The impact of technology in our lives

Last week I facilitated a discussion about the impact of technology in our lives. This was an event for/with the awesome startup, Revel. Besides being a thoughtful and stimulating discussion, it was an eye opener – in areas other than those I had expected. I call that “upsetting my world view.” For me, it’s always cause for celebration, because it means I learned something important about my, apparently mistaken, previous assumptions.

The discussion was among peers, as opposed to a presentation by a so-called expert. Consequently, the conversation was by intent somewhat more free-flowing than a workshop or presentation would have been. Still, even though I try to counteract it, like most humans I tend toward having some expectations or agenda before going into a planned conversation. I figured I work in tech and think a lot about the interaction between technology and society, so clearly (!) I have a decent grasp of the general theme.

Armed with my preconceptions, I went into the conversation thinking we might talk about things such as a variety of currently controversial technologies (AI, social media, drones, GMO, etc.) and/or some of the more well known companies involved in them. Or that we might discuss ethical challenges involved in designing and deploying those technologies, and maybe the interplay between technology trends and evolving culture, i.e., the cultural milieu that gives rise to new technologies and vice versa.

The special role of social media

We did talk about some of these things. However, we focused primarily on one such area – social media – and the practical impact it has had on people’s lives. Specific examples were shared, and several participants stated they had, for example, largely stopped using their Facebook accounts. They expressed a general concern about how this type of social media use affects both adults and children and how it undermines the very human skill of having difficult or, indeed, any face-to-face conversations.

I asked about other technologies several times. What surprised me was that the discussion kept coming back around to social media. There is no doubt in my mind that social media usage appears to be addictive, that it promotes echo chambers and divisiveness, that it provides an easy outlet for hateful thoughts to emerge, and that social media users are generally taking part in social engineering experiments on a massive scale. (Of course, there are many positive aspects of social media as well.) Despite these adverse effects, social media are by no means the only technologies that have both strong positive and negative effects on society. Yet the conversation kept coming back to them, as if they were. Why is that?

People are overwhelmed

One of the participants made an insightful comment that sucked the air right out of my own personal little bubble of naïve idealism. Summarized: People are just overwhelmed.

Most of us are simply trying to get through our daily lives and on our own feel powerless to keep up with, much less do something about these huge and complex issues. No doubt, social activists already understand this reality.

Here we are, living and working in and around Silicon Valley, yet (thankfully) not all of us working in tech. I do work in tech, and I do work with several technologies that have somewhat controversial dimensions to them (including, for example, AI and drones).

I think about ethics in engineering design and about unintended consequences. I believe those of us with deep STEM educations and technological understanding have a special responsibility to help ensure that technologies are deployed with some goal of minimizing the potential for large-scale, adverse unintended consequences.

Raising difficult questions about the impact of technology

Further, I raise difficult questions in my places of work about the impact of technology and of design and business model choices. I engage in such conversations with others.

And, I mistakenly thought that the concerns I address were being raised and discussed on a broader scale, when really, people are just trying to get through their daily lives.

That’s not to say that many other technologists aren’t also asking these types of questions nor that there aren’t people from outside of tech doing the same. However, most people have enough on their plates every day, and they do not have the time or energy or emotional bandwidth to add concerns about ethics or long-term impact of technology to their list of things to concern themselves with in any significant way.

Sure, when you ask them directly, “do you think there are ethical issues around the use of AI?” or “does it concern you that company X is developing technology Y for ABC purpose?” many will say yes. After that, they will quickly go back to their own, busy, often stress-filled lives and focus on things where they feel more empowered to make changes, or maybe just to hang on for dear life.

This is just a data point from a single discussion among a decidedly non-random sampling of people coming together. Still, it has made me think.

Impact of technology: whose responsibility is this?

I can now better understand what a colleague told me a few weeks ago: He studied chemistry in college but remains adamantly “non-technical” and believes strongly that the vast majority of all people (himself included) need not learn anything beyond beginning to mid-level high school math and science. Why? Not because he doesn’t see the increasing impact of technology on everyone, but because “I trust people like you [me] to make decisions about the development and the deployment of technology.”

I think he is frightfully naïve in this regard. However, I am beginning to see it isn’t really just naiveté but rather, a means of defending oneself against yet another unknown, seemingly unknowable, powerful and mysterious thing (“technology”), when it’s enough to just try to pay the rent / mortgage, get the kids fed and off to school, and stay reasonably healthy and sane.

I still believe that many more people – from all walks of life – need to get involved in conversations about the development and use of technologies, about ethics involved in science and engineering, and about the long-term impact of technologies that scale up to impact much of the world. (See also my comments on “techies and non-techies in this post.)

My takeaway from recent conversations, however, is that it is unrealistic to expect people to do so, without some clear guidance on how they can easily plug into those conversations in a manner that makes them feel like they will have an impact.

Celebrating another “upset” of my world view

I started this post saying that I celebrate when something upsets my world view. So what’s to celebrate here?

I now have a more clear insight into the additional work that I, as an engineer and scientist, need to do to have more conversations such as these with a more diverse set of conversational partners. In addition, I need to find ways to help others, at least for brief moments in time, to allow themselves to think about what small steps they might take, to nudge into a more positive direction any technologies that they feel are either particularly important or particularly frightening.

I’m not here to tell anyone what they should think, which technologies they should concern themselves with, or how they should define “a more positive direction” for themselves. However, I do appear to be here to help nudge more people into thinking and talking about these issues to begin with – because it’s not going to happen on its own.

moving in the right direction


Photos by Dan DeAlmeida, Ken Treloar and Clay Banks on Unsplash.