Nov 25, 2014 | By George Gantz
Chapter I: The Human – Technology Interface
This is the first installment of a four-part series on the Human Race and The Technology Race. Most of the material was covered in the November 4th, 2014, presentation in the Wayland Great Presenters Series at the Wayland, MA Town Library. I am grateful to all those who were able to attend the presentation. The written presentation benefitted from the participation and comments from that very polite and attentive audience.
The full series will include four Chapters:
Chapter I: The Human Technology Interface
Chapter II: What is the Human Race?
Chapter III: Will Digital Technology Produce Super-intelligence?
Chapter IV: Practical Advice for Responding to Technological Change
For a full PDF copy of Chapter I (which in my opinion is much easier to read), please click here: Chapter I PDF.
My interest in this topic comes from my life-long interest in philosophy and science. While I majored in math and minored in philosophy in college some forty years ago, I was also interested in the new cross-disciplinary programs on values, technology and society, and I have done a fair amount of reading since then. One fact that stands out – as human beings we are a technological species. We invent technologies that help us live better, but in the process the technologies also change us and how we live.
In general, the first part, the invention, is intentional. As Plato is reputed to have said, “necessity is the mother of invention”. We invent technology to accomplish a particular end – to make life easier, faster, more comfortable and convenient.
However, the other part – how technology changes us and how we live – is generally not well understood. While we may appreciate the direct benefits of invention, we usually fail to anticipate the transformative and often negative impacts of technology – these usually fall into the category of unintended consequences. Yet these consequences have been profound, both for the earth we live on and the way we live. Some wonder whether we can survive.
2. Some Unintended Consequences of Technology
Some of the examples of unintended consequences of technology are reflected in the following images, as presented on November 4.
Workers in cubicles – somewhere in the world:
Melting of glaciers in Patagonia from global climate change:
Highway sprawl: (I read recently that if the paved surfaces in the United States were assembled in one location, it would be larger than the state of Ohio.)
Stress from a multi-tasking work environment:
As a final image of unintended consequences, I included a portrait of Alfred Nobel, the Inventor of dynamite. His invention has been used for both good and evil purposes over the years, and it was such a valuable technology that it created immense wealth for the inventor. He then used his fortune to create an enduring legacy for knowledge and good – the Nobel prizes. Perhaps this can be considered a serendipitous consequence of an explosive invention.
With the exception of the Nobel prizes, did anyone want any of these things to happen? No – of course not – but these consequences have had significant negative impacts on humanity and the world at large. Many of the problems are particularly difficult and will require global political and institutional solutions, rather than technological ones.
Given that this is the case, shouldn’t we at least try to consider the consequences before we go too far down the road with a given technology? The obvious answer, to which everyone can agree, is “YES”. Yet in many, or most cases, this is not being done.
3. Digital Technology is Ubiquitous
Many significant technological changes have occurred in the last fifty years, and some the biggest changes have been associated with the digital transformation. The products of the digital transformation have permeated our lives. At the Wayland Great Presenters event, we conducted a brief survey of the level of knowledge and use of a dozen digital technologies. Based on a show of hands from about 25 attendees (most of whom were above the median age in the US), we estimated the percentage of the audience that was: A – Familiar with the technology; B – A daily or regular user of the technology; C – A frequent user; D – An infrequent user.
As the following table shows, several of these technologies including digital clocks, email, text messaging, online search and online banking and shopping, are ubiquitous – while others are merely predominant. In this audience, the social media including online games and courses (MMOG or MOOC), Twitter and the sharing economy showed the lowest penetration, with Facebook somewhat higher. Had the audience been below median age, these results might have been quite different.
Table 1. Survey of the use of various digital technologies (percentage of total).
|Digital clocks and calendars – and GPS||100||100||0||0|
|SKYPE, FACETIME, YouTube, Video sharing||80||60||12||8|
|E-books and magazines||80||60||8||12|
|Online information and search||100||92||4||4|
|Digital music including streaming||80||40||16||24|
|MMOG or MOOC||24||0||0||24|
|Online banking and shopping||100||80||8||12|
|Sharing economy – UBER, AirBnB, VRBo, Hotwire||40||4||16||20|
We also asked the audience the following open question: How do you feel about all this? What’s your sense of all this new technology? The responses, listed in Table 2 below, included a balance of positive and negative reactions.
Table 2. Survey of reactions to new technology.
|empowered||waste of time|
|ease of communication||isolating|
Clearly, digital technology is all around us. We are immersed. Every one of these technologies is changing the way we live and work – sometimes for the better and sometimes not. But they are also changing the way we behave – and even the way we think.
4. Digital Technology has Significant Downsides
The following is a review of some recent research findings about the consequences of some of these technologies. I’ve selected five technologically induced trends to discuss: Multi-tasking; Constant interruptions; Digital text; Social networking; and Breadth versus depth, including the impact on our experience of time.
a. Multi-tasking is an illusion.
“People have surprisingly severe limitations on their ability to carry out simultaneously certain cognitive processes that seem fairly trivial from a computational standpoint.” Harold Pashler 1994
Why is this the case? It turns out that humans can only pay attention to one thing at a time. When we switch our attention, it requires cognitive effort to stop and store in memory what we were paying attention to, and then switch to bring something else into focus. These switching costs reduce our efficiency – multi-talking makes us less effective.
People talk about the fact that the human brain can do things without our paying attention. That is true. There are tasks, like walking for example, that are somewhat automatic and do not normally require our direct attention – unless, of course, we are crossing the street. When we are walking, our attention can be focused on something else, like having a conversation. But this is not really multi-tasking. It is more like having something cooking slowly on a back burner, while we actively pay attention to something else. We do have the capability for limited peripheral attention that can monitor the automatic activities and bring our immediate attention back to them if needed. At least, we hope everyone can switch attention – distracted driving is an example of the failure to do so.
People also talk about the brain working on problems when they are not paying attention – even when they are asleep. Deep creative or intuitive insights can happen when we really focus hard on something for a period of time, and then take a break and do something different like take a walk. The brain does seem to do work subliminally and then present us with that flash of insight. But that is very different from trying to pay attention to several different things at the same time – that we cannot do, or at least not do very well.
b. Our digital devices are controlling us.
Researchers have noted that the sound of a beeping phone compels our attention – and answering the call tends to reward us with a rush of dopamine in the brain. see: Nicolas Carr, Kevin Kelly
The issue of distractions is a major theme in Kevin Kelly’s book What Technology Wants, (2010), and it’s something we have all experienced. Someone’s digital device beeps in a room and we all react – answer that call! Researchers have pointed out that responding to the beep and answering the call or text message tends to reward us with a rush of dopamine in the brain – in the same way that the brain of an addicted gambler reacts to pulling the lever on a slot machine or placing a bet on the gaming table. The dopamine contributes to an immediate pleasurable effect followed by a strong craving for more. Digital technology can be very addictive.
Kathy Schultz wrote a piece for the New York magazine a year ago titled “How Twitter hijacked my mind.” She admittedly became addicted to Twitter, and here’s what she had to say about the consequences: “I gravely worry that Twitter undermines the capacity for sustained attention. I know it has undermined my own: I’ve watched my distractibility increase over the last few years, felt my time get divided into ever skinnier and less productive chunks. More disturbing, I have felt my mind get divided into tweet-size chunks as well. It’s one thing to spend a lot of time on Twitter; it’s another thing, when I’m not on it, to catch myself thinking of — and thinking in — tweets.”
c. Digital text lowers comprehension.
“Reading text on a computer screen leads to poorer reading comprehension” due to “lack of spatiotemporal markers” and “additional cognitive costs.” Mangen et al 2013.
When the iPad came out a few years ago, I bought one and jumped into e-books through both kindle and iBook apps – I devoured dozens of books, including Kevin Kelly’s book on Technology – it was so easy! However, when I tried to write about what I had read I found I could not recall it – hardly anything had stuck.
As I have thought about the issue of using digital resources since then, I have concluded that hypertext and online search are incredible and wonderful tools. They give researchers instant access to an incredibly broad range of sources. But when I need to think about what I am reading, I have to do read it in paper form. Sometimes I even print out reports that I’ve found online in order to increase my reading comprehension. My iPad has become a photo frame – it does a wonderful job.
I’ve also discovered, for me, that audio and video sources take too much time if I am studying a topic. I have also noted that I have remarkably weak auditory recall. Some people have much better audio recall and find audio resources more useful than I do. These findings do make me wonder, however. At one time the human race relied primarily on auditory processing and memory for learning and communication – indeed, Greek philosophy itself was born in an oral culture. So perhaps these auditory capabilities were a universal human cognitive strength that slowly lost its privileged position after the invention of the printing press. Is this an unintended consequence of that remarkable technology?
d. Social networking may be anti-social.
“Facebook use predicts decline in subjective well-being in young adults.” PLOS ONE August 2013.
“Excessive use of some social media may be narcissistic.” Psychology Today June 2013.
We know that social networks are important for our psychological well being, and Facebook seems to provide a vehicle for staying connected with more people, more of the time. But these findings point out some of the downsides. High Facebook use correlates with less happiness, not more, and can promote narcissistic tendencies. My own experience with Facebook is an unsettled feeling of voyeurism – too intimate and too distant at the same time. I also find scrolling through an endless series of posts, photos and ads can be a real time-waster. As a result I only use Facebook to promote articles I’ve written.
The other concern some of the experts have with Social Media is the basic business model. The purpose of Facebook is not to be a safe and private gathering place – it’s to make money. Everything you post – including all those photos – are owned and controlled by Facebook. Last June a controversy erupted when it was reported that Facebook had conducted psychological experiments on users without their knowledge or permission. This is what happened:
Each Facebook user is presented with their personalized “News Feed” of posts from friends (and from advertisers). The content and sequence of the News Feed for each user is based on an algorithm that tries to match what is being presented with the users interests – and with advertisers’ interest in reaching particular groups of people. In the experiment, Facebook altered the News Feed algorithm for some 800,000 users. In some cases the News Feed was tilted to be more positive – while for other the News Feed was tilted to be more negative. What the researchers found is that when the algorithm tilted the News Feed to the positive it resulted in more positive postings by the users themselves – a bit like a mood enhancer. And the users presented with the more negative News Feed also became more negative in what they posted – it acted like a depressant.
If you are a Facebook user, you also know about the “Like” button. You can indicate that you “like” what you see with a single click on the “Like” button – what a great way to let your friends know you’ve seen and appreciate one of their posts. But the like button also provides data for marketing purposes – “liking” things can affect the algorithm that determines your personal News Feed and is important data for advertisers in targeting their audience through the News Feed. This past summer, Mat Hogan tried an experiment of “liking” everything he saw on Facebook – and he recounts that this was actually very hard to do given the number of things posted on Facebook. This is what he reported after a period of time “… there were no human beings in my feed anymore. It became about brands and messaging, rather than humans with messages.”
As Nicolas Carr put it in a 2007 post commenting on the business model of the social networking business:
“There is no intimacy that is not a branding opportunity, no friendship that can’t be monetized…”
e. Digital technology increases span and decreases depth:
“Our ‘new strengths in visual-spatial intelligence’ go hand in hand with a weakening of our capacities for the kind of ‘deep processing’ that underpins ‘mindful knowledge acquisition, inductive analysis, critical thinking, imagination, and reflection.'”
Nicolas Carr – quoting researcher Susan Greenfield.
As the quote suggests, digital technology seems to increase cognitive span but decrease cognitive depth. This is a key concern expressed in Nicolas Carr’s 2011 book: The Shallows – What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. I recommend his book if you want to pursue the subject in detail as I can’t do it justice in this presentation. However, I would like to add some additional observations about how digital technology can alter our conceptions and even our worldviews.
Going back to the list of digital technologies that we went over at the beginning – the first was digital clocks and calendars. Now, you might think this is a pretty innocent technology – shifting us from analog clocks and watches with dials and hands to digital devices with numbers. But this is a more profound shift than you might think.
Analog time shows us immediately the context of where we are in time – what is the position of the minute hand that tells us what part of the hour we are in – what is the position of the hour hand that tells us where we are in the day. Digital time, on the other hand, has no context – it is nothing but numbers. It doesn’t show us visibly where we are in time, the way an analog dial does. When we read the digital numbers, we have to add the context back – where in the hour or the day are we – or how long until I need to be somewhere else.
Moreover, analog time reflects a primordial linkage between two fundamental units of time in human life: the length of the day and its partitions into halves and quarters based on the movement of the sun – and the average length of the human heartbeat counting out the seconds. There are sixty seconds in a minute, sixty minutes in an hour, and twelve hours in each half of the day. These concepts are all there, visually, in your analog watch.
At a more existential level, philosopher Hans Gumbrecht noted in a recent interview that one of the consequences of our digital technologies is that the past is now inescapably present – we no longer have “the freedom to be forgotten”- almost everything about us and our past is stored forever and immediately accessible in the present. At the same time, technology presents us with a future that contains an indefinite and nearly infinite array of options that impose their optionality on the present. What future do we choose now? Or the converse, if we choose now, what future options do we foreclose? These dilemmas may be affecting our behaviors. My experience suggests that it has become much more difficult to secure RSVP’s than in the past. The request for a commitment to a particular event is no longer being honored as it forecloses so many other options.
Gumbrecht says we are all struggling to regain our existential connection to an unfettered present. How are we trying to do that? Perhaps it is through the practice of mindfulness in yoga or meditation, or in the immediate thrill of sports, including spectating and the personal engagement in things like fantasy football. We also have the fascination with entertainment and celebrities, with novel or extreme experiences, and with travel. Gumbrecht even speculated that the increasing fascination with tattoos may reflect a desire to make a permanent physical statement of “the present” to carry with us.
While we have other issues to cover in our exploration of the Human Race and the Technology Race, this is a good place to pause and reflect on what we have learned. Digital technologies are profoundly changing our lives and the world we live in. While there are significant positive benefits from these technologies – benefits that I admittedly have not addressed in this presentation – there are also significant negative consequences that we are only just beginning to encounter and explore.
One of the features of our digital world, which I will address in more detail later, is that technological change is taking place on an accelerated timetable. This gives us little time to evaluate or assess the consequences before a technology becomes ubiquitous. Email was invented in the ‘70’s, but it took decades to achieve the levels of penetration we have today. Text messaging was first offered in 1994, some 20 years ago. In contrast, Facebook, perhaps the most powerful social media company in the world today, was founded just ten years ago. Uber, which is now revolutionizing personal transport in many cities, is only five years old.
At the end of this series we will get back to the serious question of how to respond to these technologies and the rapid changes they are bringing. For now we will put this on the back burner. In Chapter II of this series we shift our attention to a very different question – what is the Human Race?
Selected Bibliography – provided in PDF.
Join the Discussion