DOES THE TECH INDUSTRY HAVE AN OBLIGATION TO KEEP US HAPPY?
Updated: Oct 2, 2020
First, excuse the delay on my part. With the last few weeks spent applying for jobs, going on interviews, moving to a new city, networking, and spending an arduous three days painting my room (have I mentioned I’m a perfectionist?), it didn’t leave much space for the blog. Now that things are (mostly) settling down, I can dedicate more time to my humble space on the Internet.
The intersection of tech & ethics is a topic that’s occupied some sizable real estate in my mind in recent weeks. I should preface this post by saying I was the type who refused to get a smartphone until four years after the release of the first iPhone for fear of becoming a tech zombie like I saw in many of my friends. Lo and behold, I found myself falling into the same pitfalls not long after purchasing my sleek new portable, multipurpose device. My iPhone came everywhere with me. I used it to mitigate those awkward line-standing or waiting room territories that bring introverts to their knees. I became the person who took photos of her food at restaurants. I always kept my phone out and visible even when grabbing drinks with friends who I knew could provide plenty of meaningful stimulation on their own. I fell easily into the wide pool of FOMO. I started adding new words to my vernacular, like “tweet” and “selfie.” I was addicted to the beeps and dings sounding from my pocket, becoming all too familiar with that quick rush of dopamine.
Despite my better judgment, I became a smart phone zombie. (And, if I’m being frank, still am in many ways.)
That said, I’m skeptical of those that pooh-pooh technology as a whole. It has opened up incredible new pathways into communication, collaboration, convenience. It’s transformed the field of medicine. It saves us time so we can lend ourselves to the things most important to us. Yet, on the other side of the coin, there’s no arguing that it has caused some real problems. I’m not going to run through all of the studies and conversations into its detriments because odds are, you’ve heard it already (decline in social skills, diminished focus & memory, difficulty sleeping, an inability to maintain deep & lasting relationships, providing a gateway into the recent opioid epidemic, etc. etc.).
Amidst all of this dialogue, it’s helpful to approach this from a high level. As a human species, we are equal parts intellectuals capable of reason & analysis and equal parts sacks of emotion & biological drives. Technology can't ignore the latter. After all, it’s this “emotional sack” part of us where meaningful connections take root.
Maybe, like software engineer & Quartz contributor Tracy Chou suggests, we should be nudging tech workers toward a humanities education. Since its advent, tech has been all about progress. Perhaps we need to rethink what progress means. Up until this point, the question has been “How can tech solve a problem?” But the problems have always been focused on things like information, convenience, sales. Maybe the question we should be asking is “How can tech make people happy?” (Or at the very least, not make people unhappy.) Maybe we should take a page from the book of Freada Kapor Klein who defied Silicon Valley conventions to take on Uber. Maybe it's time we interrupt the focus on profit, speed, and encouraging an addicted consumer base to make room for something a little more human.
Do we need to look to the past to bring back “stopping cues” in order to avoid endless tech binging? Or think of innovative ways to make tech work for us to stay with the forward march of progress? In Adam Alter’s TED Talk, for instance (linked above), he provides two categories of app use on our phones, those that make us feel more enriched (relaxation, exercise, reading, education, etc.) and those that make us feel less enriched (dating, gaming, social networking, news, etc.). Perhaps there are ways to invoke some of the same factors from the apps that give enrichment to the ones that make us feel worse?
Ultimately, it comes down to one question: does the tech industry have a humanitarian obligation to make us happy? Tech being the ubiquitous force it is today, I’d argue yes. In a timely article in The Atlantic written by Irina Raicu, director of the Internet Ethics program at Santa Clara University, she writes: “If technology can mold us, and technologists are the ones who shape that technology, we should demand some level of ethics training for technologists.” I couldn’t agree more.
I’m presenting this entry as a stage for conversation. And as an appeal to tech workers to do better. But until that day comes, I’m making a concerted effort to reduce my smart phone use so I can focus more on the personal, meaningful, creative moments that make up my humanity and build much of my life’s purpose. Because I don’t want to be known as a millennial tech zombie but as a human being.