Is our relationship with digital technology true love or an unhealthy obsession?
Technology is neither good nor bad, it is simply an amplifier of whatever we, as society and individuals, choose to use it for.
That’s the view put forward by writer and speaker Dave Coplin in his book ‘The Rise of the Humans’ - but it isn’t universal. Media headlines, academics and researchers regularly warn of the negative aspects of our relationship with technology.
A disciplined approach
I work in IT, have a passion for digital technology, and love the convenience of my digital devices and streaming services. Positive applications of technology can save lives, help us protect the planet, bring people together, and deliver convenience and efficiency to our working, social and family lives.
Today’s young people have every bit as much talent, promise and potential as those of any other generation, but they also benefit by having technological advancements and information literally at their fingertips, providing a wealth of potential advantages and opportunities.
As part of my academic research, I spent six months considering these conflicting discourses on the impacts of digital technology on millennial students and their ability to focus their attention and retain information.
My findings revealed that, if left unchecked and unmanaged, some potential negative impacts could be exacerbated. There is certainly an argument for encouraging discipline in technology use and design. However, there’s also evidence to suggest that those who efficiently use social media and other technologies stand to do well in today’s digital society and workplaces.
Neuro-economist Adam Penenburg’s research draws parallels between the chemicals released when using social media and those released when falling in love.
Is it possible that, as a society, we are so enamoured with technology - so wrapped up in those heady, magical early days of our relationship with it - that we overlook bad habits and potential problems? Indeed, smartphone addiction is now a recognised social issue, and 78% of Ofcom 2018 Communications Market Report’s respondents declared they ‘couldn’t live without’ theirs.
Adam Thilthorpe, director of professionalism at the Chartered Institute for IT (BCS) describes these negative side-effects as ‘unintended impacts’ of technology. He asks where the responsibility lies in pre-empting, identifying and mitigating against these. Technology companies? Government? Educational establishments? Parents? Individuals? Perhaps it’s all of us - but how do we do this when dealing with new, disruptive, previously-unseen technologies being released into an ever-changing society? Who should – or could – take the lead?
Champions of ethical change
Working as a senior business analyst (BA), my colleagues and I are well-placed to challenge, to push back, to think about the wider environment and be champions of ethical change.
BAs use techniques such as ‘design thinking’, empathising with users and considering not only the ‘happy path’, but also the unexpected and undesirable ‘unhappy paths’. Different users’ desires and objectives are identified and contextualised, considering the environment in which they engage with digital experiences. This gives us the opportunity to not only build a great customer experience, but also to consider ‘unintended impacts’ and develop contingencies.
As a society, our relationship with digital technology is set to be long-term and multi-generational – and we may be emerging from the honeymoon phase. That’s why it’s so important that, as with any relationship, we work out what we want from it, how to manage and balance it, and how to ensure that it is a beneficial, happy and healthy partnership for everyone involved.
Hear Rachel’s session, ‘digital neuroscience 101 and the importance of empathy in digital experience design’ at Digifest 2020, at 11:00 on 11 March at the ICC Birmingham. Register by 1 March 2020.