Dec 17, 2014 | By George Gantz
Chapter IV: Practical Advice – Responding to Technological Change
This is the final Chapter in the series on The Human Race and The Technology Race. The previous Chapters include:
The last three Chapters have taken us on a journey from our use of digital technology in the present moment, to the deep question of human qualities and aspirations, to the far frontiers of digital technology and potential super-intelligence. This journey has left the question – how should we, as humans, respond to the digital transformation?
Chapter III touched on the possible nightmare scenario of a super-intelligent computer takeover in which humanity loses control over its destiny. But Chapter I hinted at a different form of computer takeover – the risk that we lose control of our lives bit-by-bit, as digital technology increasingly consumes our attention and directs our choices according to its technical imperatives and the commercial interests of its purveyors. In either scenario, we face the risk of losing what is most important to us as humans – our sense of autonomous purpose and value, what the Greek’s might call the opportunity for a life well lived.
If anything is clear from the narrative of Chapter I, it is that digital technology is ubiquitous, and it is rapidly and profoundly changing our lives and the world we live in. Many of these changes are wonderful, and it makes perfect sense to embrace technologies that bring us such incredible value and benefit. At the same time, we have to respond as best we can to the risks. How successful we are in finding the right balance – embracing the good and avoiding or mitigating the bad – will determine whether the net result of the digital transformation is to promote human thriving or undermine it.
This may seem a daunting challenge, but the problem may be simpler than it appears. The goal of this Chapter is to provide practical advice that can address our own immediate challenge in living with digital technology. By so doing, we may improve the outcome on the larger challenge to humanity. By setting our own course and pace in our individual race with technology, we will be improving the prospects that humanity as a whole will succeed in the human race even as it joins the technology race.
2. One Big Lesson from the Internet
What lessons can we learn from the invention of the Internet, that thoroughly interconnected, far-reaching and still rather amorphous “thing” that is so much a part of out lives today? In one sense, it is a magical invention, giving us access to almost all of human knowledge on a nearly instantaneous basis at a price that is very nearly free. The Internet has democratized information. Knowledge is no longer the exclusive possession of the elite in monasteries, academies or libraries. The Internet, and its collaborative infrastructure of browsers, search engines, databases and online sources, completes what Gutenberg began – making knowledge and information readily accessible to all (or mostly all).
Yet this transformative technology has also undermined the selection and filtering process that used to apply to the dissemination of knowledge. The journalists, commentators, editors, publishers, opinion leaders and experts in the various fields of knowledge provided a valuable function in digesting, processing and packaging information for dissemination. While there were some drawbacks to this process, it meant the public could rely on a limited set of sources and did not have to be experts themselves.
In contrast, the Internet today is open to anyone who wants to say anything on any topic, regardless of qualifications or expertise. There are no filters and, as a consequence, the Internet contains an inordinate amount of misinformation and just plain drivel. The democratization of information has democratized self-expression and eliminated accountability. As a result, the trustworthiness and credibility of the information published has been dramatically undermined. Users can no longer trust, or should not trust, much of the information they access on the Internet.
More significantly, there is a strong tendency for users to access only those things they want to read, information that reinforces what they already think or believe. The risk of indulging in one’s biases has dramatically increased. It is far easier to hear things you agree with, than to challenge your beliefs and opinions by exploring the full range of ideas and positions. People tend not to be aware of their own biases but rather seek to reinforce them. This tendency is a major factor contributing to the polarization in modern discourse – we are increasingly an “uncivil” society.
This then, is the context in which we must choose how we use the Internet for access to knowledge and information. Clearly, we need to resist the impulse for self-reinforcement and be willing to engage with ideas or topics that challenge us and expand our understanding of differing points of view. This requires a good measure of self-reflection and a commitment to open, thoughtful inquiries. At the same time, we need to examine the information that is available with a skeptical mindset, evaluating the credibility of the sources we encounter.
3. The Amish Example
In What Technology Wants, Kevin Kelly explores how Amish communities deal with new technology. Most people think that the Amish have simply rejected new technology, using a litmus test of whether it uses human or animal power and whether it can be produced locally. Some communities may make decisions that way, but Kevin Kelly talks about others that allow a new technology to be brought into a community as a pilot program. The community leaders then watch to see what the consequences are. If the technology seems to promote community values and bring benefits to the community, they will allow its use to grow. If, on the other hand, they perceive that the technology fosters ill will or acquisitiveness, proves distracting or otherwise undermines community values, then the pilot will be concluded and the technology prohibited.
This process of enforced community decision-making may be uncomfortable for some, and as community units get larger, the sociological implications of centralized control and decision-making are likely to become more coercive. Yet the idea of being experimental and then reflecting on whether the outcomes are positive or negative is eminently reasonable for an individual or collaborative unit (e.g. a family or small group).
If we know what values we feel are most important, we can then try out a new technology and see whether it is actually helpful and positive. This approach encourages curiosity and innovation. We test things out to see how they work and to see what happens. Clearly, this method can be useful for each of us in shaping our choices to use or not to use a particular technology. It may also be helpful as we form opinions about the use of a technology generally.
4. Other Lessons
As we discussed in Chapter I, many technologies do not appear to be well suited to human capabilities and functionalities. Our eyes, ears, hands and brains have limitations that are not always well matched to devices or applications coming out of the laboratory. Adopting such a technology may cause dissonance, frustration, stress or other side effects for the human user that undermines its putative value. People may not want to be thinking in tweet-sized chunks.
More specifically, for any given technology or its applications, this dissonance may occur at various levels: physiological; psychological; or sociological. There is a new repetitive motion injury known as “texting thumb,” in addition to “computer eye strain”, not to mention that the “physical consequences of gaming addiction including carpal tunnel, migraines, sleep disturbances, backaches, eating irregularities, and poor personal hygiene.” In Chapter I we discussed the psychological issues of narcissism and self-image relating to social media. There are implications for our society when people in public places displace human conversation with interactions on their digital devices. However, it is also true that the specific reactions and side effects will be different for different people. Just because something does not work for me does not automatically mean that it is a bad idea for everybody.
A second important lesson to consider is that while information about a technology’s product features and uses is often readily available, information about the consequences of using a technology, particularly any negative consequences, may not be. In the early stages of a technology life cycle, advocates may be effusive and skeptics hard to find. If there is evidence of negative or positive consequences it may be anecdotal or even apocryphal, rather than scientific or statistical. All sources of information about a given technology or product should be taken with a liberal grain of salt.
The Internet does, nevertheless, provide access to a wide range of information, and it is relatively simple to query your browser with a variety of questions to see what people have been saying on a given topic. When searching for information we need to be curious, open-minded (avoiding self-bias) and skeptical at the same time.
A third important lesson to recognize is that peer pressure is the bane of rational decision-making and should be strongly resisted. It is normal for humans that have adopted a new thing, whether product, fashion or habit, to try and get the rest of the world to affirm their choice. Early adopters can be consummate promoters, but their recommendations may also be strongly biased. On the other hand, trusted peers can be incredibly valuable resources for information and experience about learning and using new technologies. The fastest way to learn a new technology is from an experienced user. The most frustrating way to learn a new technology is to try and read the manual, or figure it out yourself.
5. This is My Advice:
When I spoke at the Wayland Great Presenters Series, I pointed out that in the consulting business it is sometimes argued that the value of the advice being given is directly proportional to the fee paid and the distance the consultant has had to travel. Given that I had not charged a fee and traveled less than a mile to attend the event, I noted that my advice might be of little value. Nevertheless, here are my recommendations for how each of us should approach the new digital technologies.
- Be open-minded about new technologies and applications, willing to try a technology out by investing some time and effort into the process.
- Seek to be well informed about the technology and its consequences, willing to ask others for their opinions and advice and to search the Internet for information and opinions.
- Be self-reflective about how you are responding to a new technology. The initial frustrations of learning something new, for example having to deal with “buggy” integration issues or inherent complexity may not be indicative of the value the technology may offer. On the other hand, some technologies may be very fun, but more distracting than useful. You may not want to waste a lot of time on the time wasters.
- Avoid self-delusion or informational bias at all costs. Whatever you think, read or hear may not be entirely correct. Remain humble and skeptical even about your own experience.
- At the same time, be open-minded and respectful about the opinions and experiences of others. They may have experienced things differently, or value things differently, or they may be more correct about something. Their insights and experience can also be valuable to you.
- Be skeptical but optimistic. This may seem contradictory, but optimism is an important affirming qualifier for one’s skepticism. In my experience skeptical pessimists are a dour bunch, prone to hubris and argumentation. There are many of them in philosophy and other academic disciplines – the result of such thinking always seems to end in a cul-de-sac, and is useless for making sound decisions.
- Be flexible and experimental, like the Amish communities, to see how things work and how they affect you and the world around you. But don’t get committed right away.
- Ultimately, the goal is to make conscious, well-informed choices. The use of a screening tool can be helpful. After a period of testing, you can use the screening tool to measure your experience against a template of the values you consider to be most important. As a reminder, the Max-Neef system distinguishes between: Violators that claim to be satisfying needs, yet undermine them; Pseudo Satisfiers that have little or no real effect; Inhibiting Satisfiers that over-satisfy one need at the expense of others; Singular Satisfiers that satisfy one particular need; and Synergistic Satisfiers that satisfy multiple needs.
- One of the most important factors to include in your valuation is time. This extends to the screening process – in some cases it may not be worth investing a lot of time if the benefits are self-evident or if you have no interest. But in evaluating bigger decisions, time is perhaps the most precious of our resources. We all need balance in our lives – and this extends to balancing the demands on our time. Beware of those things that, for you, consume time without offering lasting value. We only have so much time – we should use it wisely.
- Once you have made a choice, embrace it with vigor! As the box at the beginning of this section suggests, follow the “A” rules – avoid or adopt, adapt and become adept, as appropriate.
- Vote with your time, attention, and money – and with your voice. Providing positive reinforcement for the technologies you appreciate and use and negative reinforcement for the ones you do not is important, as it is this feedback to which business and political institutions respond.
- Finally, do not feel embarrassed if something isn’t working for you – as I noted in my first post on this topic (Busted), I felt like a loser in terms of multi-tasking, eBooks and social media until I began reading the science.
6. Where do I stand?
The end of this process will likely be different for different people. I provide my choices below not as a prescription for what others should decide, but as an example of the thought process to use. At the same time, there are some concerns that do raise larger social or cultural issues. These issues are part of my motivation in addressing this topic in the first place. In these cases, the advice in item K above is apt: I have expressed my concerns and opinions, but hopefully without judging or demeaning others who may feel differently.
Using the information I have gathered and my personal experience, this is where I end up on my own screening process.
- I will stick with paper for most of the books, articles and papers I need to study. However, I do use a selection of digital outlets (about a half dozen) and podcasts (also about a half dozen) to skim sources and look for new information. I also rely extensively on online searches and sources for research and for quick introductions on subjects I may not be familiar with – and to research citations, quotes and images.
- Social media does not bring me joy, nor does it seem to provide a good forum for the exploration of ideas. I will continue to monitor the various social media including Twitter, Facebook, Linked In, Academia.com and similar sites, and I will post on them to promote my writing. For me, social media is not social; it is promotional and eminently commercial.
- Mobile phones, texts and email are unavoidable and will continue to be terribly distracting. I am trying to train myself (so far unsuccessfully) to be unresponsive to the pings and bleeps, and to be actively engaged with these modes in chunks of time rather than all the time. It is also fascinating to observe how their use changes over time. Voice-mail used to be a reliable way of contacting people, but I recently participated in a mentoring program with four young high-performing professionals and was shocked to hear that none of them ever listen to voicemail. Similarly, many people scan emails by subject – which means the content may never be read! Texting is clearly the most immediate communication method – but if you do not get an immediate response that may mean you never will.
- Music and video (visual media) are my choice for entertainment – either digital or (even better) LIVE. Although, the best entertainment for me is nature.
- I have never really enjoyed digital games, so I don’t play MMOG, but I like the idea of MOOCs and the incredible access online courses can provide to expert knowledge on almost all conceivable topics. This is something I am going to take a harder look at – as I have time.
- I am a steady user of online banking and shopping. However, there are two areas of concern. The first is the continuing problem of compromised credit cards. While I have never lost money or had my identity stolen (credit card info – yes), this is a serious concern. Hopefully, it will continue to get better. Then there is the aggravation of having to re-set all the autopay or stored payment accounts you have – all the time you saved by setting them up is then lost. The second problem is the insanity of having to maintain many dozens of online names and passwords. The experts advise that you use complex passwords and change them frequently – this is infeasible (and nobody I know does it). The system currently in place is frustrating and inefficient. It could be a lot better.
- The Sharing economy and its apps (Uber, etc.) are interesting and potentially transformational, but it’s all very new. I have cringed several times in the last month hearing the mis-steps of Uber executives which is a reminder that mature judgment and mature companies takes time to develop. I will continue to monitor and dabble as these apps evolve.
- On the publication front, I am doing a blog, posting comments on a few select, moderated online journals and thinking about a book. Self-publishing is of significant interest and I would like more information and experience – I need to invest some time in these things.
- One cannot avoid digital time and, admittedly, the accuracy of digital mechanisms is astounding. But I love my analog timepiece for what it tells me and for its constant reminder that we are intimately connected with the physical world we inhabit. (See Chapter I).
I live in Wayland, MA, just a few miles down the road from the cabin of our friend Henry David Thoreau, who learned a lot from 1845-1847 when he lived at Walden Pond. I spotted an article recently (October 31) in an online newsletter called the The Philosopher’s Mail, the online publication of The School of Life in England. The article noted:
“Thoreau saw technology as an often unnecessary distraction. He saw the practical benefits of new inventions, but he also warned that these innovations could not address the real challenge of personal happiness: ‘our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things…’ “
“Thoreau also believed we should look to nature, which is full of deep spiritual significance.”
This is sound advice for our own times in the 21st century. Let us keep in mind what is most important to us as human beings and avoid the temptations of the “pretty toys”. We need to recognize and embrace the fact that we are embedded in our mind, our body and our world – and remember the spiritual significance, the soul-filling quality, of the natural world with which we evolved and which nurtures both body and soul. At the same time, we need to be mindful of our responsibility to ourselves and to the greater society. It is up to each of us to be thoughtful, to make good choices, and then to act on our choices and live up to our responsibilities. From a grounded core of being, we can engage fully with the world, and play our part in making it better.
 One Internet technology has developed in part to help overcome this problem. A “Wiki” (meaning quick in Hawaiian) is a collaborative, shared information resource that is publicly edited. The largest of these is Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia that generates enough broad review to conclude that it is reasonably reliable.
 The history of the Internet and the World Wide Web is replete with stories or reputed facts that “went viral” and later turned out to be completely untrue.