April 17, 2018

The Future of Well-Being in a Tech-Saturated World

5. Key experts’ thinking about digital life and individuals’ well-being in the next decade

Following is a collection of comments by several of the many top analysts who participated in this canvassing:

We will soon interact with digital technologies less frenetically

Kenneth Cukier, senior editor at The Economist, wrote, “Many people are frazzled by the always-on internet, but this is a feature of our embryonic understanding of how to adapt it to our lives; it’s still early days. Over the next 10 years, the industry will get better at making it more subtle rather than distracting, and people will develop the social norms and personal behaviors to interact with digital technologies less frenetically.”

How do we preserve quality of life while pursuing our goals?

Michael Roberts, an internet pioneer, Internet Hall of Fame member and first president and CEO of ICANN, commented, “Harm no longer can be defined in terms of history, either intellectual or physical. The spectrum of future human activities and lifestyles has been expanded immeasurably by knowledge about ourselves, and our newfound ability to replicate in digital automatons vast amounts of what used to be considered human work. Given a sufficient time horizon, a century or two, it is reasonable to assume humans can define whatever set of physical attributes and associated lifestyles they wish. The bottom-line issues are how to guide choices and achieve consensus, along with how to preserve quality of life while those goals are pursued. These are tough issues. Looking around at the end of 2017, one sees a human world of horrendous inequality and suffering, along with the worst political crisis in a very long time. My personal view is that the talent and energy contained in technology-oriented parts of society will push ahead, and, on balance, we will think we are better off 10 years from now, with 2027 technology, than we are today.”

Don’t allow the downsides to lead us to new laws and technologies that will serve as tools of censorship and surveillance

Daphne Keller, a lawyer who once worked on liability and free-speech issues for a top global technology company, said, “We will see declines in well-being in terms of people’s real and perceived privacy, for example. And we are certain to see speech-related harms. On the one hand, online content ginning up racism, extreme populism or bias will likely expand. On the other, ill-conceived attempts to control this ‘bad speech’ will lead to the suppression of lawful and valuable ‘good speech.’ Laws and public policy in the European Union already incentivize platforms to remove legal information and expression posted by ordinary internet users. I predict that trend will expand to other democracies around the world. I think/hope that these harms will be outweighed by improvements in well-being in other parts of the world. Many people in developing countries or oppressive regimes are only beginning to experience the internet’s very real and very positive transformative power. Internet access can improve material prosperity, education, access to support for LGBT and other minority groups, government accountability, and much more. It’s currently fashionable in the U.S. and Europe to see the internet as a force for harm. That’s not wrong. But we should not let that blind us to the incredible benefits the internet has brought us in the past 20 years, and the benefits still to come – not just for us but for people around the world. Nor should we let our current pessimism lead to new laws and technologies that will serve as tools of censorship and surveillance in the hands of human-rights-abusing governments – wherever those governments may be or come to be.”

Create policies for lifelong universal basic access to health, education and livelihood

Mike Liebhold, senior researcher and distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future, wrote, “The most important civic actions to mitigate potential harms of digital life are: 1) Continuous education for citizens on critical-thinking skills and cyber secure behaviors. 2) Continuous education for well-being professionals and practitioners on effective application of technology, best practices for privacy and security. 3) Continuous education of technologies on designing and operations for quality of care, privacy and security. 4) Government policies providing lifelong UBA (Universal Basic Access to health, education, livelihood).”

It’s your choice: There are good and bad things with which to engage

William Schrader, founder and CEO of PSINet, wrote, “When we planned the commercial internet at PSINet back in the 1980s, we dreamt of all knowledge being at everyone’s fingertips instantly, along with distance learning, distance medicine (including surgery) and happiness and peace. We blew it, so far, on happiness and peace. Yes, we knew that the weak would use the commercial internet to steal, hurt and manipulate to harm. Every communications medium does that. That is what we accepted. If Man is Good, then the commercial internet will eventually enable happiness and peace. But, if Man is Evil, we will have more of what we have had for the past 20,000 years. It’s your choice, each of you. There are good and bad things with which people choose to engage. I suspect that the weaker people will choose the bad things and the stronger people will choose the good. … The real good is when people decide to release themselves from that which has captured them (be it Web addiction, substance abuse, obesity, depression, sadness, laziness, self-deprecation, etc.) and choose to search the ‘Inter-Web’ 🙂 for help by learning tai chi, taekwondo, yoga, reading the classic books (online free from local library) and simply finding work that may pay poorly but gives them satisfaction. Psychiatry will be fully automated on the internet, with quality psychiatrists standing behind those systems.”

Some aspects of life will be better; some will be worse

Sara Kiesler, professor emerita and National Science Foundation program manager, commented, “There will be winners and losers, as occurs now, and for individuals, some aspects of life will be better and some will be worse. Winners: entrepreneurs who invent new services or products and successfully reach new customers; formerly isolated seniors who keep in touch with family and recruit them to visit in person; happy people who find a loving spouse online; language learners who practice (almost) every day online; people who can work at home instead of commuting two or three hours a day. Losers: people without the resources to take advantage of online health, education or financial services; people who use the internet as a substitute for in-person social interactions; people who believe everything they read, hear, or see online and never question these opinions. Better aspects of life: convenience of shopping online, streaming entertainment, telework efficiency, improved government services, more efficient everyday life and social interaction. Worse aspects of life: insufficient interpersonal (in-person) interaction; manipulation via algorithm of thinking and opinions; lack of privacy and increased distraction; proliferation of online harms with insufficient defenses; global warming and population increases threaten food sufficiency, natural environment, and wildlife, and increase conflict and threat of warfare.”

Believing things can be done better is the first step in figuring out how to get it done

Mark Richmond, an internet pioneer and systems engineer, wrote, “We have already seen the impact of lessening attention spans, 24-hour ‘news cycles’ and all of the social interaction breakdowns that result from the way things have become. I am hopeful that these declines will not continue. But I am pessimistic that the damage is already being done. There is no way to unwind the clock, nor to put this particular genie back in the bottle. Our best hope is that society, people in general, will adapt and evolve to better deal with the new reality. Society will never be the same as it was 50 or 70 years ago. It will be better. But what form ‘better’ takes, I don’t yet know. I am hopeful that the new reality of ever-expanding connectivity can overcome the filters of repressive government, the language barriers and the cultural barriers that have kept people at odds for so long. The future may be brighter because of the same tools and technologies that have made it seem dim. My best hope is that this wonderful way of communication and interaction will somehow be used to improve the use of other technologies that can better the world situation. Believing that things can be done better is the first step in figuring out how to get it done.”

Instead of suspending disbelief, we need to exercise it

Anne Collier, consultant and executive at The Net Safety Collaborative, said, “There are so many ways that connecting more and more of the world’s people make things better for all of us – growing and broadening collaboration, helping marginalized or isolated people find connection and get help, spreading opportunity and growing awareness of other perspectives and cultures, to name just a few. Yet we fixate on the negativity in media and political news. There are a bunch of reasons for this: Negative information is ‘stickier’ than the positive, and it’s harder for our brains to go from negative to positive than the other way around. We are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information coming at us 24/7. The pace and pressure of life in our society. Not being aware that it’s the news media’s job to report the exception to the rule, not the rule, not to mention ‘what bleeds leads.’ No one’s telling us that all the negativity we’re exposed to is not the norm in our experiences, that we should think twice before making what editors deem a ‘big story’ our story. Instead of suspending our disbelief, we need to exercise it! It’s way too easy to ‘believe the worst,’ which is something in itself that’s good to be aware of.”

Digital life is enabling important work toward the ‘cancer moonshot’

Bradford Hesse, chief of health communication and informatics research at The National Cancer Institute at NIH, said, “Although technologists and social scientists will continue to monitor the unanticipated, adverse consequences of digital transformations (e.g., safety issues, social media trolling), data suggest that in at least one area – the area of health and medicine – these digital technologies should provide an overall boost to citizens’ well-being. At the end of 2016, the President’s Cancer Panel (a legislatively mandated body) released a report titled ‘Improving Cancer Outcomes Through Connected Health.’ The report detailed areas in which digital technologies are poised to accelerate success against cancer in line with then Vice President Joe Biden’s conceptualization of a ‘Cancer Moonshot.’ For example, data already suggest that by building an electronic safety net for patients in therapy it is possible to improve cancer outcomes, reduce unnecessary hospitalizations, and boost patients’ quality of life. Advances in the Internet of Things, cloud computing and biomedical informatics are begin to allow scientists access to petabytes of data volunteered through biomedical sensors from patients in clinical trials. The resulting insights from these data will help biomedical researchers to create a public health environment that is more predictive, preemptive, precise and participative than its industrial age counterpart. Lifespans will continue to lengthen, as a shift toward a data-driven view of population health will help ensure that the benefits of this new medicine are delivered equitably across all populations.”

When it comes to digital life benefits, your mileage may vary; figuring out the trust formula and better ways to adapt is important

Greg Shannon, chief scientist for the CERT Division at Carnegie Mellon University’s Software Engineering Institute, commented, “Most innovations will have positive benefits for consumers and citizens – otherwise choices would have rejected the innovations. Yes, there will be growing pains, unexpected consequences and occasional exploitive innovations. Yet, on the whole, it will be positive. Fewer car accidents. More-efficient and effective medical treatments. More-personalized services and products. Unfortunately, the well-being benefits for individuals will vary and the cognitive load may be high in order to maximize benefits and mitigate negative effects. What we need is more social/cultural capacity to adapt to change, to cope with change, to leverage/benefit from change. It will be all too easy for some to be vastly confused by, afraid of and (fruitlessly) resistant to digitally enabled change. Trust is a key issue. To whom do each of us make ourselves vulnerable and are we comfortable with that? For whom are we trustworthy? These are choices we implicitly make every day in non-digital contexts. The digital world provides new and confusing needs to place trust in anonymous transactions, digital companies and creators or new technologies. This need to expand one’s sense and understanding of trust will be challenging for all of us, especially given the lack of trust indicators online that we rely on in the non-digital world.”

New tech will obviate old problems, create new industries and wipe away old ones

Louis Rossetto, founder and former editor-in-chief of Wired magazine, said, “The future is not pre-ordained. Of course, courses can be corrected. Will be corrected. It’s part of human nature. Nothing is unalloyed good or bad. Indeed, the bad is an intrinsic part of the good. Digital technologies have net been beneficial. But the negative consequences of digital technologies can, are being and will be dealt with. Specifically, new technologies will obviate old problems, create new industries, wipe away old ones. As problems are identified, ‘solutions’ will be proposed. Some will work, some work. In extremis, political solutions will be applied. In all cases, unintended consequences will occur. In other words, evolution will continue, as it has, for billions of years.”

Don’t see humans as the problem and technology as the solution

Douglas Rushkoff, writer, documentarian and professor of media at City University of New York, said, “The companies would have to adopt different profit models, based on revenue rather than growth. They would have to decide whether the future of the species is important to them. Most see humans as the problem, and technology as the solution. They seek to replace humanity before the environment is destroyed, or to get off the planet before that happens. If, instead, they decided to align with humanity, our species could indeed survive another century or more. If they continue to see humans as the enemy, we don’t have much longer.”

The public should question and reject the hegemony of digital media companies

Nicholas Carr, well-known author of books and articles on technology and culture, said, “The advertising-based profit models of internet companies encourage design decisions that end up harming the users of the companies’ products and services. The companies, therefore, are unlikely to be the source of beneficial changes in design and use patterns. Ultimately what’s required – and what’s possible – is a broad countercultural movement through which the public questions and rejects the cultural and social hegemony of digital media and the companies that control it.”

Focus on human health and happiness rather than commerce and consumption

Michael Kleeman, senior fellow at the University of California, San Diego and board member at the Institute for the Future, wrote, “We might begin by taking digital technology off its pedestal and portraying it as just another profit-driven part of commerce, albeit one that can separate us from those physically close and enable those at a distance to harm us. A focus on what contributes to health and happiness, literally health and literally happiness, as opposed to consumption might let us take advantage of the good and push down the negative impacts.”

Empathy doesn’t scale, and we really do need it to

Paul Saffo, a leading Silicon-Valley-based technological forecaster and consulting professor in the School of Engineering at Stanford University, said, “It is tempting to list the myriad specific steps we must take, such as changing the rules of anonymity on social media and fine-tuning human abilities to discriminate the artificial from the real. However, all of those steps are but footnotes in a more fundamental challenge. We are tuned to feel empathy for individuals, but empathy doesn’t scale. As Stalin put it, ‘a single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.’ We must find a way to scale empathy. We must find a way to use digital media to cause individual humans to have empathy for the multitude, and ultimately for the entire planet.”

We must continue to question ourselves about ‘What is the web we want? What is the internet we want?’

Sonia Jorge, executive director of the Alliance for Affordable Internet and head of digital inclusion programs at the Web Foundation, said, “Humanity is constantly evolving, and the internet is yet another variable affecting the way we evolve as humans. As with anything we have faced through human development, it brings opportunities, allows for new ideas to grow, it brings challenges and certainly also not such good ideas, especially as people and institutions push for ideas that violate human rights and individual ability to determine one’s agency. There are many benefits from internet access and these are well documented, but it is indeed concerning that so many of the harms we see increasing are a reflection of those we also see in the offline world, harms coming from humans that disregard basic rights of all individuals, their privacy, their freedom of expression, their ability to communicate freely, among many others. The good news is that we do know and are learning quite fast about what can be done to prevent those harms from increasing and affecting people’s well-being, physical and mentally. But we need proper policies, agreements and safeguards in place to ensure that the internet continues to evolve in a way that benefits humanity that is based on human rights principles. We cannot allow the Web and the internet to become tools for further abuse, manipulation or violations of human rights. That the internet is a tool used by those who have always violated or tried to violate human rights, it is a reflection that we as humans have not been able to develop frameworks that protect humans offline or online. Human well-being can indeed be improved if people can communicate and communicate privately as needed, if they can have new ways to find opportunities, and be sure their data is secure, if they can benefit from music, art and be sure they are not being followed because of their tastes. Without such safeguards and knowledge to use the technology, access to the internet could indeed become more harmful. We must continue to question ourselves about what is the ‘web we want’ or what is the ‘internet we want?’ The internet my colleagues and I work to protect and expand every day is one that can contribute to any woman, girl or boy’s well-being, one where they can feel safe, be themselves, feel secure, and is affordable and reliable regardless of one’s background, location, income, etc. An internet that is a positive variable to the evolution of humanity.”

We have learned so much by leveraging this technology, you have to believe humanity can continue to mobilize these knowledge tools to do more good than harm

Greg Downey, a professor specializing in the history and geography of information technology and associate dean at University of Wisconsin, Madison, said, “On the whole, I remain optimistic that our growing digital infrastructure of invisible but human-mediated sensors, algorithms and interfaces will help us enhance energy conservation, health care delivery, transportation safety, citizen interaction, workforce engagement and educational access, as well as providing exciting, creative and transformative entertainment and social experiences. These are hopeful but not utopian predictions – similar to patterns we’ve seen over the last century of information infrastructure development, from the slow but steady global and local diffusion of wired direct communications (telegraph and telephone) to the more rapid and transformative diffusion of wireless mass communications (radio and television). None of these new information infrastructures resulted in the dismantling of inequality or an end to war (as was repeatedly predicted for each), but each helped contribute to a gradually increasing global standard of living and cosmopolitan condition of mutual understanding. Our current digital information technologies of data processing and algorithmic action – born largely out of the fervor of global warfare – have helped more of us across the planet to understand more about the nature of the universe, the patterns of social behavior, and the legacy of past cultures than was ever possible before. As a researcher, writer and educator myself, I have to believe that humanity can continue to mobilize these knowledge tools to do more good than harm.”

‘There must be a technical solution to the challenges of anonymity and trust’

John Markoff, a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University and longtime technology writer at The New York Times, said, “Science fiction writers have done the best job of outlining the sociology of computer networks and their impact on society generally. Early on Vernor Vinge wrote ‘True Names.’ It is still one of the best descriptions of the challenges that networks provide for identity and privacy. Reluctantly I think that there must be a technical solution to the challenge of anonymity and trust. Perhaps an answer lies in blockchain technologies. Also, recently, Danny Hillis, has proposed a semantic-knowledge tool that would allow the proving of ‘provenance’ if not truth. He describes this in a paper he is circulating as ‘The Underlay.’”

Parents, teachers, mentors and others must work to guide and raise awareness of healthy uses of information technologies

Adriana Labardini Inzunza, commissioner of Mexico’s Federal Institute of Telecommunications, said, “I am leaning towards an optimistic prediction when it comes to the use of internet and well-being. The outcome for each individual will very much depend upon the place, education level, socio-economic condition, age and individual skills and disposition to technology. For educated citizens with a good appetite for knowledge, language skills, learning new skills, productivity and shortening distances, IT will be an incomparable tool and ally only if the individual has also awareness of data-protection tools and privacy-protection issues as well. People with poor education and awareness who lack the resourcefulness to gain skills, culture and empowerment education will have more difficulty in using IT to empower themselves. Most everyone has an option today to gain some level of education, accessing information that was once unavailable to those in marginalized communities in poorer countries. The internet has brought easier access to information to billions, connected people afar, laborers and employers, citizens and governments, buyers and sellers, writers and readers. Those who have an education that is both analogue and digital can be skilled researchers and keen users of technology for productivity. It requires education, principled thinking, awareness and discipline to use the internet as a tool for development rather than a new way to waste time, alienate the mind and body, consume unnecessary stuff and become more indebted. In Latin America for instance, so far, internet is not making the impacts it could in increasing the productivity of people, of small businesses, of governments. It is being used in many small towns more as a tool to socialize, consume or video chat, not to fight poverty. In many other places it has brought the opportunity to obtain an online education and to become visible to customers who require individual services of plumbers, smiths, carpenters who can be hired upon an SMS or a call, which means earning a livelihood. What is badly needed is that parents, teachers, mentors and others work to guide and raise awareness of the healthy uses of IT and bring up children who know how to play, run, exercise, care for nature, live in contact with real human beings and limit the use of devices in childhood and adolescence because it is important to train mind and body and emotions in a physical world and learn how to protect oneself from phishing, fraud, spam, sexting, e-bullying and other forms of abuse of IT. Technology is agnostic, it is humans without a civilized way of living, without empathy, principles and culture who may make evil uses of technology. Technology can become an ally in communities that train and provide for local champions at schools or to work at community centers or SMEs [small- and medium-sized enterprises] and NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] – people who guide local people toward an intelligent and empowering use of technology to learn, be more competitive, get relevant information and produce – not only consume – digital products, works of art, services or goods and other innovative ways to improve the well-being of community members.”

Things will improve, but watch for the unintended results

Jamais Cascio, a distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future, said, “We will find a combination of behavioral norms, regulation and technology that will help to minimize or mitigate potential harms of digital social media. I’m equally certain that these changes – alone or in combination – will in turn produce unintended results that could be seen as harmful.”

It’s all about norms, not government interventions

Jeff Jarvis, a professor at City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism, said, “Every single one of us has the opportunity to improve the Net and the society we build with it every time we share, every time we publish a thought, every time we comment. Those are the interventions that will matter most as we negotiate our norms of behavior in the Net. I have long valued the openness of the Net but I fear I have come to see that such openness inevitably also opens the door to spam, manipulation and trolling. So platforms that value their service and brands are put in the position of compensating for these forces and making decisions about quality and misuse. I prefer to have users and platforms attempt to compensate for bad behavior and regulate themselves, for I do not trust many governments with this role and I fear that a system architected for one benign or beneficent government to act will be used as a precedent for bad governments to intervene.”

We are at the beginning stages of blending and merging our identities and consciousness with digital tools and platforms

Barry Chudakov, founder and principal of Sertain Research and Streamfuzion Corp., commented, “The first thing that will enhance our well-being — this helps to resolve our sense of bewilderment — is to provide some context for where we are. We are at the beginning stages of blending and merging our identities and consciousness with digital tools and platforms. I believe people’s well-being will be affected for good by changes in digital life. But more than being helped or harmed, we all will find ourselves having to adjust and re-adjust to new realities of presenting ourselves and responding to others on screens and in newer digital venues. This will likely alter our sense of who and what we are as we move from a fixed sense of self and identity to experiencing self in a flow of presentation and response. To consider how our well-being will be affected due to changes in digital life, it is useful to outline what those changes are likely to be:

  1. There is here. Products, tools and experiences will become more immersive thanks to VR (virtual reality) and other advances. Remote and near will become quaint concepts as we connect to almost any place from anywhere.
  2. Reality gets realer. More products, tools and experiences will seek to enhance, or bring something new, to improve sell, or convince us. This will include adding to digital encounters with relevant information, data, images and enhanced viewing for every experience from surgery and sightseeing to, of course, sex.
  3. Bots as pals. Bots, virtual assistants (Siri, Alexa, etc.) will become more prevalent, more “real” to us, more companionable – and we will come to rely on them.
  4. Everyone knows me. Recognition technologies (face, emotion, voice, etc.) will become remarkably accurate to verify, explain, and define who we are. These will also generate data profiles that will re-define and supplant more intuitive insights or perceptions.
  5. Showing up is a show. Presentation of self in everyday life will increasingly move away from face-to-face interactions as we rely on tools and platforms through which we show and express ourselves.
  6. We are all living in Toy Story. We will increasingly surround ourselves with intelligent technologies – things that think. Intelligence will be invested in all objects as the becomes everyware (sic).
  7. Digital reorg revamps older structures. Social structures globally will be affected –rocked – by connectivity, cooperation, and reorganization that follow the logic of newer digital tools and platforms, not older frameworks built by alphabets, literacy, laws, and religious injunctions from holy books.
  8. Life is an abstraction. The abstraction of everyday life will continue as algorithms, blockchain technologies, crypto currencies, data tracking and profiling – combine to reduce people and experience to conceptual abstractions.
  9. Data determines. In every area of life, from medicine to marriage, data flows and data summations will begin to guide our choices and decisions.

“Changes in digital life will land us in a quandary where two seemingly opposite things can be true simultaneously: digital tools will help us fight disease, increase productivity and assign menial and repetitive jobs to robots and algorithms. Yet these same digital tools alter our sense of self and our relationship to others. They may make us feel isolated, insecure, or lonely because we spend more hours in screen time rather than face time. We are headed for increased competition for focus and attention, with a greater likelihood for blending and confusion of self and identity, especially among younger minds. The hints of what to come are there before us now. Two examples: online dating: in 2017 30% of U.S. internet users aged 18 to 29 years were currently using dating sites or apps and a further 31% had done so previously while 84% of dating app users stated that they were using online dating services to look for a romantic relationship. Online shopping: 51% of Americans prefer to shop online; 96% of Americans with internet access have made an online purchase in their life, 95% of Americans shop online yearly, 80% of Americans shop online at least monthly, 30% of Americans shop online at least weekly; ecommerce is growing 23% year-over-year.

“Those who grew up with older media will look at the internet and digital tools as a takeover of reality. Younger minds will see and feel the Internet as immersion that equals reality. Today our digital life still has one foot in older traditions; we must prepare for the not distant future when digital life (and this will be someone’s business model) becomes The Truman Show. The internet and digital realities are simulations: we must be hyper-vigilant to ensure we are seeing the reality and not the sim: simulations are more easily manipulated, and more easily manipulate us.”