About Kaitlyn Ouverson

Kaitlyn Ouverson, M.S., is a third-year Ph.D. student in the Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) program at Iowa State University. Her main research interest centers on the ways groups of people use new technologies to enhance their social interaction. When not thinking about emerging technology, computer-supported cooperation, or research, more generally, she enjoys painting, playing video games, traveling with her partner, and interacting with her two cats.

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.


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  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
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  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
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  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/
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