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Is Technology Bad for You?

July 5, 2018
Smartphone addiction, internet-enabled social-media frenzy, texting while driving, looming AI concerns—without changes, more are questioning where all of this is headed.

Technology is a good thing….right? I’ve always thought it was. After all it has given us radio, TV, computers, and the internet. And more recently it has delivered smartphones, social media, robots, and streaming music and video. How could all of this not be a good thing and how could we not like it?

Well, there’s growing evidence that some technology is bad for us. Technology has changed us in numerous ways over the last few years, and many of these changes are not so positive. Below are some examples of technology that’s having a negative impact on us. The following isn’t just my opinion, but the views of many others who are beginning to speak out. You may already know most of this, but let me summarize for you:

Distraction: Smartphones are so engaging or addictive that people just can’t put them down. The worst example of this is texting while driving. Just talking is distraction enough for some, but this talk problem has at least been alleviated with the popular Bluetooth hands-free app in most new vehicles today. Yet texting continues to cause accidents and deaths.

And not all distraction is while driving. At a recent family get-together, seven of us siblings were all sitting around talking, but each was also engaged with a smartphone or iPad, some with earphones. We were distracted and attention seemed to be elsewhere. This is so typical of gatherings today. Sad…

Too much screen time: When we analyze what we do all day we find that for perhaps a third of our day or more is sitting in front of video screen of some sort. We focus on our PCs at work, check our smartphones all day, watch TV at night, or browse on our iPads. We take our phones to the dinner table and keep them by the bedside. Paranoia sets in if we miss some communication. That brings up the question, what did we do before all those screens? Talk, go to meetings, read, listen to music, play outdoors, work on our hobbies, engage with the kids? Or what?

Smartphone interaction: Two recent Wall Street Journal articles point out the psychological impact that the smartphone has had on people. One article introduces a growing problem that clinical psychologists call smartphone anxiety. It’s the unnatural angst caused by not having your smartphone with you or nearby. Real anxiety occurs for many when your battery level drops to 20% or less or when you realize you didn’t bring along your charger cable.

  • Another smartphone-related problem is one that seems to affect teenage girls more than any other group. More and more the girls measure their social success by how well they engage with social-media sites. They get their gratification and self-esteem more by their online presence and activities than their in-person relationships. This is another area that psychologists are exploring. Not a good sign. The smartphone is a truly unique high-tech gadget. It has an abnormal hold on our attention and a negative impact on our thinking ability. Many psychologists are jumping at this phenomenon to study its mostly negative effects and impact.

Security: Technology has caused us to lose our privacy. The government can spy on us through multiple means and the social-media megaliths gather our personal data and sell it to others. We have to subscribe to services that check to see if our identity has been stolen.

Impact of the internet and social media: This is a biggie. Social media and the internet have changed much of what we do today. We’ve become obsessed with Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and others to the point that they’re controlling our time and our lives. A local radio personality, Jeff Ward, in a recent talk said that “opinion is replacing real information and that is dangerous.” People are influenced by what’s on the internet and social-media sites and some of it may not be true. While some real news may be reported, more often than not we get fake news, no news, or partial truths.

Clearly the internet and social media now dominate news access for most people. Its influence is so overwhelming we seem to have lost the ability to think for ourselves. Ward goes on to say that social media has made us lazy and passive. Social media is a fast, easy way to spread sensational information that may not be true. Elections are affected.

  • Social media seems so innocent, useful and fun. What’s the harm in recognizing birthdays and sharing photos? Yet, social media has the potential to expedite change we may not want. None of us can deny the benefits of the internet. But the truth is the whole thing affects how we think…. or not think. In his 2010 book The Shallows, What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, author Nicholas Carr says that the internet is making us stupid and dumber. We’re losing our ability to concentrate, contemplate, and reflect. If you want a scary read, this is the one that will have you questioning some aspects of technology. It’s happening right now with your kids as they obsess over their smartphones.
  • Another chilling read is Edward Tenner’s new book The Efficiency Paradox, What Big Data Can’t Do. Tenner writes about the unintended consequences of scientific, engineering, and electronic developments. He talks about how Facebook and others use psychographic microtargeting in mining our big data. Tenner says that “Efficiency can result in “skill erosion.” Another eye-opener of a book, if you can take it.

Artificial intelligence: AI is becoming more of a factor in our lives. While AI has been known since the 1950s and was widely developed in the 1980s, it was not considered a threat to humans. Today, many are voicing concern for how AI could negatively affect our lives. Faster processors and new algorithms that make computers approach some human thinking levels.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk said in his recent documentary that AI and the subsequent resulting autonomous machines may be dangerous and could result in weapons of terror. Further thoughts from Musk express his opinion that AI will definitely advance science and medicine and otherwise change our lives in ways we can’t imagine. He fears that super-intelligent machines could ultimately rule the world.

AI is already with us in so many forms. It will eventually take away many low-level routine jobs, but hopefully, as many say, it will create new and better jobs. Right now, AI is still our friend, but beware of what it could become. Question products like the internet-connected speakers with voice recognition like Amazon Echo and others. What are they capturing with their microphones, if anything? Let’s keep AI as a tool to help humans—not totally replace them.

Self-driving cars: They’re not here yet, but the hype is rampant, making these machines appear to be the solution to all our driving issues. Despite the well-known statistics of accidents and deaths, humans are still the better drivers when not distracted or impaired. AI is good and getting better, but an AI-based vehicle is never going to be able to handle all of the infinite driving possibilities, despite its learning ability. Beware of this one.

So that’s the bad news. Here’s the good news.

Smartphones: The king of tech is the smartphone, which may be the ultimate electronic product. It gives us superior mobile communications capability with voice calls, texting, email, and internet access. We can get plenty of mobile entertainment choices, video, voice, and music. And games. Another huge benefit is GPS navigation and maps. The smartphone also makes us safer, as we can call AAA if we run out of gas or call 911 in emergencies. It’s even replacing our credit cards. And let’s not forget the ever-improving digital cameras. The Swiss Army knife of electronics, and a very addictive device. Totally.

The Internet: Near instant access to a massive amount of information. If you have a question, you can receive an almost instantaneous answer. What did we do before Google searches?

Entertainment: Multiple options via TV over the air, cable, satellite, and fiber. Streaming video and music. Podcasts. Games.

Automotive: Greatly improved safety with advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS) and fuel efficiency. The coming electrical vehicles and self-driving cars.

Medical: Too many positive things to mention.

So, do all of the good things outweigh the bad? It’s your call. In my opinion, as engineers, we have some responsibility to consider the unintended consequences of our work. Yet I wonder how the engineers developing the iPhone could have anticipated the negative impact of smartphone addiction.

Apple’s engineers didn’t anticipate this problem, but are now doing something about it. At its annual Worldwide Developers Conference, Apple recently announced an app that will hopefully address the distraction, too much screen time, and smartphone overuse issues that affect mental health. Alphabet is also beginning to address the overuse problem.

Maybe we can change things at this point if the users cooperate. Let me know what you think.

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