April 17, 2018

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

1. The state of play for technology and looming changes

A strong narrative about online life has arisen in recent years that pushes back against the techno-optimism of the earlier days of the internet. A roundup of recent headlines underscores the darker storyline:

  • The Global Risks 2018 report by the World Economic Forum lists “adverse consequences of technological advances” as one of the top risks societies are facing today.
  • Psychology professor Jean Twenge has sounded widely covered alarms that technology might be destroying a generation and, in particular, published research arguing that heavy tech use is linked to teen suicide and depression.
  • The American Psychological Association found that constantly checking electronic devices is linked to significant stress for most Americans.
  • The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that youth well-being, social connectedness and empathy are under threat in digital life.
  • The National College Health Assessment reports record numbers of university students are seeking assistance for stress, overwhelming anxiety, and depression. A New York Times Magazine piece noted that UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute college survey in 1985 found that 18% of students felt “overwhelmed”; in 2010, that share was 29%, and in 2016, it jumped to 41%.
  • Some people blame business models of powerful corporations battling for attention in an age of information overload. Researcher danah boyd said the tech industry is “now the foundation of our democracy, economy and information landscape. We no longer have the luxury of only thinking about the world we want to build. We must also strategically think about how others want to manipulate our systems to do harm and cause chaos.”
  • Former tech leaders from Google, Facebook and Apple agree with boyd, saying a “fundamental flaw” in the way business is done in the digital age is causing damage to society. Facebook’s original president, Sean Parker, said the company intentionally sought to addict users by “exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.” Former Facebook executive Chamath Palihapitiya said: “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works: no civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth.” Former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris launched the nonprofit Time Well Spent aimed at stopping “tech companies from hijacking our minds.” The Center for Humane Technology is reportedly creating a “Ledger of Harms,” a website where engineers can express concerns about what they are being asked to build.
  • In early 2018 Facebook responded: CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote in a post pledging to fix Facebook, “The world feels anxious and divided, and Facebook has a lot of work to do.” Facebook also restructured its algorithm in early 2018, with the goal to prioritize people’s personal friends and family over viral content.
  • XPRIZE Foundation CEO Peter Diamandis predicts that advances in quantum computing and the rapid evolution of artificial intelligence (AI) embedded in systems and devices will lead to “hyper-stalking,” influencing and shaping of voters with hyper-personalized ads, and will create new ways to misrepresent reality, effectively spread misleading messages, and perpetuate falsehoods.

As concerns about the harmful impact of digital technology mount, Pew Research Center and the Imagining the Internet Center canvassed its database of technology experts, scholars and pundits about where things might stand in the coming decade when it comes to human and societal well-being. The preamble to the question we asked about digital life and its impact on people’s health and well-being was:

People are using digital tools to solve problems, enhance their lives and improve their productivity. More advances are expected to emerge in the future that are likely to help people lead even better lives. However, there is increasing commentary and research about the effects digital technologies have on individuals’ well-being, their level of stress, their ability to perform well at work and in social settings, their capability to focus their attention, their capacity to modulate their level of connectivity and their general happiness.

They were then asked to respond to the question:

Over the next decade, how will changes in digital life impact people’s overall well-being physically and mentally?

They were given three options to choose from when considering their response. In all, 1,150 experts responded to these answer options:

Over the next decade, individuals’ overall well-being will be more HELPED than HARMED by digital life. 47% of these experts chose this option.

Over the next decade, individuals’ overall well-being will be more HARMED than HELPED by digital life. 32% of these experts chose this option.

There will not be much change in people’s well-being from the way it is now. 21% of these experts chose this option.

This report covers their written responses to our invitation to elaborate on their answer to this question and their written answers to a follow-up question:

Do you think there are any actions that might successfully be taken to reduce or eradicate potential harms of digital life to individuals’ well-being?

Some 92% of respondents chose this option: Yes, there are interventions that can be made in the coming years to improve the way people are affected by their use of technology.

Some 8% chose this option: No, there are not interventions that can be made to improve the way people are affected by their use of technology.

Some respondents wrote material that summarizes the state of play of modern life that is being – and will be – shaped by digital technology. Those overview answers serve as a good starting point.

An anonymous professor participating in this canvassing observed, “We’re moving from the perception of time and space connected with factory life – in which the flow of time was stamped into schedules that needed advance planning – to a world of continuous flow, in which the moment can be reimagined and altered constantly. This allows many more possibilities, but also a keen sense of opportunity costs, as we compare the way we experience our lives to an endless set of better possibilities.”

Jerry Michalski, founder of the Relationship Economy eXpedition, wrote about the disruptive chaos that lies ahead, “Whether the internet will increase well-being or not on the whole is unanswerable. In pockets, it’s addressable, and right now I think the positive pockets outweigh the potential negatives. For example, learning can now cost nothing except a person’s effort. People who fear one another can become familiar and dispel their fear. Plans for how to improve the world are easy to share. Resources and movements can collect energy and scale online. Meanwhile, spin and the destruction of facts could take us into nuclear wars, the next nationalist nightmares or climate catastrophes larger than we’ve imagined. How do you sum all that?”

Some respondents stressed that both kinds of futures are possible and can be affected by the choices that are made now. Amy Webb, futurist, professor of strategic foresight at New York University and founder of the Future Today Institute, argued, “If our current habits continue unchanged, it’s easiest to map pessimistic and catastrophic scenarios. People will be surrounded by more misleading or false information, not less. We’ll see more YouTube and Twitch stars testing the thresholds of what their audiences are willing to watch, which means ever more salacious, incendiary content, disturbing images and dangerous behaviors. Government officials and political leaders at all levels will add to the vitriol online, posting quick hits that don’t advance democracy in any meaningful way. Eventually regulators, hoping to safeguard our well-being, will introduce laws and standards that differ from country to country, effectively creating a splintered internet. Regional splinternets will likely cause more harm than good, as the big tech companies will find it impossible to comply with every legal permutation, while our existing filter bubbles will expand to fit our geographic borders. Our well-being is directly tied to our sense of safety and security, which would be upended in these scenarios. But the good news is that these scenarios haven’t happened yet. We can decide that we want a different outcome, but that requires making serious changes in how we use and manage information today. … We can choose to improve the quality of our digital experiences by forcing ourselves to be more critical of the information we consume. … The world we see looking only through the lens of a single post never reveals all of the circumstances, context and detail. Schools must teach digital street smarts … from an early age, kids should learn about bots and automatically-generated content. They should have provocative ethics conversations – with their peers, not just their parents – about online content and about technology in general. Content distributors must stop asserting that they are merely platforms. … As we enter the Artificial Intelligence era we must examine and make transparent how platforms make decisions on our behalf.”

An anonymous professor of philosophy at a major U.S. technological university wrote, “There’s a fundamental question that society needs to better confront: As technology advances and becomes ‘smarter,’ are we, human beings, being techno-socially engineered to behave increasingly like simple machines?

In the next section, we outline three sets of key themes found among the written elaborations to questions one and two of this canvassing:

1) Statements affirming the great appreciation for the wonders of digital life expressed by the vast majority of these respondents.
2) Statements illuminating people’s worries over digital life.
3) People’s hopeful suggestions for potential improvements – and some doubts expressed about the likely success of these.

Some responses are lightly edited for style.

Correction: A previous version of this report contained one instance where the figures for those who said overall well-being would be more helped than harmed by digital life and those who said it would be more harmed than helped were transposed. That correction has been made.