Technology in Our Life: Finding the right balance

Technology touches every aspect of our life in this day and age, from the moment we wake up to the time we go to bed. It has become such an integral part of our life that even our homes are becoming smart homes. If we look around us, there is no part of our life where we do not use some form of technology. At this rate, we will not be the ones using technology anymore, rather technology will use us.

We are connected all of the time. Not only through smartphones, laptops, and PCs, but we use the internet in every machine possible thanks to the Internet of Things (IoT). Many cities are embracing the smart city initiative. In Rio de Janeiro predictive analytics has been integrated with cloud-based storage for massive sensor networks [1]. The city of San Jose is collaborating with Intel and South Korea’s Songdo has collaborated with Cisco in order to use IoT linked to city infrastructures to control the flow of traffic, decrease sound pollution, and improve the air quality [1].

It can be presumed that in the near future all that can be connected will be connected. Around 11 billion devices connect to the internet now and this number is projected to nearly triple to 30 billion by the year 2020, and then almost triple once more by 2025 [2]. By 2020 IoT is expected to become a $1.46 trillion market [2].

All of these smartphones, laptops, and other devices and products embedded with sensors, such as smart clothes and smart watches, are purported to improve the quality of our lives. Smart devices will amass thousands of analyses and readings in a short amount of time. Cars are going to be equipped with IoT. Smart homes and smart office will use IoT to make us more connected, secure and productive. But all of these technologies produce a massive volume of data. Some of these data are mundane, like the temperature of the conference room. But other data can be extremely sensitive, like the details of a new business deal. Supermarkets are already using data to predict their customers’ behavior. When a lot more data is available, unscrupulous business owners will be able to use data to render people useless without their products. This massive flood of data can be used to encroach upon privacy, and soon this might encroach on security too. A connected dishwasher can be used as a backdoor and sensitive information about the owner might be stolen by hackers. If the company producing the products is unethical, they can collect information without the knowledge of the user. Cyber-criminals will increase, and they will be able to bring down people or industries quite easily.

There is disagreement about how all of this data is or should be used. If it belongs to the governments, they might use it to create totalitarian societies. If it belongs to businesses, they can use these data commercially to sell more products. Already video game producers and social media owners have processed and used data to get users addicted to their products. Instead of going outside to meet friends, people invite friends from the comfort of their home in the virtual world to play games or spend all day looking at people’s social media news feed [3]. Our generation is already less social than previous generations [4]. People are increasingly becoming dependent on online shopping. Shoppers increasingly prefer automated self-service check-out [5]. At this rate, the future generation might not develop any social skills at all and will rely on technology for everything.

At the same time, some people are craving human interaction. So, now tech companies are trying to provide human interaction using AI. For instance, Wysa is an app that allows people to release stress and anxiety, and it is being called the “4 am friend.” There are many similar apps like Webot, Joyable, and Talkspace which aim to help people deal with mental health issues. So, it’s possible that we are looking at a future where it is normal to have computer applications or robots as friends or maybe even romantic partners [6].

An average American uses electronic media almost 6 hours per day [7]. The problem is, excessive use of mobile devices makes people more prone to depression and also increasingly impatient. Additionally, people’s memory can become impaired as information is stored in different devices [8]. Likewise, because of the use of GPS and other navigation devices, people are losing the ability to use maps or have never learned to read one [9]. It might become impossible for them to navigate without GPS devices. If autonomous cars become the norm, people will not learn to drive. So, for every single mundane task that we rely on technology to do for us, we become more dependent on technology.

It is not bad to use technology. Technology has raised the standard of living in many parts of the world and is projected to do more. While it may have become part and parcel of our day-to-day life, we should not be too reliant on technology. It is important to find balance. Most of the tech giants do not allow indiscriminate use of technology in their own homes, and they especially limit the use of technology when it comes to their children [10]. There must be a good reason for that.

There has been revolutionary growth in the field of technology in the last few decades. Technology is making our life so much easier, but we should not forget the potential risks. If we become too dependent, we might lose the power of critical thinking and innovative nature that helped us invent and design all these things in the first place.

References

[1] Jones, T., and Dewing, C., Future Agenda: Six Challenges for the Next Decade. Profile Books, 2016.
[2] M. Kanellos. 152,000 Smart devices every minute in 2025: IDC outlines the future of smart things. Forbes. (March 3, 2016); https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelkanellos/2016/03/03/152000-smart-devices-every-minute-in-2025-idc-outlines-the-future-of-smart-things/.
[3] U. Saiidi, Social media making millenials less social: Study. CNBC.com. (October 17, 2015); https://www.cnbc.com/2015/10/15/social-media-making-millennials-less-social-study.html.
[4] S. Weiser, Americans are becoming less social. mentalfloss.com. (June 12, 2015); https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/65065/americans-are-becoming-less-social.
[5] Consumers like self-service more than associate interaction, reveals survey, Retailcustomerexperience.com, (January 24, 2018); https://www.retailcustomerexperience.com/news/consumers-like-self-service-more-than-associate-interaction-reveals-survey/.
[6] O. Schwartz, Love in the time of AI: Meet the people falling for scripted robots. The Guardian. (September 6, 2018).
[7] Marvin, R., Tech addiction by the numbers: How much time we spend online. PCMag. (June 11, 2018); https://www.pcmag.com/article/361587/tech-addiction-by-the-numbers-how-much-time-we-spend-online.
[8] Tamir, D. I., Templeton, E. M., Ward, A. F., & Zaki, J. Media usage diminishes memory for experiences. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2018.
[9] R. Reid. Most under-25s can’t read a map because they rely on sat-navs. Cnet.com. (October 10, 2013); https://www.cnet.com/roadshow/news/most-under-25s-cant-read-a-map-because-they-rely-on-sat-navs/.
[10] S. Berger. Tech-free dinners and no smartphones past 10 pm — how Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Cuban limited their kids. CNBC.com. (June 5, 2018); https://www.cnbc.com/2018/06/05/how-bill-gates-mark-cuban-and-others-limit-their-kids-tech-use.html.
[11] A. Gregory. How social media is hurting your memory. Time. (May 8, 2018); https://time.com/5267710/social-media-hurts-memory/.

Navigating the Technology Bramble Patch: Users, cultivators, and masters

In 1994, a gap in the online book-sales market was closed by a 30-year-old former hedge fund executive. Within five years, his site had expanded its offerings both to a greater market and to include other merchandise, such as software, toys, and home-improvement items [1]. Amazon.com also expanded as a service, allowing other online merchants to sell goods using its platform. Amazon Web Services, which both tracks website traffic for use in advertisements and rents space for data storage and computer processing power, cemented the dominance of the once-humble bookseller.

Since then, the technological giant has become a superpower in online sales, and the target of criticism for, among other things, worker compensation and factory conditions [2]. When confronted with the truth of companies such as this one, the initial reaction may be to boycott its products, but for Amazon, that is not possible [3]. Nearly one-thousand other businesses use Amazon Web Services to host their websites, which means that boycotting all of the giant’s products would entail protesting otherwise-neutral companies such as Intuit or Airbnb [4]. This human-cultivated technology, among many others, has overgrown so that it now snakes its way from the once-obscure internet into the everyday lives of humans. What started as a single rose has grown into a thorny bramble.

Slaves in the Red Queen’s Race

A common practice for companies like Amazon is to acquire tech startups before they can grow into true competitors. Therefore, the next tech giant will need to overcome this “aqui-hire” practice in order to establish itself in the market. Similarly, on a more global scale, countries must garner technology that is becoming increasingly expensive to mature into the “developed” Western standards of living. Confronted with growing barriers, developing nations must run the Red Queen’s race to enter the Information Age. In the words of Lewis Carroll’s character, “It takes all the running you can do, to keep the same pace” [5]. In short, technology is advancing faster than maturing countries, and industry startups, can hope to keep pace with.

This cleaving effect of technology—the rich get richer, the poor poorer—is observable on a more local industrial scale. Within the United States, technological advances demonstrate disparate effects. For example, IT makes way for more creativity and fewer repetitive tasks in higher-skill jobs, while automation threatens the livelihoods of people holding low and medium skill jobs. The poor must, therefore, work more hours in disappearing jobs to afford the new technology necessary for economic advancement. As technology pushes farther out in the race, those who cultivate the new technology rush ahead, while the others collapse in the dust. People – whether cultivators or users, whether knowingly or not, are letting technology enslave humanity.

Addictive by Design

We humans remain tethered to technology by the data mining and machine learning algorithms that harvest us. Our information fills big datasets devoted to training new artificial intelligence to capture our attention and undermine our control for the sake of money and, in some ways, power. Social Media follow us from online realtors to late-night pizza orders. To fuel our spending and pull us by the wrist into that next impulse purchase [6], our daily digital applications are infused with false scarcity and the appearance of free money. We are addicted to technology, tingling with dopaminergic impulses to reach the next level of Candy Crush, read the latest notification on our Pixel smartphone, achieve the next hundredth like on Instagram or Facebook.

In this present state of technology, each one of us is a slave. Even the champions of the common man—the user experience professionals—acknowledge the addictive properties of technology in the jargon they use when referring to their constituents: “We must remember the users!” Whether or not technology cultivators recognize the gravity of what they are doing, their outputs are addictive.

This does not mean the addictive design of technology is always “bad.” There are fitness applications that prey upon our fallibility, in the ways pioneered by Silicon Valley, to convince us to start moving, keep eating well, and forgive ourselves when we fail [7,8]. There are budgeting applications that teach us to be money savvy [9], to critically consider the next order placed on Amazon [10] for that strange tchotchke that will stare out at you while you eat ramen to make up for its presence. There are even applications that seek to remind us of exactly how much time we spend with our devices [11] and allow us to block sites that serve as distractions [12]. Users can be manipulated for good, too, it seems.

Users, Cultivators, Masters

Recently, people have begun to fight back. Concluding humans-as-slaves to be the only answer is a lazy escape, for we too are the “master[s] of [our] fate, the captain[s] of [our] soul[s]” [13]. When the political system and traditional media fail us, we can and have turned to technology to control discourse, to course correct the mainstream of our societies. In 2011, the Arab Spring was documented through social media and organized through secure forms of technology-based communication [14]. The Occupy movement was born on Twitter and manifested actual political protests [15]. Often, when the 45th POTUS has derailed the US national media, people have used technology to reign attention in on things that matter—for instance, the fires that ravaged the Amazon in the summer of 2019 [16].

Technology is not neutral—it is created by people to fill a need or perform a function, with little leeway. Nonetheless, it is created by people. We decide what is important to us.
We are leaving the world of technology slaves to become the technology’s masters, and it’s not a difficult power balance to overturn when you act intentionally—whether you are a user or a cultivator. As users, we have a responsibility to ourselves to be mindful of our connections to the world around us. We have tools. We have legislative power, if we reach for it, as Spanish residents have within the EU [17]. We can make the change if we want it. As cultivators, we have a responsibility to openly communicate with our consumers. We have an extraordinary ability to alter behaviors and change lives. With that ability, that power, comes extraordinary responsibility.

Technology need not be deterministic; society chooses when and how to implement technology. Humans foster its evolution, its innovation. In the struggle for control with our technology, people will emerge as users, cultivators, and masters.

References

  1. Hall, M. (Oct 17, 2019). Amazon.com. Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Amazoncom
  2. Wohlfeil, S. Workers describe pressures at Amazon warehouses as Bernie Sanders gears up to make the corporation pay. Inlander. Retrieved from https://www.inlander.com/spokane/workers-describe-pressures-at-amazon-warehouses-as-sen-bernie-sanders-gears-up-to-make-the-corporation-pay/Content?oid=12226281
  3. Hill, K. (Feb 7, 2019). I cut the ‘Big Five’ tech giants from my life. It was hell. Gizmodo. Retrieved from https://gizmodo.com/i-cut-the-big-five-tech-giants-from-my-life-it-was-hel-1831304194
  4. aws.amazon.com. (n.d.) Case Studies. AWS customer success. Retrieved from https://aws.amazon.com/solutions/case-studies/?customer-references-cards.sort-by=item.additionalFields.publishedDate&customer-references-cards.sort-order=desc
  5. Carrol, L. (2016). The garden of live flowers. Through the looking glass and what Alice found there (Chapter 2). Retrieved from https://www.gutenberg.org/files/12/12-h/12-h.htm (Original work published 1872).
  6. George-Parkin, H. (July 15, 2019). The psychology of sales explained. Vox. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2019/7/15/20694723/psychology-sales-prime-day-fomo-scarcity
  7. 8fit GmbH. (2019). 8fit [Mobile application software]. Accessible from https://8fit.com
  8. Noom, Inc. (2019). Noom [Mobile application software]. Accessible from https://www.noom.com
  9. Intuit, Inc. (2019). Mint [Mobile application software]. Accessible from https://www.mint.com
  10. Cleo AI LTD. (2019). Cleo [Mobile application software]. Accessible from https://meetcleo.com
  11. Moment Health Inc. (2019). Moment [Mobile application software]. Accessible from https://inthemoment.io/
  12. Freedom.to. (2019) Freedom [Mobile application software]. Accessible from https://freedom.to/
  13. Henley, W.E. (n.d.). Invictus. Retrieved from https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/51642/invictus (Original work published 1888)
  14. History.com Editors. (Apr 5, 2019). Arab Spring. Retrieved from https://www.history.com/topics/middle-east/arab-spring
  15. Greene, B. (Oct 17, 2011). How ‘Occupy Wall Street’ started and spread. U.S. News & World Report. Retrieved from https://www.usnews.com/news/washington-whispers/articles/2011/10/17/how-occupy-wall-street-started-and-spread
  16. Nawrat, A. (Sept 6, 2019). Have you heard the Amazon is on fire? The power of social media in awareness raising. Verdict. https://www.verdict.co.uk/amazon-fires-social-media/
  17. Epic.org. (Sept 25, 2019). The right to be forgotten (Google v. Spain). Electronic privacy information center. Retrieved from https://epic.org/privacy/right-to-be-forgotten/

Winning Essays of ACM XRDS’ Essay Contest on THE FUTURE OF EVERYDAY LIFE

This year XRDS organized the 2019 ACM XRDS Essay Contest on THE FUTURE OF EVERYDAY LIFE. Given three topics to choose from—“Masters or Slaves of Technology?,” “On the Brink of Orwell’s ‘1984’ Vision?,” and “Digital Society – Including or Excluding?”— students were invited to submit a 1,000-word essay sharing their thoughts. In the coming weeks, the four winning essays will be published here. The winners are Bryce Belill, Mithila Dey, and Saloni Shah, all graduate students at Saginaw Valley State University, and Kaitlyn Michelle Ouverson a Ph.D. candidate at Iowa State University. We thank everyone who participated. It was a pleasure to see so many students interested in writing an essay and participating in the challenge as well as reading all submitted essays.

The winning essays will be published on the blog following this schedule. Kaitlyn Michelle Ouverson’s essay will be published on 01/09/2020. Mithila Dey’s essay will be published on 01/16/2020. Saloni Shah’s essay will be published on 01/23/2020. Bryce Belill’s essay will be published on1/30/2020. A summary article about the challenge, content, essay topics, observations, and opinions will be published in the 2020 XRDS summer issue. Enjoy the reading.