In the Heart of Silicon Valley

SAVE THE DATE - March 11-12, 2019

NEWS

Too much technology?

William Meisel, Executive Director, AVIOS, and President, TMA Associates

 

It seems that successful technology always draws warnings of its dangers. A Swiss scientist, Conrad Gessner, warned about the effects of information overload, describing in a book how the modern world overwhelmed people with data, “confusing and harmful” to the mind.

   Gessner died in 1565. He was referring to the dangers of the printing press.

Socrates feared that writing would cause our memories to deteriorate. And TV supposedly created “couch potatoes.”

   Today we also worry about the overuse of smartphones, not just for being too tied to them for communication, but for overuse in playing games and watching video. There are warnings that they might destroy our social skills by reducing human interaction.

   Many of the features Apple announced at WWDC in May were intended to reduce this “danger.” The fixes included letting us know how much time we are spending with each app. And Facebook has responded to concerns over “social media addiction” with the launch of a suite of new app tools enabling members to see at a glance how much time they’ve spent on the site and set future limits to curtail their usage.

   Is this latest technology danger realistic? Are we going to look at it from the perspective of the future as just one more irrational fear?

   There is no obvious harm in giving individuals optional tools to monitor their own usage of apps or tools to give them better control of children’s usage and access. The core question is whether increasingly powerful software and services—and the ability to have them always available through mobile devices—encourage overuse to the extent they are in some way harmful to individuals or society.

   As with any technology, there will be cases of abuse. Distracted drivers paying more attention to their smartphones than the road may cause accidents. Extreme cases will always cause problems, but, again, the core problem is whether typical use is harmful to individuals or society.

   One could ask, for example, whether the maturing of digital assistants that use human language will cause us to spend more time talking to computers than humans. And, if so, is that bad?

   In practice, some issues must be left to societal interaction. It is annoying if an individual is dealing with text messages at a social dinner. That’s an issue of politeness that could be addressed by the other parties involved by calling attention to the offense or by simply not inviting the offending party to the next dinner.

   One has to examine the advantages that lead to potential abuse to see if those advantages outweigh the potential abuses, just using cars to get around outweighs the disadvantages of accidents or overly aggressive drivers. It’s clear that the mobile phone’s advantages in making us reachable when away from a fixed landline phone have advantages, both for convenience and for safety in emergencies. Texting is a technology for asynchronous communication that is less intrusive than a phone call, allowing a delayed response without the slower interaction of voicemail. Like all technologies, communication technology improvements only become popular if they deliver something users want. Texting wouldn’t be practical if few people had a mobile phone.

   People vote for a technology with their wallets. Mobile communication won the “election.”

   But what happens as digital assistants get increasingly better? Will they become an alternative to human friends? Will we get fond of them as we do our pets?

   Pets are in fact a good example of a distracting practice. Live pets are obviously not a technology, but owners spend time with them and become fond of them, arguably at some cost of time and affection that could be spent with humans. If a digital assistant became in effect a “pet,” one could argue that it provides some of the same benefits without the responsibility of a live pet. (Yes, I understand it’s not the same, but it might be similar for some people that need a dependable source of attention and can’t have a pet for whatever reason.)

   I’ve been told by a number of older people living alone and with limited mobility that their Echo is reassuring, always there to tell them a joke or play their favorite music. The basic point is that digital assistant technology can provide a benefit when social interaction is not easily available.

In the more general case, people will use a digital assistant when it is more efficient to do so than achieving the same goal by other means. They will vote with their usage. If the digital assistant doesn’t save them time and make using digital technology easier or less frustrating, they won’t use it. This aspect suggests that using an intelligent digital assistant provides more time for an individual to do other things because they spend less time dealing with “dumb” technology.

   And there is the “Augmented Intelligence” argument. If digital assistants provide us quicker and better access to information we need in our lives and work, it makes us more productive and grants us more time to interact with other humans. And having easier access to the growing world of knowledge presumably translates into a better life experience; I suspect we would all revolt if our right to do web search and get GPS-based driving directions was revoked.

   The big picture is that modern technology is adapted when it provides benefits. Other than extreme cases that can be addressed by regulations, laws, or social recrimination, the pace of technology will continue despite any hand-wringing.

(Editor’s Notes from LUI News, July 2018 issue)

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