Swings and round­abouts

Idealog - - CONTENT - Ben Fahy pub­lisher & ed­i­to­rial di­rec­tor

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.

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