in which Lisa Feldman Barrett’s work is super relevant to technologies.

In one class exercise this year, I asked my students for ideas for technologies to help people express themselves in more specific and richer ways on social media. They came up with interesting ways to help people express differences of opinion—things that could dial down hostility on social media.

Lisa Feldman Barrett’s work also has this really strong theme of defining one’s own reactions and experience. It gets at the varied ways people respond to challenges.

Let’s talk about Loneliness next, which is a book by John T Cacioppo and William Patrick. After reading your book, I can see that this is an important area where tech can potentially play a role. 

John Cacioppo’s research shaped a lot of projects that I’ve done where I’ve tried to create tools to help people—particularly people in later life—reach out to others, or at least recognize that loneliness isn’t something that’s fixed and a necessary part of life.

In one project for older adults and their caregivers, we depicted loneliness—or, on the flipside, social connectedness—in a visual display that looked like a solar system. It was driven by sensors and also a journal that they kept. In making this with interaction designers and developers, what I really wanted was to take some ideas about loneliness from John Cacioppo’s work and from ‘learned helplessness’ to show that things are changeable.

Can you explain more?

Learned helplessness is when someone stops trying to change a negative situation after repeated failures. The situation is perceived as fixed or stable, part of an attributional style that’s associated with depression. In the case of this study, that would be the feeling that as one participant said at the start of the study ‘Loneliness is a part of old age and there’s nothing you can do about it.’

“Making small gestures for others and not expecting anything in return is one really positive path out of loneliness”

We wanted to create feedback that immediately rewarded social effort. So that if the older adult made a phone call or sent an email or had someone over, the dynamic display immediately updated to reinforce that effort. It conveyed that they could change their social engagement through small steps.

The other part of it is what you can do to bring about change. One of the things I found really interesting in John Cacioppo’s work is that loneliness isn’t exclusively about receiving social support. It’s about participating in different kinds of relationships and communities. Making small gestures for others and not expecting anything in return is one really positive path out of loneliness.

That’s consistent with some of the other ideas that we’ve been talking about, helping someone realize how they can bring about change through their own actions. Being less lonely isn’t necessarily about other people doing things for you—it’s about small things you can do on your own. One of the things that technology can do is give feedback. You can remind yourself, ‘Oh, I did a little bit more than yesterday today. I’m working towards this.’

Is the general consensus that loneliness is bad?

Yes, it certainly doesn’t feel good, and studies indicate it’s an important risk factor for dementia and chronic disease. If you can help people who are lonely establish closer relationships or some kind of social participation, the benefits might be far reaching.

In my projects on new technologies for mental and physical health, I’ve addressed isolation in different ways. For example, the mood phone project focused on a high conflict style that sets people apart from others and has been associated with cardiovascular disease. The prompts in the app invited people to question some of their immediate interpretations that provoke hostility. The intent was to help people in their relationships and to mitigate disease risk.

Can relationships on social media act as a substitute for real relationships? Or are they necessarily inferior?

In a recent review paper, psychologists Adam Waytz and Kurt Gray draw a line between social media use that supplants deeper offline engagement and use that enhances already deep offline connection. They also point out that if social media is the only means of connecting due to mobility issues, it can still add to sociability.

I agree with many aspects of that, and in my book, I explore the details of how individuals use social media and technology to enhance already close relationships. Sometimes technology offers a common language, or one person may demonstrate caring by learning the technology embraced by the other person (e.g. one woman described struggling with Snapchat to stay in touch with her niece). There’s also an immediacy to online communication that I think can strengthen bonds—you can comment on things that are going on in the world at that moment.

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It’s also worth noting that some people find value and connection via social media that isn’t tied to an offline relationship. This can be crucial if one feels ostracized in local communities.

In a nutshell, I don’t think that connection over social media contact is necessarily inferior to face-to-face contact. Most people do think that it is, though. I don’t think the research solidly lands us in one place or the other.

What about the addictiveness of devices—for example, teenage boys spending all their time playing video games? What about those struggles? Also, I find my phone quite addictive myself: even when I’m not at all interested, I find myself looking at it. How do you talk to your students about that?

A lot of my students were concerned about how they were using technology, especially this last year compared to when I taught a similar class a couple of years ago. It’s caught the public’s attention. I don’t know whether the language of addiction is really helpful or not. I think it might be more helpful to talk about compulsions or simply habits.

It comes back to finding ways to use technology that are supportive of what you want in your life. Recently I spoke with a man who was concerned about how much time his son was spending on his phone. He tried to set limits with him. But one thing he found useful was not to just set a blanket limit. They live in the US, but the son has a Spanish tutor who lives in Chile. So, the son can spend unlimited time FaceTiming the tutor, but there’s only a very modest amount of time allowed for games. Not all screen time is the same. That family values education, and the son is learning Spanish and developing social skills through this interaction. So they are using the tech in accordance with their values.

“Not all screen time is the same.”

Another thing to keep in mind is how much we are influenced by our environments. Just having the intention of doing something differently is often not enough to make a change. So some people move their phone someplace further away, or take certain apps off of it. When I’m writing, I try not to open up social media on my computer unless looking for something specific and it has helped me to log off those sites each time. It’s worthwhile to try to make our physical environments support our goals.

I also think, though, that technology can be adapted to reinforce routines. Some people use digital assistants like Alexa to set timers to say,  ‘We as a family are respecting what time we said we’d have dinner/we’d go to sleep’ etc.

Tech can also be adapted help with change habits (habits that are unrelated to tech). One woman described in my book used a smart lock in her kitchen to stop mindless snacking—a habit that made her feel bad about herself. Sometimes technology habits are the ones we want to change and sometimes we can use our devices as a helpful barrier or nudge.

The general theme I’m getting from talking to you is that, basically, using tech should involve quite a lot of self-reflection to be constructive. We all need to be a bit more reflective, so our view of tech isn’t quite so black and white.

I think so. Technology isn’t a cigarette or a pill. It doesn’t affect us all in the same way, in part because it’s so interactive. We don’t all use technology, even the same social media application, in the same way. So I don’t think we can approach it like a drug and say how much is okay to take. It’s a question of how you use it. I do think self-reflection is part of it.

Another big part of it is just putting your human relationships first and making the technology subservient and really work in line with those. You can’t lose sight of what actually matters which is, by and large, human relationships. The technology is just a means of deepening those conversations.

Lastly, we’ve got Evocative Objects.

Evocative Objects is a really beautiful collection of essays about cherished objects that Sherry Turkle edited and framed with critical theory. I used it this past semester in my class and students got really into writing about their own evocative objects. That exercise helped them, as future designers, think about what makes an object emotionally meaningful.

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Turkle investigates and celebrates the attachment that we have to objects. The relationships with objects isn’t between one person and one thing. There are all these human relationships and stories that are entangled in our attachment to objects. That is why a lot of people are attached to their phones. It’s not about the device, it’s about the relationships and the validation that they can have access to through these devices. That’s why they’re so important to them, they are a touchpoint for all that human connection.

Going back to your question about addiction . . .

Compulsion, I think you mean.

Compulsion, or maybe just habit . . . There’s always the question, ‘Why are people spending so much time on their screens?’ I think maybe a slightly better question is, ‘What are they getting out of it?’ or ‘What are they seeking from their screens?’ There’s a search for a signal that I matter, or that people want to talk to me. It’s acknowledging that I’m desirable, I’m important, I’m significant to other people.

That’s maybe a more fruitful conversation to have than just wondering how we get people to be less attached to their screens. Maybe kids need more validation, more world-opening experiences or more role models than those available to them in their local environments. Or maybe they just need more excitement. It’s about addressing those needs. Those are the kind of things we should be thinking about.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

July 1, 2019

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Margaret Morris

Margaret Morris

​Margaret Morris is a clinical psychologist, researcher and inventor of technologies to support health, emotional wellbeing and interpersonal connectedness. She teaches in Human Centered Design and Engineering at the University of Washington.

Margaret Morris

Margaret Morris

​Margaret Morris is a clinical psychologist, researcher and inventor of technologies to support health, emotional wellbeing and interpersonal connectedness. She teaches in Human Centered Design and Engineering at the University of Washington.