Are digital technologies bad for us? (1)

Of course they are. Just ask the phone addicts ditching the millions of colors on their hi-res screens in favor of boring old black and white.

This ploy to rescue some personal agency from the jaws of the phone monster is part of a much larger trend engulfing our tech-addled culture. Everyone’s worried. The worries are popping up everywhere — like the New York Times, which asks this week, Is the Answer to Phone Addiction a Worse Phone?

The NYT piece does a nice job of exposing the absurd lengths we’re going to in our digital lives. What’s unusual is that it takes the underlying problem for granted — “twitchy phone checking” — and goes right to a coping mechanism. These days we’ve agreed on a long list of digital evils, from homicidal texting behind the wheel to the end of online privacy. We’ve also agreed on a short list of culprits, with Facebook, Amazon and Google at the top of the list. 

Let’s not jump to conclusions

Still, millions of people love the digital life. Benefits abound. Is there a balance point, a happy medium between social media slavery and uglifying our phones?

Last December, the Pew Research Center and Elon University launched the ninth in their series of stakeholder surveys on the future of the Internet. The subject for this edition is The future impact of digital technologies and hyper-connectedness on people’s well-being. The Pew/Elon surveys have touched on dozens of technical and social issues starting with the first wave in 2004 (for a complete list of the surveys and findings, see Imagining the Internet).

I’ve been a participant in several of the surveys, starting with the 4th in 2010. The methodology is shrewd. You’re given a yes-no pair of alternative predictions about the online future and must choose one, or a status quo option. Then you’re given as much space as you need to explain yourself. (These surveys aren’t representative of a broader set of opinions, as the participants are chosen for their interest and expertise, not by random. For further details, see my Oct 2011 post).

The current survey spells out the good news/bad news about digital, then asks the first of three general questions:

“Over the next decade, how will changes in digital life impact people’s overall well-being, physically and mentally?

  • Over the next decade, individuals’ overall well-being will be more HARMED than HELPED by digital life
  • Over the next decade, individuals’ overall well-being will be more HELPED than HARMED by digital life
  • There will be not much change in people’s well-being from the way it is now.”

Easy: I chose more harmed than helped. The researchers promise a report on the responses in spring 2018. As we’ve seen in previous reports, put 1200 to 1500 chatty experts in a room and you get a lot of shades of opinion on what the online future holds.

The questionnaire asks participants to elaborate by responding to the following questions:

“Please elaborate on your response to the previous question about why you think things will change for the better or the worse when it comes to people’s well-being. And please consider these questions: Why do you think people’s well-being will be affected for good or for ill? What specific harms or improvements are likely to occur?”

My 500-odd words follow (my other two responses will be posted separately).

OVER the next decade, the majority of North Americans will experience harms of many different kinds thanks to the widespread adoption and use of digital technologies. One sign: The last year alone has seen an outpouring of commentary, including some 20 trade books arguing that our digital habits are harming individual welfare and tearing up the social fabric.

In marketing its digital services, Silicon Valley is firmly committed to the relentless promotion of convenience and connectedness. Its success in doing so has wreaked havoc on personal privacy, online security, social skills, and the ability to focus attention, not least in college classrooms. For their part, most consumers are in denial about the compulsive use of smartphones and social media, as well as other services designed by their developers to be addictive — a problem that persists even when legal sanctions are in play, as with texting while driving.

There’s growing evidence digital addictions are promoting depression, loneliness, abuse of videogaming and even suicidal behavior, especially among teens and young adults. Instead of feeling obliged to moderate their level of connectivity, consumers have come to feel a sense of entitlement, unconstrained by social mores that previously treated these behaviors as inappropriate. Indeed, heavy use of digital devices is widely encouraged because of the misguided idea that so-called multitasking makes us more productive.

Our digital lives are also at risk from factors even less under our personal control. First, networked devices are inherently unsafe, causing harm in the form of compromised personal data, ID theft, financial losses and so on. Second, most of us are at the mercy of known and unknown third parties when online, particularly commercial firms that have neither the financial incentive nor the legal obligation to take end-user security seriously — as in the Equifax hack, to name but one. Third, very few users are willing and able to recognize potential harms and do anything about them. Most don’t know how the sausages get made and don’t want to know. Pew’s survey data indicates that even users who’ve experienced an online breach have little or no interest in improving their own security measures.

As more users go online, with more bandwidth and more opportunities to engage, there will be more opportunities for harm. That prospect is well captured in the current expectations for the Internet of Things. Industry is putting a hard sell on the unprecedented convenience of “smart” consumer durables, eyeing the countless billions to be made from this next big trend. Digital technology is uniquely prone to spreading harm, along with outstanding innovation. Much like a mutating virus, digital services and devices keep transforming our habits and expectations — making threat modeling and mitigation efforts a daunting and open-ended challenge for most of us.