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Swings and roundabouts: introducing Idealog’s Technology Month

From the defrost function on the microwave, to the automatic garage door opener, to the advances in healthcare/food/vehicle safety that mean I’m likely to live longer than the previous generation, technology has improved pretty much every aspect of my day-to-day existence. And, with the tech sector becoming increasingly important to the New Zealand economy, it’s also starting to improve the country as a whole.

The technology issue of Idealog – ‘Reality Check’ – focused on those positives and aimed to show the momentum of the sector and the opportunities all this rapid change is creating. But we also tried to think deeply about some of the ramifications of these technologies.

To the believers, embracing new technologies is a no-brainer; an inevitability in the process of progress. But to others, just because something exists, doesn’t mean we should use it. I sit somewhere between abstract optimism and anecdotal cynicism on that spectrum. I regularly find myself trying to convince people that, despite the perception the world is falling apart at the seams, it has actually never been a better place and that the technologies, scientific advances and economic development we have seen in the past few decades have been nothing short of phenomenal. As Thomas Friedman explains in Thank you for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations: “Everything that is analog is now being digitised, everything that is being digitised is now being stored, everything that is being stored is now being analysed by software on these more powerful computing systems, and all the learning is being applied to make old things work better, to make new things possible, and to do old things in fundamentally new ways.”

But for all the broad benefits, I also feel like the relationship we have with some technology is becoming unhealthy. The gravitational pull of the smartphone means we check it hundreds, if not thousands, of times a day. The social media feed is digital dopamine. And while technology is meant to create efficiencies, we are often expected to work, simply because the technology allows it. We’re basically stuck in a shiny version of the Skinner Box, named after Harvard psychologist BF Skinner, who showed that rats’ behaviour could be influenced by rewards – or, more specifically, variable rewards. 

Like many parents, I have also started to question whether technology is getting in the way of social development, interrupting important moments and, perhaps over-dramatically, leading to a loss of an essential part of our humanity. In his book Irresistible (and in our Q&A a few weeks ago), the psychologist Adam Alter says he believes we are in the grip of unprecedented behavioural addiction and, as he points out, those making the technology know it (Steve Jobs famously didn’t let his kids play on the iPad because he understood how addictive it was). 

Tristan Harris, who worked for Google and now researches digital ethics, says this might seem trivial because it’s just people clicking on screens, but he believes it’s diminishing the human capacity for making free choices: “What happens when you magnify that into an entire global economy? Then it becomes about power.”

The internet is paved with good intentions and Silicon Valley parodied the faux-philanthropy of the place with aplomb. And as Nick Bilton, a tech reporter who recently released a book about the libertarian dreamer behind the Silk Road, Ross Ulbricht, says: “A lot of times the problem in Silicon Valley is that people come up with a good idea that’s supposed to do a good thing – you know, to change the world and make it a better place. And it ends up inevitably having a recourse that they don’t imagine.” 

He points to 3D printing, a technology that was supposed to completely upend the global manufacturing sector but, before that, was used to create plans for 3D printed guns that could more easily be smuggled through airports. More recently, he has examined new audio and video technologies that could take the fake news issue to a whole new nefarious level and continue to erode trust and destabilise democracy. 

Tony Fadell, the design genius who helped create the iPod and later the iPhone, before starting smart thermostat company Nest, recently summed up the tension between good disruption and bad disruption that we explored in the Technology Issue and that we will continue to explore online in August: “I wake up in cold sweats every so often thinking, what did we bring to the world? Did we really bring a nuclear bomb with information that can – like we see with fake news – blow up people’s brains and reprogramme them? Or did we bring light to people who never had information, who can now be empowered?”

Technology isn’t good or bad, although it can certainly become bad if it’s used in the wrong way and it can come from bad places. But it seems more pervasive, more addictive and more inescapable these days. That obviously brings plenty of commercial opportunities, many of which are being exploited by clever New Zealand companies that Idealog often covers. But should we simply have faith that these technologies will be used responsibly and will have positive effects? And how do we ensure these technologies are being ethically designed? 

Technology can feel magical. Paying without paying as you get out of your Uber. Receiving validation through notifications on your latest social post. Experiencing your favourite show whenever you want. Seeing an artificially intelligent baby respond like a real one. But, when taken too far, or when used too much, technology can also feel hollow – and even dangerous. It’s a fine balance. And while the benefits are undeniable, we should also be careful what we wish for.

Ben Fahy is publisher/editorial director of Idealog. 
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