Technology Might Be Killing Us, But It Doesn't Have to Be That Way
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There is a difference between building a business that has purpose, and building a business to just make money. And while technology has made us all smarter, and just a click away from being connected to a person or information no matter where we are, something seems to be missing.
Maybe it's what author Ross Baird has described in his takedown of Silicon Valley -- the focus on solving "my world problems" instead of real-world problems. Or maybe, more simply, it's rediscovering a sense of purpose.
It is no longer enough to build new technologies just because we can. We're living in an attention economy that is being driven, almost entirely, by technology. We have access today to more information than we can possibly absorb, and all of those sources are competing to try to get top of mind with us. If they can get us addicted, then they've got a business model.
But, we're also seeing the downside of this tech explosion, and it isn't pretty. We are more isolated, more segmented and unhappier than ever before as tech has moved away from solving real problems.
We need the tech industry to refocus some of that effort on solving real world problems again.
The dark side of tech
More than 30 years ago, Georgia Tech professor Melvin Kranzberg compiled a list of what he called the "Six Laws of Technology," which were intended to address potential social unrest related to the growing reach, even then, of technologies. His first law, that technology is not good or bad, but it is also not neutral, has become a measuring stick for tech policy in the era of Big Data, social media and always-on connectivity.
That was in the 1980s, and since then technology has only become more pervasive.
As of 2017, the average person spent more than two hours per day on various social media platforms, according to influencer marketing agency Mediakix.
There will soon be more than 5,000 GB of data on every single person on the planet stored somewhere on the cloud where advertisers, corporations, governments and others can leverage it, a Digital Universe study found.
And, incredibly, Facebook recently introduced a version of its Messenger app intended for kids aged six to 12.
All this despite knowing that this increasing reliance on technology can be bad for our health. In a recent, ground-breaking piece in The Atlantic, Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State, shared research showing that since the advent of the smartphone the rates of depression and suicide have skyrocketed among teenagers.
There are two different forces at play here. One is the addictive, dopamine-driving behavioral design of applications that tether us to our technologies. This is what makes you keep that phone right next to you all day long and look at everything that pops up. The second thing is this ability for users to post content online, potentially anonymously or in ways that abuse other people, with little constraint. Too often, this allows people to say things they wouldn't normally say in front of actual people, leading to more bullying behavior.
How tech can help
The technology industry certainly deserves some blame for this cultural conundrum but it also deserves some credit for not turning a blind eye to this issue. For example, Facebook recently rolled out an artificial intelligence feature that claims to be able to spot suicidal tendencies in users' social media activity before even their doctors do. The company hopes the technology will help prevent suicides by getting people help before they even know they need it.
It's a good first step, but there's more the industry can do.
Create guidelines: It may be time for the industry to create behavioral health guidelines for their products, in order to both police its own practices and encourage the creation of apps that are built in a way to reinforce and encourage wellness, versus to try to take advantage of more negative behaviors. These would be voluntary guidelines that would police what the industry is doing, to prevent abusive technologies.
Promote distance: Two hours of social media usage per day is a lot, but it still pales in comparison to the seven-plus hours that the average person spends watching television. Yet, there are proven mental health benefits to disconnecting from time to time. The industry should be supportive of this practice, encouraging users to take digital sabbaticals on a regular basis in order to maintain a happy and engaged user base. It doesn't even need to be a full break, as having access to so-called "safe spaces" has been proven to make people happier in today's increasingly hostile internet.
Provide tools: How can users protect themselves against the negative effects of technology? How do they put up barriers against it? The industry can't stand silent as this issue spirals out of control. Smart tech companies should step up now, acknowledge the problem and offer tools to help their users become healthy customers of their products.
We still have a long way to go, but there are tech companies that are working to solve this very real-world problem. One example is Spry Labs, a Cincinnati-based development firm that leads specialized workshops and innovation sessions dedicated to solving society's big problems. (Spry is a project of Cintrifuse, where I am a founding member.) This past summer, it hosted a hackathon focused on solving the opioid crisis, and on March 10 it is leading a session to help the tech industry deal with suicides.
Technology certainly didn't create the problem of suicide, and it won't be the last time that we as a society have to deal with it. But, by taking small steps to help address the problem, the tech industry can turn its market power into a force for good, helping to make all of us happier and healthier in the process.