Ben Young
Ben Young
March 17, 2021

The role technology is playing in our lives is ever more present and top of mind. This piece explores optimism around technology, how the bad stuff is wired into us, economic freedom and how do we keep it in check.

Should we even be optimistic about technology?

Kevin Kelly is a futurist and author of books What Technology Wants and The Inevitable, looking at how technology shapes us. As founding editor of Wired, he’s been deep in tech since before email became mainstream. You might call him the David Attenborough of technology. This is what Kevin Kelly shared after being asked in a Reddit thread about “what do you think is something people believe technology can/will do that you think it can’t?”.

“I am protopian, not utopian. I believe in progress, that things are getting better by a little bit. I don’t believe that we can eliminate problems without introducing new ones”.

And the Times concurs, with Yes to Optimism AND pessimism.

“We need tech optimists to shoot for the moon. But we also need those looking for problems.”

There is a similar feeling between the two, so how can we eliminate problems whilst introducing new ones? The thread here is that we embrace change but we want to guide and be in the driving seat on how it impacts our day to day lives.

The new phenomena of doomscrolling

Doomscrolling, no that’s not a new version of the classic PC game Doom, it’s the phenomena Merriam-Webster has it on its list of words it is watching for addition to the dictionary. Wired described it below:

“It’s 11:37 PM and the pattern shows no signs of shifting. At 1:12 am, it’s more of the same. Thumb down, thumb up. Twitter, Instagram, and—if you’re feeling particularly wrought/masochistic—Facebook. Ever since the Covid-19 pandemic left a great many people locked down in their homes in early March, the evening ritual has been codifying: Each night ends the way the day began, with an endless scroll through social media in a desperate search for clarity.”

We as humans are glued to our screens and keep getting content that continues the cycle. The technology gets more attention and ad dollars and we get, well the short end of the stick. How is technology positively influencing us then?

Some of the bad stuff is hardwired into us

Technology has a way of reflecting the behaviour of those that use it. It mimics Newton’s law of motion, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. As we interact with technology, we have a domino effect, on the technology itself or from the technology to the world around us.

Talking about how technology (or data) reflects the world around us, an anecdote from Nudge: the team was working with a fashion brand, who did an execution across a bunch of trendy sites. And in the report, it was noted that one piece of content had WAY higher attention than the rest. The client came back and said, I think you missed something, go have a look again.

The team did, and what they found was that the reason it had way higher attention was that it was controversial. The execution didn’t resonate and people were letting the brand know in the comments. Whoops.

If we zoom out, that’s what we’ve seen play out in social, even more so. Using the negative or polarizing comments to weaponize attention. Word of mouth marketing already knew this, if you have a bad experience, 16 people will hear about it, if you have a good experience, 4 or so will. Negative or polarizing experiences or comments do get more attention and mindshare from us. We can’t help it, as a species, we’re interpreting these as threats and must pay attention to them.

Mesfin Bekalu, a research scientist at the Lee Kum Sheung Center for Health and Happiness at Harvard’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health, notes that while a lot of the news is bad,

“As humans we have a ‘natural’ tendency to pay more attention to negative news.”

A friend of a friend left their job a few years back, to work on digital drugs, that is creating a drug-like response from VR type experiences. That blows your mind right? Real Enders Game type vibes. Should that be regulated?

That is where we do need an understanding of how technology may be inducing these responses hard wired into us and creating guidelines around them. Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff has likened Facebook as worse than cigarettes. Like cigarettes, it’ll probably take a generation to fully understand the impact.

Improving economic wellbeing

When you think about tech optimism, you also have to think about economic outcomes, how do digital tools enable better economic outcomes for participants? i.e. us. These are easier to pinpoint. A perfect example is the average Etsy store generating an extra $562/month income for its sellers. That’s not bad. It’s not a full-time job but neither is the obligation.

You might point to Uber and Lyft as an easy way for people being able to access paid work. Or even, YouTube, create a channel, share your thoughts, build an audience, and earn some extra cash. Upload a track to Spotify, use Patreon to support your art. Get a gig on UpWork, Freelancer. Build a virtual team using the same tools. Most of these remove prior discrimination barriers and provide freedom prior enjoyed only by upper classes.

These pale though to the incremental gain we’ve all had from free and open access to information. How has your career or life benefitted from being able to access information? To learn about a topic, broaden your horizons? It wouldn’t be unreasonable to say at least 20% of your income is from gains derived by free and open access to knowledge.

In that regard, we all have immensely seen an increase in quality of life from tech.

How do we keep it in check?

If technology itself wants to grow and it reflects our behaviors, it seems really blunt – but regulation and laws. We as a society need to define the borders we are ok with. Yes, things will exist outside of those borders, but where we put the border, defines in a way how much will sit outside of that. This doesn’t need to be nor should it be a big topic, as a society we can and should agree on what these should be.

We’re seeing that a bit with anti-trust action against tech right now. We saw that with seat belts, the car was the new technology, literally driving us forward, seat belts were introduced to help with our own safety. What is the seat belt for social? The parental guidelines.

In Europe, we have seen this with GDPR, defining how our data can be used to profile users around the internet. Having multi-region approaches is a challenge but everyone is adjusting at their own rate. And it’ll take time for the new norms to normalize around the world.

Final thoughts

Our relationship with technology is evolving and we must change with it. It’s ok to be optimistic about the future, change is for the better but we must bring everyone along on the journey. We must lift and elevate all. And this means setting those safety checks, to ensure progress can continue.