Has Technology Improved Our Lives?


At first sight this seems like a strange question to ask, I only need to look around me and I see all the evidence that’s need to answer with a resounding “yes” — the amazing iPhone clipped to my belt, the super efficient boiler that’s at heart of my home, the high tech car on the drive. But then if I dig deeper into the question I start to doubt myself, if I look at the way we adopt technology, it looks more like an addict heedlessly buying more and more, without questioning the seductive marketing and the pressure to conform, assuming that more is always better, never satisfied.  Our approach to technology is brought into sharp contrast when it’s compared to the Amish:

The difference between Amish people and most other Americans is the deliberation that takes place before deciding whether to embrace a new technology. Many Americans assume newer technology is always better, and perhaps even inherently good.

"The Amish don’t buy that," says Donald Kraybill, professor at Elizabethtown College and co-author of The Amish. "They’re more cautious — more suspicious — wondering is this going to be helpful or is it going to be detrimental? Is it going to bolster our life together, as a community, or is it going to somehow tear it down?"

I like the word “deliberation” in the Amish approach to emphasise just how little thought really goes into our rush to adopt technology.

Taking a look at a few examples, starting with my personal perception of how technology has changed knowledge work over the last ten years.  I’m going to deal mostly in generalities (I know the dangers), accepting that some exceptional people have iron discipline.  Using the benchmark of ‘improving our lives” what has technology done for us:

  1. By some metrics it’s made us more productive, but not all of us, because many of us have been made redundant as a result.  One might say it’s made the ‘busy, busier’ and with that increased busyness has come longer working hours and more responsibility, and as a result higher rates of burnout and stress
  2. It’s made us more available, lengthening working hours, intruding into family time, reducing our opportunities to detach and relax
  3. It’s increased the flexibility and utilisation of individuals in general and those with scarce skills in particular, enabled virtual teams and thus broken up the co-located teams most of us prefer, replacing fluid collaboration with endless emails, conference calls and web-conferences.  It seems to me that resource utilisation has become the new metric by which we judge productivity, rather than team effectiveness and real business outputs.
  4. Conference calls have made it easier to fragment accountability and responsibility, allowing many ‘stakeholders’ to dabble with a project they don’t really understand and to dramatically increase the number of ‘status calls’.
  5. Conference calls and web conferences have shifted the focus towards real-time collaboration, instead of quickly scanning meeting minutes and highlight reports when it suits them, stakeholders now all sit at the end of the phone, paying limited attention while they try (and fail) to also pay attention to the torrent of email and instant messages that distract them every minute of the day
  6. The rush to adopt heavily marketed but immature virtual team working environments has fragmented knowledge across many disparate systems, often orphaning that knowledge as one system replaces another in the quest for something that works better than the file system that it tries to replace.  It’s ironic to see that all the ‘new things’ in collaboration are just a direct evolution of the file-system, box, dropbox, onedrive etc.
  7. Virtual team working also allows busy people to be assigned to multiple projects (better utilisation) but these people quickly become distracted, over-worked bottlenecks, reducing the throughput of the project as a whole
  8. It’s provided the ‘lucky’ busy people with more money, but less time and less energy.  As a result it’s easier for us to watch TV and shop for stuff than it is to live a meaningful life, rich with experiences and relationships
  9. In making us all flexible, it’s reduced the value we place on specialists and hence our ability to develop real mastery
  10. Finally it’s allowed companies to tap into a global resource pool at will and to easily on-source or outsource activities to third parties, reducing or perhaps eliminating altogether the feeling of protection that employees used to enjoy when jobs were for ‘for life’

When you look at this list it looks almost as if technology has been used to mount a sustained attack on every one of the foundation elements of motivation, by reducing Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose, Relatedness, Sustainable challenge, Protection the result is reduced engagement, happiness and ultimately I think business has suffered.

Next I will look at the impact of technology on my family life and the direct experiences of friends unfortunately it’s not a particularly pretty picture:

  1. The family has definitely fragmented, instead of coming together to chat, eat, or watch movies and TV shows at night, everyone sit’s alone in their rooms.  I’ve fought to keep us together as much as possible with some success, but the immediate seductiveness of individual freedom too often win’s out over the longer term benefits of connectedness and shared experience
  2. We are all much more distracted, it’s rare that we focus on just one thing anymore.  I walk while listening to books and podcasts, Debbie plays Drop 7 while watching TV, the kids chat with friends while doing their homework.  There’s no space in our lives for fully engaging in the moment, to be mindful, as a result too much in life gets categorised as ‘boring’
  3. We all spend much too long sitting, the need to engage with a screen has tied us to a seat or a bed, with many negative health implications
  4. Most web pages have been carefully designed to deliver information in single screen chunks, our reward systems have been designed to crave the thrill of exploring, click, click click around aimlessly looking for something new and exciting.  As a result time is frittered away and kids and adults alike can no longer concentrate for long enough to read long article, let alone a book
  5. Everyone is addicted to searching for and buying ever more stuff, browsing around the web for bargains, and one click ordering and free delivery has become so addictive that most kids now have jobs just to fund the accumulation of stuff, and almost all adults are working much longer than is required to be warm, dry, well fed and happy.

I’ve personally worked very hard to address all of the above in my own family, but the underlying forces are driving us all in this direction and most families don’t have the discipline to resist – a few, like mine, succeed in some areas, maybe resisting for a year, or in one particular area. But without a culture to protect us (like the Amish) technology adoption seems irresistible, and it’s not all good.

When it comes to my personal adoption of technology, I’ve already taken a look at the IT technologies that had really made a breakthrough improvement in my life and I concluded:

That’s about it, a stunning condemnation of IT’s ability to deliver personal productivity improvements in recent years.  Most of the peak experiences having been delivered 10 or more years ago, most of the benefits since then having been delivered by Moore’s law. Many of the ‘improvements’ recently have just danced around the edges of innovations made many years ago, providing eye candy, distraction or all too often degradation.  Maybe I just have selective memory, or am feeling particularly nostalgic today, it would be interesting to see how others remember the same period!

Of course there are many ways in which technology has enhanced my life, at least at first glance, but many of these improvements have their downsides too:

  1. We got a new, very efficient, combi boiler – and as a result everyone used more hot water, so our bill increased
  2. We heavily insulated our home – but everyone got used to being warm all of the time, so we increased the time we had the central heating on
  3. Technology invaded the car, making driving more engaging and entertaining – but that increased the rate of obsolescence, making me lust after a new car with Bluetooth stereo, which I eventually bought
  4. We craved and eventually got high speed internet — but the only new thing that really gave us was the ability for the girls to all watch Netflix in their own rooms concurrently, further fragmenting the family
  5. I have an app on my phone from my energy provider – but now I have to contort myself every month to get into the under-stairs cupboard to take my own energy readings
  6. Everyone in the house now has iPhones – but as a result we are all more distracted, and less connected in as many negative ways as we are more positively connected through social media

In the world in general we can see amazing benefits from technology, but in many ways these advances are supporting the need of corporations, not the lives of individuals:

  1. The developed world is living beyond it’s means, with most growth fuelled by debt
  2. GDP is still the primary driver for policy, often at the expense of improving our lives
  3. As individuals we are constantly seduced into living beyond our means too, interest free credit, buy now pay later, re-mortgage, ever bigger mortgages, growth at the expense of savings
  4. Freedom, leaving the world better than we found it and meaningful experiences are being eroded as values and replaced by accumulated stuff as the evidence of a life well lived
  5. We are living well beyond the natural carrying capacity of the planet – technology has enabled advances like intensive farming, GM crops, hydroponics, deep water extraction, desalination, coal and fracking which have allowed us to keep just ahead of population growth – but as a result we are quickly running out of fresh water, topsoil, phosphorous, potassium and many other resources upon which life depends
  6. Our throw-away, technology infused, energy intensive lives and our obsession with GDP growth are forcing us to use gas, oil and coal with abandon, using ever more sophisticated technologies for extraction, but putting the environment and many natural eco-systems risk

Well, that was a depressing blog post to write, but what was the point?  I think it comes down to us desperately needing a culture that’s more critical of technology, that doesn’t just accept that it can be used for “good or bad” but actively uses research, marketing, education, regulation and incentives to encourage technology adoption in a way that leads to a ‘sustainable good life’ for all, that protects us from ourselves, that nudges us to make the right decisions, whilst still allowing us the freedom to make our own choices and learn from our own mistakes.

This post was inspired by a mini-debate on twitter yesterday, between a passionate advocate for technology and a couple of cynics (me included).  I wrote the post sitting in Caffe Nero using my ageing laptop (that I’m totally satisfied with) enjoying the full Caffe Nero experience and looking forward to a walk in the sun later. But that walk will be accompanied by podcasts, even though deep down I know that if I put in the effort walking mindfully I would benefit from a richer experience — podcasts provide the instant gratification and let me get more work done. 

The photo is of the beach huts I will walk by today, people who buy them are either switched on to the value of experiences, or have more money than they know what to do with, I hope it’s the former!

Steve Richards

I'm retired from work as a business and IT strategist. now I'm travelling, hiking, cycling, swimming, reading, gardening, learning, writing this blog and generally enjoying good times with friends and family

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