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Terry Stawar

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 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 10-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 iPhone, 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 4-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-old 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 toward my son-in-law. Jeff was a standout athlete 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 gets 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 than 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 percent 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 older than 30, who have other little technology hungry beings to consider.

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

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 co-worker 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 co-worker 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 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 short-sighted 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.

— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at tstawar@lifespr.com. Checkout his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at www.planetterry.wordpress.com.

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