As our lives become more virtual with technology, how do gadgets define our identity at work, home and social circles at this unique moment in history?
Mary L. Gray, an anthropologist and recent recipient of a 2020 MacArthur "genius grant," looks at the way technology affects labor, identity and human rights. Gray, 51, who is based in Somerville, Massachusetts, discusses how digital culture can improve our professional as well as personal lives.
Below are edited excerpts.
Q: Nearly six in 10 workers say that working from home means their day is less defined, according to a recent study. What are your thoughts on how technology is keeping us connected to work more than we probably want or need it to?
A: Remote work is not new to anyone who does contingent work. Contract workers, who have no healthcare benefits and can be fired at any time, work as much as they need to make ends meet, and they have always done that work around family demands.
What is new is the experience of the salaried worker now working from home, who is figuring out how to juggle eldercare, childcare, household chores and everything else. That's the thing about this pandemic - it drove so many of us to the realities that gig economy workers live every day.
Q: How can we make technology matter, but not overshadow our life?
A: By understanding that technology is not the thing that matters. What matters is how can we apply technology to problems where we see inequity.
Take broadband: It's expensive to access data plans in rural parts of US Rural broadband won't fix rural poverty. But it's a lever. The internet is not a "nice-to-have." It's essential to economic productivity.
Q: Are you worried that we are all spending too much time online these days?
A: No. What were our options before Facebook? The internet provides a place to connect, explore and be seen. We all crave social connection, especially right now.
Q: What is your advice for parents who worry about too much "screen time?"
A: We have a popular narrative that says video games are bad, and parents are bad if they let kids sit in front of screens all day.
The more pressing question is what are we trying to achieve when we are on our screens? The most valuable skill is teaching kids to evaluate and critically analyze what is in front of them. They need to learn how to make sense of the world, to think through a problem and how to identify sources.
If there is one thing our democracy needs, it is fact checking.
Through screens, young people are learning how to collaborate, and even how to work with a group they've never met before.
It's not always obvious to parents, but if kids are developing skills to learn how to learn, that is a good thing.
Q: What form of technology is most indispensable to you?
A: I feel like I could live without all of it. I'm quite conscious of the connections I have with people - that's the most important structure we can put in our lives.
If pushed to pick one form of technology, I'd say I rely on the phone the most to stay in touch with family and friends. But mostly it's just talking, not FaceTime.
My dad is 91. He doesn't have internet in his house. And he has a flip phone.