Swings and roundabouts
From the defrost function on the microwave, to the automatic garage door opener, to the advances in healthcare/food/vehicle safety that mean I’m likely to live longer than the previous generation, technology has improved pretty much every aspect of my day-to-day existence. And, with the tech sector becoming increasingly important to the New Zealand economy, it’s also starting to improve the country as a whole.
This technology issue of Idealog – 'Reality Check' – is focused on those positives and aims to show the momentum of the sector and the opportunities all this rapid change is creating. But it's also focused on some of the ramifications.
To the believers, embracing new technologies is a no-brainer; an inevitability in the process of progress. But to others, just because something exists, doesn’t mean we should use it. I sit somewhere between abstract optimism and anecdotal cynicism on that spectrum. I regularly find myself trying to convince people that, despite the perception the world is falling apart, it has actually never been a better place and that the technologies, scientific advances and economic development we have seen in the past few decades have been nothing short of phenomenal. As Thomas Friedman explains in Thank you for
Being Late: “Everything that is analog is now being digitised, everything that is being digitised is now being stored, everything that is being stored is now being analysed by software on these more powerful computing systems, and all the learning is being applied to make old things work better, to make new things possible, and to do old things in fundamentally new ways.”
But for all the broad benefits, I also feel like the relationship we have with some technology is becoming unhealthy. The gravitational pull of the smartphone means we check it hundreds, if not thousands, of times a day. The social media feed is digital dopamine. And while technology is meant to create efficiencies, we are often expected to work, because the technology allows it. We’re basically stuck in a shiny version of the Skinner Box, named after Harvard psychologist BF Skinner, who showed that rats’ behaviour could be influenced by variable rewards.
Like many parents, I have also started to question whether technology is getting in the way of social development, interrupting important moments and, perhaps over-dramatically, leading to a loss of an essential part of our humanity. As Adam Alter points out in Irresistible, which looks at the looming crisis of behavioural addiction, Steve Jobs didn’t let his kids play on the iPad because he understood how addictive it was.
Tristan Harris, who worked for Google and now researches digital ethics, says this might seem trivial because it’s just people clicking on screens, but he believes it’s diminishing the human capacity for making free choices: “What happens when you magnify that into an entire global economy? Then it becomes about power.”
The internet is paved with good intentions and Silicon Valley (the show) parodied the faux-philanthropy of the place with aplomb. But Tony Fadell, who helped create the iPod and later the iPhone, before starting thermostat company Nest, summed up the tension between good disruption and bad disruption that we have tried to explore in this issue: “I wake up in cold sweats every so often thinking, what did we bring to the world? Did we really bring a nuclear bomb with information that can – like we see with fake news – blow up people’s brains and reprogramme them? Or did we bring light to people who never had information, who can now be empowered?”
Technology isn’t good or bad (although it can become bad if it’s used in the wrong way). But it seems more pervasive, more addictive and more inescapable these days. That obviously brings plenty of commercial opportunities, many of which are being exploited by clever New Zealand companies. But we also need to ensure these technologies are being ethically designed.
Technology can feel magical. Paying without paying as you get out of your Uber. Receiving validation through notifications on your latest social post. Experiencing your favourite show whenever you want. Seeing an artificially intelligent baby respond like a real one. But, when taken too far, or when used too much, technology can also feel hollow – and even dangerous. It’s a fine balance. So be careful what you wish for.