Tech ethicist David Ryan Polgar. Photo credit: Alessandro Signore
Technology

David Ryan Polgar – The New Voice Of Reason In Tech

David Ryan Polgar isn't like the other guys in tech. He forces consumers to consider the implications of overconsuming technology. Without monitoring our use of technology, Polgar believes it will lead to mental obesity.
David Ryan Polgar – The New Voice Of Reason In Tech - Lioness Magazine
photo credit: Alessandro Signore

David Ryan Polgar looks like so many other guys in tech – short neat hair, an average build and dark rimmed glasses that add an additional touch to the “this guy is smart” air about him.

When I first learn of Polgar, I am jotting down notes at Tedx Springfield. Sitting in the back of the packed room inside the headquarters of MassMutual Financial Group, I am busy tweeting, snapping photos and capturing the ideas of some of today’s inspiring speakers.

He leads in by telling the audience that communication is rapidly changing. “Our lives have become digitalized” and that the Internet is always in the present tense. Polgar shares that a new technology service allows users to leave digital interactions after they’ve died and essentially their thoughts can engage and communicate forever. A dead person tweeting? I find the idea both intriguing and disturbing. But then Polgar says something that makes me halt: “Just because we can do something with technology, doesn’t mean we should.”

No, I begin to think as I sit up in my chair. Polgar isn’t like the other guys in tech. He’s not selling us on the benefits of innovation, pitching his startup or buzzing about some cool new product being rushed to market. He’s doing the opposite – making us question our use of technology and crafting a crossroads where tech meets ethics.

When there is a break in the program, I find Henry Kowal, one of the Tedx Springfield organizers, and tell him I HAVE to meet David Ryan Polgar and just like that, as if saying his name equates to rubbing a magic lantern, Polgar manifests behind me.

Who is David Ryan Polgar?

It’s the week before Thanksgiving when I set out to find the answers to this question. I’ve arranged to meet Polgar in Enfield, Connecticut over a cup of dark roast.

I make a quick sweep of the tiny Starbucks and while I don’t find him, I do find Jill Monson, a fellow female entrepreneur I know clicking away on her laptop near the window. She’s waiting to meet with a client and I take the seat she offers to catch up on how things are progressing over at Inspired Marketing, a company she started in 2011, that has been rapidly expanding and gaining significant clients by the day. As we talk shop, Polgar quietly appears wrapped in a dark peacoat to ward off the New England chill.

He easily falls into banter with Monson about Barnes & Noble, Starbucks and their licensing agreement before she rushes off into the now dark afternoon. We take our seats at a center table, surrounded by buzzing caffeine seekers and I slide my iPhone between us and begin recording. I want to know how an attorney and professor finds himself steeped in the world of tech.

For one, the married 35-year-old from upstate New York is a nationally-recognized digital lifestyle expert who explores our relationship with technology from a legal, ethical, emotional, and sociological framework.

He made his way into the world of technology through his writing, first as a columnist for the magazine Seasons and later as a Patch columnist that was syndicated throughout Connecticut. He began to realize that his writings had a theme – how do we maximize connection and live life deeply.

He followed up those stints with the ebook “Wisdom in the Age of Twitter”  and subsequent features in the Boston Globe, Financial Times, US News & World Report, Entrepreneur, HuffPost Live and VentureBeat.

“Being an attorney and educator is ideal for what I talk about, that being critical thinking and creativity. How do we find the signal from the noise? Legal training is all about getting a massive amount of information and then being able to boil it down and find helpful patterns,” Polgar explained.

The issue of overconsumption of technology is just beginning to really get traction. Last year Communications Technology Management Researcher James E. Short reported “by 2015, it is estimated that Americans will consume both traditional and digital media for over 1.7 trillion hours, an average of approximately 15 and a half hours per person per day.”

Those of us who are old enough can remember those This Is Your Brain On Drugs advertisements that were so popular in the late 80s. The more I talk to Polgar, I find myself visualizing that ad and I wonder about the effects of too much tech on our brains.

The Effects Of Overconsumption

In San Francisco last year, a man entered a crowded subway train and brandished a gun a few times without the passengers noticing. Why? They were all engulfed in using their phones. In fact, no one notices his handgun until he shoots 20-year-old Justin Valdez in the back.

Have we become a society obsessed with tech? I mention to Polgar in a pro-tech media world, you don’t see too many businesses warning consumers about overusing what most companies consider their bread and butter.

“To that point, it’s because the issue is just starting to get nuanced. So five years from now, people like me are going to be a dime a dozen because we’re going to understand the issue so well. A lot of time people get confused. For example, if I’m giving a talk on tech balance, a lot of people will raise their hand and say, ‘well, isn’t it ironic that you have a Facebook account and a Twitter account?’ and I’ll say, not at all. We’re talking about balance.

“If you went to someone who was a personal trainer, they say here is how you want to maximize your body. They don’t say ‘don’t eat.’ That would be ridiculous. But we’re at this point right now in 2014 where we still get confused with this issue, because it’s not nuanced enough. The way we’re going to view technology in the future is very similar to alcohol.  So if I said, is alcohol good or bad, what’s your answer?”

I consider his question. “It’s all about consumption.”

“Right,” Polgar said. “So you want to use it in a responsible manner.”

Without monitoring our use of technology, Polgar believes it will lead to mental obesity, a term he’s coined to describe the results of overconsumption. According to his stance, “The dilemma we face is that we are increasingly getting stuck at the information collection stage and not spending the necessary time reflecting on the information and turning it into knowledge. This is happening because information has gone from a finite amount to an infinite amount. From an evolutionary standpoint, we evolved to collect information.”

Polgar believes smartphones are a wonderful tool to bring people together, to access information, to stay in contact all over the world, but what do you do when you bring those people together?

“A lot of times people get so tied into the consumption of it, that once they’re in a social situation they actually don’t know how to deal with it anymore. Communicating online – the reason why people text all of the time and prefer that, as opposed to sitting down and talking like we are, is because texting gives you power,” Polgar said. “We’re talking right now, so if I say something that offends you, you’re going to give me a facial feature that I read and I’ll say, ‘whoa, whoa, whoa’ did I say something offensive and then I have to answer to it. So communication is a two-way street. But texting is not a two-way street. So you send me a text, I get to choose do I reply to it or not. I get to decide when, if I delete it, how I am going to respond. Real time conversation doesn’t have that. So a lot of times people get so used to the power, that they actually have a tough time with real-time conversation.”

This leads to a discussion on what people are busy consuming these days. Between the years 2000 and 2010, we went from four reality TV shows on air to approximately 320.

Polgar said a study on reality TV shows revealed people who watch a heavy amount have a reduced amount of empathy.

“Another thing they also find, and it’s a controversial study, is that people who use social media for a very heavy period of time, tend to have reduced levels of happiness and the reason actually makes a lot of sense. They call it Instagram Envy. You constantly feel like crap about yourself. It’s very similar,” Polgar said. “Like let’s imagine I got a new car today and I feel good about myself and then I flip through a celebrity magazine and then I see the celebrity’s Maserati and then I say, ‘well, geez, my car kind of sucks.’ You see what I’m saying? Because you’re in a constant state of comparison. Social media is a great tool if it’s used in a happy medium.

“Or the other problem people have found is if they don’t get an email back from somebody but then they go to their Twitter account and they say, ‘wait a minute, this person has Tweeted five times and they can’t reply to my email? It sometimes brings out the worst in humanity because it brings out some of our insecurities that we all have. ’”

Polgar continues to be on the cutting-edge of this discussion by getting involved with the next generation of tech users. He is the communications director of Co-Pilot Family, a New Haven, Connecticut startup that focuses on a parental control tool for families to navigate technology together through an easy-to-use free phone app. The app has to be downloaded on the parent and child’s smartphone.

“This is not a spying tool. The child knows that it’s on the phone. They can message back and forth directly through that app. You as a family get to decide how much freedom do I want to give my child,” Polgar explained. “They hired me to generate content. Parents are looking for guidance and support and what to do in this brave new world. We want families to sit around the dinner table and [ask their children] what apps are you using, what apps do you have.”

Polgar said this allows a parent to be a co-pilot and to go to the dashboard of the app and see the applications their child is using and even details like the phone’s current battery life and how often the child is engaging on the phone.

The Future of Technology

As the tech scene continues to rapidly change, Polgar is steadfast in his mission to call us out on striking a balance. He understands that so many tech ventures have a here today, gone tomorrow consistency.

“I’m kind of curious of how it’ll all play out, because really every form of technology, besides email, hasn’t lasted very long. They go through certain fads. Every year people have predicted that people are going to leave Facebook, but it hasn’t really happened,” Polgar laughed. “It kind of seems like, from my own standpoint, that Facebook is turning into email. Where it’s there and people are using it [to contact one another]. I used to be really excited about Facebook more than I am now.”

As we gear up to head out, we chat a bit about Google+ and About.me and how so many of us are setting up profiles everywhere just to be more searchable.

“Isn’t that kind of funny though,” he adds, shrugging into his coat. “We’ve reached this point in technology where everyone kind of has to curate their brand.”

We say our goodbyes outside and as I walk to my car, I turn to watch Polgar head off into the night. An ethical communications director who chuckles about branding ourselves on the Internet? No, I muse climbing into my car; David Ryan Polgar is definitely not like any other tech guy I’ve met.

About the author

Natasha Zena

Around age eight Natasha Zena was told it was a woman’s job to take care of the home and since then she has built a career out of telling women they can do whatever the hell they want to do. She is the co-founder of Lioness, the digital magazine for female entrepreneurs, and the first media outlet solely dedicated to helping women launch and scale high-growth startups. Natasha was recognized as an emerging leader in digital media by The Poynter Institute and the National Association of Black Journalists. She has mentored women entrepreneurs at a number of accelerators, Startup Weekends and conferences, including The Lean Startup Conference in San Francisco, Calif. Natasha is also the author of the popular whitepaper, "How To Close The Gender Gap In Startup Land By 2021." In her spare time, she writes short fiction and hangs out with her son, Shaun.

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