Stories From Experts About the Impact of Digital Life
3. Fifty-fifty anecdotes: How digital life has been both positive and negative
A number of these experts wrote about both sides of the story, taking the time to point out some of the ways in which digital life is a blessing and a curse. A selection of these mixed-response anecdotes follows.
James M. Hinton, an author, commented, “Having grown up in the pre-internet era, my childhood was spent in a substantial monoculture. There was a single shared set of values and beliefs that everyone was expected to conform to. As someone who did not fit into that set of shared expectations (and only grew further apart from them as I aged) this created a substantial sense of isolation and even oppression. The advent of internet technologies – and particularly the ability to communicate instantly, inexpensively, across the planet – has given me access to like-minded individuals who have eased that sense of isolation. This makes it sound as though my answer should have been that these technologies have created, and will continue to create, a substantial improvement for my well-being. However, the very technologies that have created these opportunities have exposed me to even more of the general hostility of the surrounding culture to those like myself. Rather than a small, local community isolating me, now there is sense that a substantial portion of the world, establishment and orthodox belief systems are actively opposed to my positions. Perhaps, to take things to a bit of an extreme, I could compare it to being sent to the Warsaw Ghetto. I am, at last, surrounded by a large number of people like myself, but with an impending sense of dread at what is waiting just beyond the fence to eventually come down and wipe us out.”
Technology improves the lives of people who can avoid being dominated by it and forced into debilitating addictions to it.Frank Kaufmann
Frank Kaufmann, a scholar, educator, innovator and activist based in North America, commented, “Technology improves the lives of people who can avoid being dominated by it and forced into debilitating addictions to it. Technology allows me to grow and benefit from loving relationships among friends and family who can now be close despite geographical distance. Tragically it prevents the addicted from growing and benefiting from the most exquisite types of encounter, namely being in the physical and personal presence of another.”
Eric Royer, a professor based in North America, said, “Digital technology has fundamentally reshaped higher education, to the point where lectures are being replaced with online courses and information is readily available at the click of fingertip. This means that knowledge is no longer the domain of the ‘Ivory Tower’; however, I hold concerns over the effect of the internet on actual learning and a love for education itself. As a consequence of digital technology, education has become a commodity, and students view it as a means to an end.”
Sasha Costanza-Chock, associate professor of civic media at MIT, said, “On the one hand, digital technology has been used by progressive social movements to rapidly organize an enormous mobilization wave after the election of Trump. We’ve seen digital media used as a key tool to turn out hundreds of thousands of people with very short notice to protest the Muslim ban, attacks on LGBTQ rights, immigrant rights, the Women’s March, #MeToo, continued #BlackLivesMatter mobilizations, and more. At the same time, digital media are also used to surveil social movement actors in increasingly sophisticated ways; to propagate well-funded disinformation campaigns; and they are also used by far right movements.”
Barry Chudakov, founder and principal of Sertain Research and Streamfuzion Corp., wrote, “As a researcher with colleagues in the communications sphere, I hear a recurring conversation about the new world realities of ‘Me, Inc.,’ made possible by ubiquitous digital technology. The good news is that concept-generation, creativity, programming, publishing or musical performance is no longer in the hands of indifferent gatekeepers – the greybeard editors of various industries who decided which voice and talent was worthy. But this coin has another side.
“Digital technology has, in many areas, hollowed out apprenticeship and expertise. Anyone with a tool (a digital camera or smartphone, editing software, some programming chops) can now be an expert and build an app or a reputation. Older communicators may marvel that newer digital tech tools enable fresh ideas, ingenious approaches and direct versus staged or canned presentations. On the other hand, in the ‘Here Comes Everybody’ world of digital tool mayhem, just having the tool is readily equated with expertise. Many people see in this the breakdown of ‘guild wisdom’ – learning a craft that took years of mentorship and trial and error, which results in reduced standards of excellence and quality. Often there simply are no standards. When there are no real experts, everyone can present her/himself as an expert.
“The impact on workers’ well-being is profound: from relying on buzz words to explain approaches that are highly conceptual but lack experience, to relying on data summations that cannot be clearly articulated as beneficial to outcomes but provide a cloud of information that appears to be relevant – I see a high degree of insecurity and a struggle for clarity and standards. Whether you call yourself a designer, a programmer, a social media expert, a storyteller, a data analyst, a market research professional – you can now go through any door that is near you to get a job or build a career. But the mentors, for many, are gone. You will come up with brilliant insights that were ho-hum years ago; you will propose fuzzy solutions that appear to you clearly superior but are hollow as a dead tree; you will eventually consider your career and brand far more important and worth spending time on than your client’s job – following the dictum that ‘Me, Inc.’ means Me First.
“My friends’ lives in regard to well-being feel permanently insecure. The framework of progression, succession and apprenticeship is gone. ‘Me, Inc.’ rules. It’s me and my software and my digital technology. But, of course, a new apprenticeship will likely appear and then gatekeepers and filter governors will once again be part of the scene, albeit in different form – probably algorithms. This is because newer digital tools enable cooperation and increased socialization, even if it happens through screens, platforms and crowds.”
Richard Jones, an investor based in Europe, wrote, “Prior to 2010 I used physical newspapers, watched scheduled entertainment, used a voice phone which could also send texts, used a map to navigate. I used to get frustrated waiting for Windows to boot up. As of 2018, I expect instant service when I ask a voice assistant to play me music, to adjust the heating, to read me books, to adjust the lighting, to display directions and choose the route to drive anywhere. I have a continually curated email subscription list, I have several newspapers on my devices, I no longer use physical diaries on my tablets or other display devices and my handwriting has due to non-use deteriorated. I can switch between devices almost seamlessly, I expect – through the cloud – to continue wherever I am and to use the best screen physically available locally. I physically and mentally sense a torrent of information which I navigate through and, even though I feel some confidence relative to my peers that I’m staying on top of it, I sense youngsters’ greater ease with some of it and a greater bewilderment as to where to focus. I guess this is due to the continuous split-second choices and discarded or simultaneous deep-dive leads presented by the networked nature of hyperlinks. We are all on personal journeys as we navigate these choices and attempt to prioritise effectively. This opens the door to effectiveness but also stress. Life could typically have been much more aligned with one’s peers in previous decades. For instance one would study the same syllabus at university. One might go to broadly the same holiday destinations. But nowadays the opportunity to self-curate one’s education by increasing access to material presented by the best educators, to go off piste [the beaten trail] in research, to use drone footage of holiday resorts not only to select but to remotely experience holidays through high resolution YouTube videos on huge screens in high definition is marvellous. I am particularly interested in the developments about to enrich the lives of elders’ living arrangements: the potential to physically monitor their well-being (IoT sensors based on motion, heat, pulse and analysed by algorithms identifying exceptions to norm) or voice-controlled calls for help. I definitely suffer stress to do with feeling out of control or discomfort because whereas I typically lead a single-focus style of life I now lead a much more immersive style of life. Deep-dive focus with the associated memory capacity and recall used to be a good approach. Now, as search engines augment our recall and the information available is so vast, Edward de Bono’s ‘experience blotting pad’ becomes to me the only viable way forward; that means submitting to accelerated information throughput, letting the brain rank the leads by depth of import and relevance, and cross-correlate the hodgepodge into useable conclusions.”
Seth Finkelstein, consulting programmer at Finkelstein Consulting, wrote, “When the Net was younger, many users of it were easily able to have *substantive* open forums where anyone could join. I very much enjoyed being able to have discussions with people who were at a status level far greater than I could have communicated with beforehand. On the other hand, that meant people at a correspondingly higher status level could be personally offended by what I wrote. In retrospect, for me, the trade-off was not worth it. This is now writ large in social media today. There’s much more of a potential for becoming internet-famous, which can be a blessing or a curse. But it’s possible that there are many more and powerful curses around than blessings.”
Christian Huitema, a technology developer/administrator based in North America, appreciates the internet but commented that being disconnected is still occasionally quite important, “We now have a new checklist item before going out to dinner: We make sure that none of us is carrying a phone.”
Our greatest strength can also be our greatest weakness, and our human relationship with technology is a classic testament to that.Andie Diemer
Andie Diemer, journalist and activist user, wrote, “I use technology in almost every aspect of my life, as everyone I know does. It helps me make quicker, more-informed decisions and it can connect me to anything or anyone at any given moment. However I’ve also noticed the compulsions that come along with having technology so engrained in my life; the dopamine hit when you see you are receiving likes, the soothing feeling that can come from looking at photos of baby animals. Technology can make us feel anything whenever we want – all we need to do is hit search. As much as it’s great to plug in and be connected and feel limitless, there is no real total opposite of that in our society anymore. There is no way to totally shut it off or opt out. Most jobs require you to be computer-literate or to have a cellphone that can be on your person at all times. Our greatest strength can also be our greatest weakness, and our human relationship with technology is a classic testament to that.”
Colin Tredoux, a professor of psychology at the University of Cape Town, commented, “The advantages of digital technology are clear, but there are also disadvantages. One memorable advantage was being able to track and keep in contact with my two young children, ages 12 and 7, when they were lost on a train in Germany. I was able to get them to approach passersby, and get them onto a train that would get them to a designated location even though I was in Cape Town at the time. However, I can also tell stories about how much the ubiquity of digital technology has made everybody feel unsafe – the slightest disappearance of children or friends or adults from instant communication makes everybody highly anxious, almost always for no good reason (last year my daughter, now 20, went offline in Paris, and we spent six hours fretting, worrying, etc.). In other words, we need to weigh up the cost of worrying versus the benefit of making safe. My sense is that the former occurs with 100-times-greater frequency than the latter, so then the important question is what weight to put to the two.”
Simeon Yates, professor of digital culture at the University of Liverpool, wrote, “Digital life can be dominated by email and time-management tools. Even using these well leads to a significant increase in workload. This is not matched by changes in organisational structure and management practice to address this workload. This has long-term health impacts. But digital life is also good. Nearly everything we do for enjoyment has been helped by tools and apps: Going climbing (using an app for route guidebook), reading (endless access to books), music (endless access to music), film (endless access to film and TV), keeping in touch with friends and family, organising time together. All of these are much easier.”
Daniel Schultz, senior creative technologist at the Internet Archive, commented, “This morning I rolled out of bed to see a note from a constituent on Twitter, an email from a public school think tank about the extreme need for more effective communication with parents, I logged onto Slack to catch up on notes from my coworkers and friends, and received a FaceTime from my daughter downstairs as a reminder that it was time to eat breakfast with her. The end of this story actually captures both the benefits and risks of technology. I was immediately drawn into my phone after waking up – I got information, some of it adding to my pile of tasks and increasing my stress, some of it enabling human connection, but it was also at the expense of spending my first moments with my family. My life would not exist in its current form without digital technology. I work from home, and as a result I am able to see my family any time of the day. My professional collaborations are coordinated and executed online. A large portion of my civic engagement and advocacy is done through the creation or use of technology to share a message or make a point.”
Leora Lawton, lecturer in demography and sociology and executive director of the Berkeley Population Center at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote, “In positive ways I have close friends that I met online through email lists, colleagues that I communicate with and the ease of doing business or personal matters no matter where I am in the world. I love being able to check things in Google on my iPhone as the thought occurs. I like apps on my phone. I get to listen (or watch) baseball and other sports anywhere. However, I dislike the continuing demise of radio and print newspapers. Online sources are a different experience. They have their pluses, but there’s a reason why people still like vinyl over CDs. I feel the same way about radio. I take 25 hours off each week from the digital world – sometimes more – for religious reasons. Without the religious imperative I’m not sure I would do it, but I’m so glad I do. It’s such a relief! My co-religionists all agree. Even the teens often agree (not always of course, but they are teens).”
Daniel Berleant, author of “The Human Race to the Future,” commented, “We all remember the days when any group was subject to interruptions as someone’s cellphone rang. Text messaging and email have made communication even easier, while alleviating the interruption factor imposed by a ringing phone. At the same time, it has presented a disadvantage: people often will not answer a phone call, especially young people. This has produced an adjustment problem in my own experience, whereby I would sometimes like to call a family member on the phone, but cannot get through because they prefer a text message that does not interrupt them. I, and others, need to adjust expectations and tactics to the realities of modern cellphone-based communication.”
Charles Ess, professor, department of media and communication at the University of Oslo, said, “An obvious example is the use of digital technologies to communicate with family and friends around the globe. On the one hand, all of this makes it wonderfully easy and convenient to stay in touch – including during critical life moments such as the birth of a new grandson, a sibling’s loss of a job, a serious illness or death, et cetera. At the same time – as someone who grew up writing letters, e.g., the ones I wrote to my parents while working and then traveling through Germany and Europe in 1971 – I’m acutely aware of what is NOT communicated through digital channels (researcher Sherry Turkle addresses this more eloquently). First of all, such a letter demanded extended attention and focus – and, as research over the past 10 years or so has confirmed, the process of handwriting slows one down so as to open up silences and spaces for reflection that we elide quickly over if only using a keyboard. There is also the materiality of the letter. To not only see the words – but to hold in one’s hand a piece of paper that existed with me and then with those close to me at a specific time and place decades ago – is utterly distinctive. I receive hundreds of emails a day and write 10 to 20 or more. My professional and personal life turn on them, along with many other digital and communication technologies, of course. But I strongly doubt that my children will be interested in or find much value in trawling through even just the emails sent to them after I am gone. While they have their own affordances – first of all, speed and convenience – they also suffer from a kind of immateriality and, usually, brevity. By contrast, I suspect they’ll find my physical letters to be far more valuable and precious. I don’t think this is just nostalgia. Rather, it resonates with the so-called ‘death online’ research, which – alongside evidence for the many benefits of grieving and mourning via social media, memorial sites, etc. – also documents how for some number of people, precisely young people, there is the discovery that grief requires embodied co-presence. This is ramified by the unpleasant sides of online grief, e.g., postings from ‘friends’ who ignore you the next day, etc. Again, there is some indication of not necessarily rejecting ‘the digital’ entirely in favor of ‘the analogue’ (with all the caveats those terms require) – but rather of attempting to find a better balance.”
Nathalie Coupet, an internet advocate based in North America, said, “My first thought in the morning, having just awaken, is: ‘Do I have any emails?’ The internet has taken over my life and made me a 24-hour-a-day-connected pod to its mother ship. Without my smartphone, I dare not venture in the Big World out there. What if someone was trying to contact me? Ironically, I still remember the day when, sitting comfortably in a tram in Zurich, I had vowed to never carry a cellphone with me. To jealously safeguard my independence. To daydream in peace and be deliciously idle. Not to be so engaged all the time in a stressful awareness of place and time, people and events. To be left alone. It has now become a goal.”
Craig J. Mathias, principal for the Farpoint Group, wrote, “I’ve benefitted from email, other messing services including voice and video communications, access to a wide array of information via the Web, and access to many services I use regularly, like banking and health care. All of these are good, but I do worry about security and privacy, which still receive far too little attention. Stronger penalties are required for those who compromise these vital requirements.”
Kathleen Hayes, a technology specialist based in North America, commented, “For the good, my 91-year-old mom checks emails and uses her tablet when she travels so she can stay connected. She uses the caller ID on her home phone to ward off robo calls. For the not-so-good, on her new car some of the controls were difficult for her to figure out. What used to be a knob is now a screen with a vague description of what it may or may not do.”
A professor at a major U.S. state university said, “I am able to share information with my family who live in other states more easily. We are able to see photos and share news to groups that would have taken longer in the past. I do often wonder if we really want photos of our children online, however. I feel concern about safety and well-being of children.”
Theodora Sutton, a Ph.D. candidate at the Oxford Internet Institute, wrote, “… Digital technology is interwoven into my daily life as it is with everyone I know. The first thing I do when I wake up is usually check my iPhone for messages and news or scroll through Twitter on my laptop to help wake myself up. I find it to be an extremely useful and relaxing way to see what’s happening in the world without necessarily engaging. I also often use resources online when I’m struggling to fall asleep, as there is a rich library of calming content and most of it is free. A problem that I have with my digital technology is the way that boundaries are blurred. For example, context collapse on social networking sites, which make posting content a minefield, and can cause unnecessary anxiety. Another way that similar boundaries are blurred is in the activities I use the laptop for – both working and relaxing can be provided by the same ‘portal’ of my laptop screen, which I find unhelpful, as when I’m working there is always a distraction available, and when I’m relaxing it’s always possible to quickly check my work email, both things which can hinder the task at hand.”
Richard Padilla, a retired system administrator, said, “Tech has changed the development of the lives of everyone. A need to refine its processes for better growth is now the requirement.”
Michele Walfred, a North American communications specialist, said, “I have witnessed family members unable to join conversations, sit at a table and not bring their phones with them, etc. Social media platforms have provided everyone with a forum to express views, but, as a whole, conversations are more polarized, tribal and hostile. With Facebook for instance, there has been a huge uptick in fake news, altered images, dangerous health claims and cures, and the proliferation of anti-science information. This is very distressing and disturbing. People are too willing to share without doing their due diligence and fact-checking first. People now get their news from sources that are only aligned with their belief systems or ‘tribe’ and freely shut out any information that they don’t like or agree with. On a positive note, if one is interested in diverse opinions and views, the ability to make informed opinion and decisions is at one’s fingertips. I learn something new on the internet every day. GPS, maps, navigation have transformed my personal transportation. It has changed the way I shop, source local materials, find out what is going on in my own community, or – when I travel – immediately connect me to inside information about a new town or city. I used to bring along a Rand McNally map. Now I use Google Maps and, while I miss looking at maps, the technology now is so accurate and convenient. I am an avid photographer, and the multitude of editing apps is astounding. I have 40 installed on my iPad and they have transformed my artistic efforts. My grandson lives three and a half hours away in a very large city – not a pleasant drive for me, so being able to FaceTime him is a development I treasure.”
Timothy Leffel, a research scientist at the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago, one of the largest independent social research organizations in the U.S., said, “I probably spend more waking hours looking at a screen than not. And this seems to be the new normal, which is a bit jarring. If you’d told me 10 years ago that this is what everyday life would be like today, I’m not sure what I’d think. I’m not sure what I think today, even. I have superficial knowledge of any topic at my fingertips, which is incredible. But with that knowledge comes a highly addictive and hidden reward system that probably leads me to overestimate the positive impact of computers on my life.”
Bouziane Zaid, an associate professor at Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco, wrote, “Changes in quality of life, whether positive or negative, cannot be reduced to our uses of technology. It is a human tendency to idealize a past that probably was never as good as we think it was. Well-being is improved and lessened due to hyperconnectivity.”
Kathleen Harper, an editor for HollywoodLife.com, said, “GPS has changed my life – for the better. It sounds dramatic, but I honestly don’t know what I would do without it. I am what they call ‘directionally challenged,’ and I’d forever be lost without my handy-dandy smartphone (and my backup portable charger of course). Living in New York City can be intimidating, and it’s quite easy to get lost. Without step-by-step GPS and my subway app, I definitely wouldn’t be able to explore the city, attend events, and try new things as much as I do. Playing devil’s advocate though, maybe without it, I’d be forced to actually learn and/or memorize the city, which would in turn expand that part of my brain and make me a more well-rounded person.”
Mark Richmond, an internet pioneer and systems engineer for the U.S. government, wrote, “Twenty years ago my daughter met a man 8,000 miles away. Yes, it was via internet. They married and she has lived there ever since. Despite the distance we are able to stay in regular contact, including routine video chatting. My other children and grandchildren use social media either very little, or sometimes way too much. It helps to keep up with what everyone is doing, the joys and pains in their lives, but it also exacerbates things, especially for the younger ones. Every minor disagreement seems to be a major production, lived out on a stage. I am hopeful that as they learn, they will also learn moderation.”
I love meeting many new people from across the world through digital mediums. But I have noticed culturally a decrease in actual face-to-face human interaction or even a voice phone call with emotion and true connection, accuracy and depth.John Senall
John Senall, founder of Mobile First Media Group, said, “Digital technology has offered additional career opportunities and advancement to me. However, the type of career opportunities for me and countless others usually involve sitting at a computer screen, working more hours and being stuck to a smartphone. All have made communication more seamless and constant, but have, in part, played a role in decreasing my health quality. I love meeting many new people from across the world through digital mediums. But I have noticed culturally a decrease in actual face-to-face human interaction or even a voice phone call with emotion and true connection, accuracy and depth. I ponder what it all may mean for my young children and their friends and classmates, down the road when there will be deeper technology and more communication changes. The benefits of a hyperconnected life are amazing and rewarding. Yet, I think many of us yearn, at least occasionally, for a simpler, less digital time.”
William J. Ward, president of DR4WARD, said, “After spending a lot of time on digital I found my physical and mental health declining. I now spend much less time on digital and much greater time doing physical activity like yoga to counteract the damage to the body that spending too much screen time inevitably causes. I also invest more time in face-to-face and social activities and finding a balance where digital is helpful but does not distract from relationships.”
Cliff Zukin, a professor and survey researcher at Rutgers University, commented, “The only way I can reach my children is by texting; this is disjointed asynchronous communication, not conversation. However, I can walk out of the house not knowing how to get where I’m going or needing a map, which I love.”
Christopher Wilkinson, internet pioneer, wrote, “I do not agree with the epithet ‘hyperconnected.’ We are far from it. Life-changing events: 1) Word processor spell/grammar checkers in several languages. 2) Sending SMS by Skype (disgracefully discontinued by Microsoft). 3) Negative: Demise of the handwritten letter.”
Llewellyn Kriel, CEO of TopEditor International, said, “Humans will grow into the future – a next step in evolution. It is inevitable and unavoidable. The process will be painful and discomgoogolation [sic] will be the ubiquitous bedfellow of digitality. I have experienced a multitude of changes personally, but the digital world has proven immensely less stressful than the personal one. As a long-time sufferer of major depressive disorder, I find the interactive world much more accessible and, indeed, easier to manage – even control – than the unpredictable, capricious, vindictive and volatile world of conventional human interactions. That is a world where personal control does not exist for people such as me; where direct bullying is far more harmful and traumatic than anything I’ve experienced on the internet. But I have had to learn to assert myself digitally. This is what people will have to learn. It dictates new power dynamics, new ways of sifting wheat from chaff, right from wrong, malicious from inconsequential. It is far easier in the digital world to identify that which matters from that which does not.”
A selection of anonymous responses
An internet activist from Europe said, “Great for keeping in touch across oceans, but across the city people’s tendencies to substitute text for voice is not always good. It is great to be able to look things up instantly, but this may lead to shallow understanding of answers.”
An internet pioneer and social and digital marketing consultant commented, “On one hand, I can be in close communication with my 12-year-old daughter and not have to wonder where she is as she goes about her day, and can remind her to bring things home from school. I can also be in contact with friends through social media, which helps as I live in a city where I don’t have many social outlets. On the other hand, I’ve found that too much time spent online, particularly on Facebook, can make me feel depressed. Either I catch myself comparing my life to the posts that others make, or I get overwhelmed by the toxic political atmosphere currently playing out.”
A senior lecturer in media studies wrote, “There are both positive and negative consequences from being always-on. Being always-on means that I can be in constant contact with my family who live on the other side of the world, but it also means that I receive work emails all throughout the day.”
A senior lecturer based in Southeast Asia said, “Time wasted on social media is negatively affecting well-being; positively, social media helps to bring people close, so that it helps to make a lively environment with intimate people. In education, it has been a good platform as well as a resource.”
A chief of staff for a nonprofit organization wrote, “FOMO (fear of missing out) is a problem, but digital life is also useful for communicating with loved ones far away.”
A retired professor and research scientist said, “Good impacts of digital life: Immediate and extensive answers and how-to advice; quick, easy access to books and movies. Bad impacts: Reduced conversations with wife, especially at mealtime – just Google it.”
A vice president at a major entertainment company in the United States commented, “Clearly, collective action (good or bad) happens with much more ease and speed. I marvel at the ease of organizing things that result in greater connectivity with my family – from renting a house in a far-away place for vacation to helping my children.”
A user-experience researcher commented, “It has both profound positive and negative affects [sic]. On the profound positive side, there was the time my son called me from an ambulance after taking a bad fall on a ski mountain. I was on a chairlift; he called me from his cellphone to mine. He was only 10 years old. I immediately skied down and met him at the hospital. It turns out he was fine, but as a parent, it was important to me to know about this right away. On the profoundly negative side, whenever I am with my teenage children they spend much more time texting and playing with their phones than they do talking to me. I feel it makes it easier for them to separate themselves from their parents.”
A research scientist said, “On the one hand, I can communicate with friends who decades ago I would not be able to stay in touch with. On the other hand, we have a white supremacist in the White House.”
A professor of English wrote, “What has been positive is the ability to follow along with positive facets of others’ lives – birthdays, anniversaries, etc. This has been positive. Yet, again, a birthday card, a phone call, a conversation would be more meaningful.”
A futurist based in North America wrote, “Generally, very positive is the access to information. It is easier to do research, find out about current events, etc. Among the negatives are kids immersed in digital devices; staring at a screen as an acceptable activity.”
A professor from North America said, “I’ve cut off from lots of digital media. I realized it was consuming lots of my time. It didn’t make me feel good – what I was seeing and reading made me mostly angry and depressed. It was feeding negativity. I am happier without it. However, a friend who has a child with a chronic medical condition has monitoring so that medical personnel are notified when parameters are exceeded so interventions can occur rapidly. The child gets fast feedback, too, so they can change behavior or take action in a way that would not have been possible five years ago.”
An entrepreneur based in North America wrote, “I feel like technology has made our life better (instant access to information) and worse (instant access to entertainment).”
A professor based in Europe wrote, “When I replaced my mobile I gave the used, but still quite powerful one to my granddaughter aged 10. She made nice pictures with it, which I appreciated. But she also got obsessed with certain internet games, leading to conflicts.”
An assistant professor of political science at an Ivy League university wrote, “As a parent this is easy. My kids (ages 4 and 7) are steeped in technology. They have iPads in their classrooms (which help with engaging them and I think are a net good), but they also want to be on iPads at home (which may not be as good). They think every screen is a touch screen. Even at 4 years old, my son’s first instinct when he doesn’t know something bit of information is to Google it or ask Siri. My kids love to read books on Kindle (and much prefer it to paper books) so even the educational activity of reading is now deeply intertwined with technology. In some ways that is good, on Kindle they can highlight the words they don’t know as they read and – something that has proven very important for my 7-year-old – they cannot see how thick the book is, so they tend to read more without lamenting about length. At the same time, they have little interest in libraries and miss out on books that are not available via Kindle. They can FaceTime family who live far away, but sometimes they see that as a substitute for actual visits. In short, there is good and bad but there is little doubt that technology structures our daily life in profound ways.”
An executive director of a tech innovation firm said, “Looking at my kids; they’re connected and informed. And they spend too much time online.”
A director of technology based in North America wrote, “In a positive way it has allowed me to keep in touch more easily with friends that live far away. In a negative sense it has provided a distraction to what is happening in the moment.”
A professor based in Europe wrote, “My working days are longer! I wake up and check email and I am habituated like one of Pavlov’s dogs to check my email regularly throughout the day and into the evening. Even though my boss has banned us from sending work emails after 6 p.m., I still check my email. As a result, I never truly feel disconnected from work – even during vacations.”
A professor from North America said, “For me (in my 50s) digital life has been positive – a way to keep up with old friends. However, for my teens, it can create sadness and feelings of being/having less than peers.”
An associate professor at a U.S. university said, “My ability to stay connected to family and friends brings me great joy. And I’m able to connect to other academics when I am not on campus, which is more often than not. However my husband feels that I am too connected! In this regard it may be hurting our relationship. At times using technology can border on addiction. For me that is.”
A North American researcher wrote, “Technology has changed my life because I now work for a company in a different state. My contributions are made at my home, via telecommuting. This is both good and bad – on the good side, I’m able to help take care of my disabled son and to help my wife through a battle with cancer. But, on the down side – there’s no opportunity for the water cooler discussions that can speed up development work. There’s no opportunity for facetime with managers and VPs to get that all-important rapport with senior management. In other words, there are no opportunities to exercise and grow the ‘soft skills’ necessary to progress in the organization.”
A college student based in North America wrote, “Technology is the biggest culprit in my life and my friends’ and family’s [lives] when it comes to interfering with normal sleep patterns. Our phones keep us up much later than we should be. Before I had my phone, I never had the distraction of apps, social media, and more to keep me from sleeping. The more we ignore that, the more we will lose our creativity. However, the connectivity has been wonderful for when I am at college to video chat with friends and family when I miss them, which is lovely. Also, social media has helped my family and I connect with friends that we lost touch with years ago, and I was able to make my own website to share my work with the world. It is also a way for me to get feedback on the book I am writing as I write it. Digital life increases our stress levels anytime we misread or read too much into a message. Sending a text is not the same as talking face-to-face or on a phone – you do not get to hear the sincere emotion from the voice behind the message. I have learned to never argue via text and to clarify in real life what someone meant to say to me before I blow it out of proportion.”
An anonymous respondent wrote, “It has made work communication easier but often less thoughtful since constant connectivity fuels the expectation of an immediate response. It also has diminished the opportunities to disconnect from work for a proper break, but it does give me flexibility to not be tied to my office.”
A college student said, “I am not too proud to admit that I also suffer from the FOMO (fear of missing out) that comes from living a hyperconnected lifestyle. I hold lengthy Snapchat streaks with friends to bond with them, I check my social media accounts for approximately three to four hours daily. Daily I catch myself peering at my phone the moment I awake to learn about the events I may have missed while I slept. While my Snap streaks do provide a satisfying, quick dopamine hit each time I respond, overall, I cannot say that living a hyperconnected lifestyle has enhanced my life in any way. But I would also argue that it has not hurt my mental well-being either. While I am willing to admit I struggle in certain areas to balance my digital distractions with the important things in life; overall, I don’t think that it has had a negative effect on my life. I do think that some people are negatively impacted, but most will work to find a balance after some trial and error as new tools for digital life continue to appear and we adjust.”
A clinical assistant professor at a major U.S. university wrote, “I am old enough to see the effects that cellphones have had on family dinners. In a positive light, some arguments are resolved more quickly – Wikipedia can often provide resolution to many debatable points and repair faulty recollection, leading to much more productive conversations. More negatively, the interruptions caused by text messaging and email often divide the attention of those dining together and can sometimes diminish the quality of time spent together.”
In the negative, the ‘always-on’ capabilities are big triggers for my anxiety around perfectionism and performance. In the positive, when working with my therapist on ways to bring myself more forward in relationships, social media was a key tool.A teen library specialist
A teen library specialist wrote, “I have had both positive and negative impacts in my personal mental health courtesy of hyperconnection of digital connectivity. In the negative, the ‘always-on’ capabilities are big triggers for my anxiety around perfectionism and performance. In the positive, when working with my therapist on ways to bring myself more forward in relationships, social media was a key tool. She described Facebook (at the time that was the dominant tool) as disastrous for her work with narcissists but a dream for working with folks like me. I have grown more comfortable with expressing myself and I feel more visible in this format than in others within my communities. And I don’t mean that I have more friends online than I have in the real world. I mean my ‘real-world’ relationships are richer because I share with the people in my workplace or family or church via social media in a way I never before did and still rarely do face to face.”
An anonymous respondent commented, “We are able to keep in touch with family all around the globe. On the other hand, our family wouldn’t have been so spread out in the first place without the internet.”
An academic leader based in Australia wrote, “Digital technology has provided unthinkable access to information. Systems for doing business have enabled us to perform tasks and obtain and share information like never before. At the same time, digital transformation has meant each individual spends a lot more time navigating systems and doing work that previously would have been performed by other experts.”
A North American social justice advocate commented, “Email emboldened me: to appreciate academic essays, to question journalists, to comment politically, and when those strangers wrote back I felt very good. Email has kept me in touch with close relatives in ways that would have otherwise seemed burdensome. My handwriting isn’t pretty, and keeping up with a flow of ideas by hand wore out my muscles. Word processing was a tool to write letters to newspapers, [to] journal, [to] take reading notes. Websites now encapsulate news for me; search answers questions so easily that I can indulge my curiosity. Technology enables me to honor my introversion without becoming isolated. On the other hand, much of my email is spam and getting worse. At holiday times and election times the requests for support are so overwhelming that I ignore them all. Social networking seems inefficient and entrapping. I use the desktop and telephone tools to silence as much of it as I can. And I have turned off the sound on my landline and cellphone. However, home computers and then email reshaped my life by enabling more participation in ways that I found comfortable.”
A principal research technologist who works for the U.S. government commented, “In general, I find that easy access to Facebook, podcasts, blogs and other endless content increases my stress level as I strive to take it all in and feel ‘caught up.’ I am never caught up. It is not possible to be caught up. I have started setting aside ‘screen-free’ days (or at least half-days) where I do not drink from that fire hose. I find that my mood improves, my stress declines, I notice the world around me and I am overall happier. I read more books, write letters and find other ways to entertain myself and connect with friends and loved ones. It’s surprising how it takes a conscious effort to step away from the screen and rediscover these options. [The good:] I have more frequent (but more shallow) contact with distant friends than I could ever have imagined. I get to ‘eavesdrop’ on my friends’ adventures through Facebook without having a conversation. In some ways this feels strange; I’m better informed but less connected.”
There is so much pressure to publish research even when it’s greatly flawed… Moreover, in many ways our techniques and standards of rigor have improved over time, so I don’t want to sound completely hopeless about scientific progress in my field.A research scientist based in North America
A research scientist based in North America commented, “I’m 26, so the internet changed pretty much everything, right? It grew up with me, more or less. In fifth grade, I remember writing a research report about the gray whale. We had to go through all these crazy steps – finding books, writing down facts on notecards, putting them in those little clicky boxes that held notecards. Now, when was the last time you saw one of those? We were allowed to have internet sources, I think, but there were all these requirements about what constituted an appropriate source, as well as strict limits on how many internet sources could be used. The assumption was that somehow, finding information on the internet did not constitute real research, and this was our teacher’s way of preparing us for the research we would be doing in the future. Fast forward to now, where I’m finishing up my Ph.D., and I do research practically every day. Do you know how often I have to seek out resources that I can’t find online? It’s never. Literally never. My dissertation uses about two, neither of which I sought out – just some books my advisor just unceremoniously handed me one day. Admittedly, my academic field is quite young comparatively, and there may be fields with more emphasis on works that cannot be found online, but still, this is mostly a good thing for my well-being, as well as for the productivity of my field. However, there are also more insidious consequences of the increased volume and availability of research. The most prominent consequence I observe is that there is simply more research than we as a field are able to deal with. There is so much research that is redundant or contradictory, and our field doesn’t currently have the structure in place to reconcile it all. Hundreds of papers are published every day, and most of these will never be read, let alone cited (and that’s assuming people are actually reading what they cite – ha!). There is so much pressure to publish research even when it’s greatly flawed, as well as to frame every finding with a theoretical impact it cannot actually have. Instead of a gradual forward trajectory, we’re sitting on an unmanageable mound of contradictions. This research machine I live in is so unimaginably wasteful, with such deeply entrenched and utterly misguided incentives that I do not know how we will ever overcome it. This is not to suggest that this is entirely the fault of digital technology, although it certainly has enabled this trend. Moreover, in many ways our techniques and standards of rigor have improved over time, so I don’t want to sound completely hopeless about scientific progress in my field. I think to an outside observer my field is flourishing, and we have much to offer the world. However, if we do not find ways to restructure and rethink what progress looks like, we will be crushed by our own weight.”
A solutions consultant based in North America wrote, “Hyperconnection via text messaging has helped in a world where physical proximity and time constraints make it more difficult to connect. For me, a quick text, letting my husband know that I’m thinking about him or giving him a heads-up on something important – is amazingly positive, and helpful. And it does so without detracting from my day. Same when I communicate with my son, who spends 50% of his time at his father’s house, and 50% with me. It helps us stay in touch and positively connected. But we also do not overuse it – perhaps we are not as ‘hyperconnected’ as other users of technology, although, my mother, who is 80, says that the text messaging is ‘just too much!’ She believes that is hyperconnectivity.”
A research engineer at one of the top universities in the U.S. commented, “Personally the internet has been my entire career (starting from ARPANET [Advanced Research Projects Agency Network] days), so this isn’t really a fair question for me. I will say, though, that even I get nervous if I leave the house without my smartphone. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad, but I certainly never thought it would happen to me.”
An anonymous respondent wrote, “Twitter is the greatest time-sink ever but a great source of interesting news and entertainment. However, I waste too much time on it when I could be reading the newspaper or a book.”
A post-doctoral fellow at Stanford University commented, “My family and I use our smartphones to send photos, video chat and send text messages on a daily basis, allowing us to stay in contact more frequently we did back when letter writing and telephone calls were our ways to stay in touch. On the negative side, I look at headlines way too much as a form of stimulus any time I have a second to spare – even when I’m with my children. I’d say I’m less present, less able to focus on reading long form text, than I was before my smartphone came into my life.”
A series of scenarios tied to potential future concerns of digital life
Peter and Trudy Johnson-Lenz, owner-operators of Pathfinding Smarter Futures and participants in this canvassing, submitted in response to the request for anecdotes the following series of scenarios they wrote in 2005 in order to spark discussions of potential issues.
Auto Angel I: Your commute co-pilot
You’re yawning as you slowly merge into the through lane on the long ride home. Your comfy biofueled hybrid-electric car is programmed to keep you alert and relaxed. The new ATM (autonomous traffic management system) keeps everything flowing smoothly without slow-downs or jam-ups, but you still have miles to go before you sleep. The music seems to keep pace with the flow of traffic, and you slip into a kind of driving flow state. The ATM is intelligent, but not smart enough to have autonomous lanes to do the driving for humans, nor do most people want that. Crack! The burst of sound and light, and the gentle spray on your face, with the aroma of peppermint, eucalyptus, and rosemary, brings you back to full alertness. Damn! You’d nodded off again. Fortunately, it was only a second, thanks to Auto Angel, your co-pilot on the two-hour commute from the agile economy enterprise zone to the only affordable housing in the tri-county area. Too bad your insurance doesn’t cover that latest wakefulness drug that’s all the rage.Auto Angel advises you to pull over as soon as possible and take a short power nap. You can set Angel’s alarm so you won’t sleep longer than 20 minutes and get groggy. You start looking for a safe place to stop and rest.
Auto Angel II: The high price of Drowsiness
The e-alert from your doctor’s office is surprising.“We’re concerned. Please come in at your earliest convenience. Press star for an immediate appointment.” What could possibly be the matter? What do they know that you don’t?At the clinic, you’re confronted with a stark, unforgiving choice. Auto Angel has reported one too many instances of drowsiness for your automobile insurance company to allow you to continue to drive under your existing policy. Either you must get the much more expensive hazardous driver rider or be treated immediately for “driving drowsiness” (suspected narcolepsy or sleep apnea, now on your medical and insurance e-records).If you’re actually diagnosed with narcolepsy, your doctor must report it to the department of motor vehicles. You’ll be subject to random monitoring for treatment compliance.Your health insurance doesn’t fully cover this treatment because driving is now considered an elective activity. There are drugs available, but they’re not on your formulary list. You’re advised to take public transportation.Of course, some can still afford fully private transportation, just they can afford health care and higher insurance premiums. You’re not one of them. And the public transit system doesn’t extend all the way out to your community yet.
You’re in Mexico City on your way to your next business appointment. “Señor, amigo, come with us — NOW! You’re at risk for a heart attack. We’re from HealthGuardian. We’ll get you to the hospital pronto.” Your HealthGuardian biosensors are supposed to provide alerts of impending medical emergencies.Uniformed men with insistent voices grab you by both arms and hustle you toward an official-looking van. Are they really from your HealthGuardian monitoring service, or are they kidnappers? How can you verify their identity? Are you really in danger?!?Your heart races and your head spins. You feel pressure in your chest, and it’s hard to breathe. What’s going on?!?
Alexi, ever-faithful e-valet
Soft chimes announce his voice. “Sir?” Alexi, your e-valet, continues close to your ear. “May I suggest that you eat something soon? You’re moving into your danger zone.” His interruption irritates you as you walk briskly along the crowded sidewalk. “Sir, the bistro four doors up on the right fits your dining profile and has two very nice specials today. Or I can recommend the Thai restaurant around the next corner.” Your blood sugar level is dropping precipitously close to where even deciding to eat, let alone where, is becoming a chore. “Sir?” “OK, OK, Alexi,” you say to yourself. Your gait slows, you check the bistro menu in the window, and go inside. What ever would you do without Alexi’s constant and respectful attentiveness?
Your privacy – priceless!
Your doctor half-jokingly calls your new medication an “executive enhancer.”It helps you think fast and clearly, keeping you alert, mentally flexible, relaxed, and emotionally unflappable. You always feel refreshed and ready for anything.Just the edge you need in your highly competitive business – better living, decision-making, and higher profits through chemistry. And who knows how it will enhance your performance in other ways?At the pharmacy, you pay cash to keep the transaction anonymous. The pharmacist assures you at check-out that the routine RFID [radio-frequency identification] tag deactivator and the special privacy bag he sells you give you dual layers of privacy and protection. You’re confident and satisfied.Ten days later the first whispers appear online, speculating that your company may be in trouble. Nothing too specific. Rumors, innuendo. Your communications people are monitoring the situation and say there’s nothing to worry about.Unattributed stories about your impaired capacity are next, suggesting that you may be unreliable or even unstable, and within 24 hours, you’re smeared with the charge that you’re taking a powerful psychiatric drug for an undisclosed but probably serious condition.Your company’s stock price drops 60%.
Scrambling your identity
At WuMart’s self-service checkout, you’re fuming. You’ve ducked into the store on your lunch hour to pick up a few essentials for this afternoon’s flight, and you’re in a real hurry. Nothing is scanning right. The dental care travel kit scans as reading glasses, vitamin C as laxatives, and deodorant as antacid. You call loudly for a supervisor. The young man sighs. “Yeah, it looks like somebody in the store hacked our RFID tags again and scrambled the data. It’ll get straightened out when the machines go through their data consistency and reliability power cycle in about 10 minutes. Sorry about that.” He puts an obviously used, dog-eared “Out of order – please try again later” sign on the scanner. “If you’ll just step through the electronic gate over there, we’ll have you on your way in no time.” You stride through the metal archway with your goods, and the human checker enters the products numbers to ring up your purchases. The finger touch system debits your account. Finally! You have just enough time to get back to the office. Later, when you try to enter the restricted area to get the data reports you need for your trip, you’re stopped cold. Your implanted VeriChip doesn’t properly authenticate your identify, and security forces are there in moments. Missing your flight will be the least of your problems.
The mall knows you better than you do
As you stroll through the environmentally controlled mall, your mobile flashes a steady stream of personalized messages from nearby merchants. “Jeans tops – 30% instant discount!” “Free skin-care consultation!” “Shakira CDs all on sale!”The automated ads have no way of knowing that the RFID-tagged jeans, derma-repair cream, and pop diva CD in your shopping bag are purchases for other members of your extended family. You’re not interested in more purchases like them or to go with them. You’re done.Nearby, the animated window display of dancing cookware catches your eye, and you linger a few moments, watching with great amusement. Flying frying pans? Flipping spatulas? Spinning plates? What were they thinking?!? The mall looks more like an amusement park every time you come here.But now the stream of messages is all for cookware, tableware, stemware, cooking schools, and related products and services. You’re beginning to feel you’re being stalked instead of enticed with great offers. How did they know what you were looking at? What else do they know about you? And how do they know it?!?This is creepy.
Who is responsible?
The distinctive ring on your mobile is your daughter’s. “Waaah! The bus didn’t come, and it’s our last practice before Saturday’s big match! You’ve gotta drive me NOW. Plueeease???” Just then the mobile beeps twice. “Just a sec, sweetie.” It’s an automated request for you to approve entry of your new drug prescription into the GVS Registry database. You’ll deal with that later. “OK, I’m back. I’ll try to get someone to cover for me. Pick you up in 15 minutes, OK?”The next evening in a heavy rainstorm, a drunk driver ploughs into your Viridian hybrid. As they stabilize you on the way to the Trauma Center, the EMTs read your implanted VeriChip to get your updated medical information.In the ER, your condition suddenly worsens in a most peculiar way, and the doctors suspect a bad drug interaction. But how could that have happened? Did the EMTs make a mistake? Were you taking something they didn’t know about?Right now they’ll save your life. What happened and who’s responsible will come later.
“Undecided shopper’s discount! Pick up prod, put back 2x, RFID shelf reader -> instant 25% off coupon.” Intrigued by this alert from Shopper’s Revenge (“Don’t get mad – get bargains!”) on your mobile screen, you check for something you actually want, walk over to the right shelf, pick it up, and put it back. Rinse, repeat. Voila! This is too easy. … A month later, the store catches on and raises the bar. You still get the coupon if you pick up the product, wait for over a minute, and put it back three times. A little tedious, but worth it for some pricier items. That works for three more weeks. A few days later, your Shopper’s Revenge e-coach tells you to vary the pattern so you’ll look more “natural” – to fit the store’s learning agent’s evolving model of an undecided shopper. Thanks to Shopper’s Revenge, you’re saving money, outwitting the technology, and looking more and more like a very hesitant shopper every day.