Technology use offers us many great advantages; an awareness that is constantly reinforced in our technology culture. On the other hand the basic problems arising from that technology use urgently need our awareness as well. Below are some interviews and discussion points that can help draw attention to the problematic aspects of our technological progress.
Below are comments from people of all walks of life that I had the opportunity to talk to. Not surprisingly many comments have to do with information and communication technologies as they are currently our most prominent tools.
"The growing capabilities of computers means that we humans are being left behind. For instance, an error in programming is increasingly difficult to detect, requiring more computational power to trace these errors, which leaves us humans increasingly out of the picture. Or financial transactions that are conducted through algorithms and computers - thus almost void of human intervention - create dynamics and real life developments. Another example is online training and education, which distances students from one another and from their instructors, in turn making interactions amongst people more difficult, e.g., because of lacking language skills."
— Dan, adjunct professor, planning and economic development, University of Southern California, Los Angeles
"Our stimulation is more and more focused on the digital, the internet, our phones. This focus often results in distractions and so lessens interactions with those around us, e.g. our parents and friends. When we're bored we automatically turn to our smart phones / the internet and look for distraction. This flightiness also creates a bigger focus on contemporary issues (e.g., through blogs) and less on larger contexts. Focusing on screens and meaningless babble is uninspiring, particularly for children. But also in my generation I observe a kind of laziness when it comes to talking about larger context, "important" issues."
— Alice, French and philosophy student, University College, London
"The manner in which we use technologies of communication is making us less able to articulate our emotions and pay attention to emotions - our own and those of other people. For instance, overuse of short messaging contributes to short attention spans and a lowering of our frustration threshold, in turn lowering our ability to conduct difficult, complex discussions and negotiations. This is making us emotionally stupid. We must do something about this, because this is about remaining a sentient being. All the challenges we are faced with require us to communicate. For instance, trust and non-verbal signals are needed in solving international and intercultural problems. If we can't find that common human ground we will make it less likely that we can find solutions."
— Kate, documentary film-maker, co-founder of Citizen Film, San Francisco
"A few weeks ago I saw this kid, about 2 years old, sitting on one of those little push tractors. It was constantly looking up to its mom, but she was busy with her smartphone and occasionally threw a glance at her child. After a while the kid gave up seeking attention from its mom and started walking away. It was already half across the big, busy square by the time the mother took notice. It took her a moment to spot her child and when she caught up with it she didn't interact with the child directly but started pointing her cell phone at it and took pic after pic, or she was filming, I don't know. In any case, I've seen similar scenes and wonder how these children are affected in their emotional and social development by this technology fixation of their parents."
Ralph, web developer, currently unemployed, Edinburgh
"Women shape culture by the choices they make while raising the future generation. If technology is pervasive in their young children's lives through iPads, tv, video games, car movies, etc., and if the caregivers themselves (daycare, pre-school) are using these tools to teach children, entertain them or "babysit", then the mothers are just partaking and blending in with the current culture of technology. If however, the mothers interact with their children, play, teach and engage with the wonder of life, their children creatively experience the world through tactile and emotional means. Our society has become incredibly complicated and with that, modern families have shifted child raising into an institution of daycare parenting without the deeper emotional bonding of parents to their children. Our family did its best to give a basis of non tech life to our children's childhood and to a lesser extent, through their teen years. We can only hope this hybrid childhood imprints a memory of connection to life that keeps them balanced and that the tech world doesn't completely rule the rest of their lives."
— Shea, owner of a herbal shop and school, Nevada City, California
"The extent to which we upload our personal information into clouds in my opinion creates great dependency. The respective corporations own the infrastructure and so they have control over it. It used to be that way too (e.g. letters / postal services), but the systematic and efficient ways in which personal information can now be scanned is new. These companies offer "free" services, but those services are anything but free. After all, these companies write billion dollar profits. Our profiles are being intensely monetized. Social media should be a private space, that is what is being projected - a safe zone. But in reality this space is a way for companies to make money. The political dimension is a whole other issue and far more delicate / questionable. We need to make sure we are not entirely dependent on one provider by using different platforms, and, at least as importantly, also use off-line tools, e.g., an address book on paper. On a slightly different note: I had a friend who wanted to switch from a regular cell phone to a smart phone. I told him 'don't do it, it will change the way you use the tool "phone", it will change your behavior'. He bought it nevertheless and the phone totally sucked him into its features and realities. The phone demanded a lot of his attention and he gave it to it. He would often interrupt conversations because of, e.g., a notification signal. The phone won over a human. Even though we talked about it and he seemed very conscious about these issues, the phone won and it did change him."
— Max, electrical engineering student, Technische Universität, Berlin
"Technology's development is happening too fast for me. This constant replacement of things just because there is a new way to do something - but is it better? I can't keep up. And what about technology replacing things that humans do? For instance all this talk about driverless cars - that kind of scares me. I got laid off because of that kind of replacement of humans in favor of technology and am now living on the streets. And then there's the government which is being empowered to see and hear more of what you do; there's no privacy left."
— Eugene, former warehouse worker, now homeless, Los Angeles
"When I think about the problems of technology use I think for instance of drones. I just imagine it to be very scary when you're attacked from the air and you don't even hear or see a plane. And it also makes me wonder how much of that technology is already used in our own country, on our own people. Then there's also agricultural technologies and all the waste I see coming from there. That's kind of connected too, the technologies we use there and all the food we throw away, right?"
— Jared, grocery store worker, San Francisco
"What comes to my mind first are the time-consuming ways in which we now interact socially. That we spend a lot of time in front of screens for work has been a reality for quite some time. But now we do so also for staying in touch with family and friends. All this communication, information, and coordination takes away from our ability to be spontaneous and to deal with the unexpected - everything seems so planned out and well researched."
— Carol, project manager, University of California, San Francisco, Mission Bay
"A few months ago I saw this documentary about a paraplegic man. He was given an advanced exoskeleton with which he was able to walk slowly. Of course I understood how immensely helpful this technology is for this individual. But at the same time I couldn't help but wonder where all this is leading too? When the camera focused on the man's legs it didn't really look human - the movements, the metal frame, the wires. If I or someone close to me could experience a significant increase in health or mobility I would most likely welcome the technology. But this is the personal / individual perspective. The perspective I was thinking about when watching that man walk is far less positive. What is the increasing presence of technology doing to us humans? How is it changing us? How can we reconcile the individual and the larger, human species perspective? When taking burgeoning genetic manipulation into account, these questions seem a lot more pressing."
—Martina, social worker, Zurich, Switzerland
"I'm observing more and more people around me being afflicted with a screen obsession and thus dumbing themselves down. For them nothing happens unless it happens on a screen. They behave like addicts. I've seen a fellow radiologist text while having a consent form filled out by a patient when he should have been asking the patient about his concerns regarding the procedure and informing him about his rights."
— James, radiographer, University College London Hospitals
"Social media is substituting direct social interaction. I recently saw this movie "Ex Machina" and the mood of isolation in that movie somehow reminded me of our communications technologies and how they are coming between us and other humans."
— Scott, bartender, San Francisco
"I often wonder how much we really do benefit from communications technologies. I feel it is distancing people instead of bringing them together. These tools make us retreat into our own worlds. Over the last 10 - 15 years I've seen a deterioration of various skills, such as writing and spelling, and particularly the ability to listen and pay attention. What we need aren't more social media apps but more direct interaction with fellow human beings."
— Kate, career coach and community liaison, City Collage of San Francisco
"I am majoring in bioenergy and our concern is to figure out efficient ways to turn biomass into biofuel. Unintended consequences of technological development are an important aspect in our work, as in some instances the biomass used for energy generation could also be used for food, thus potentially lowering the world's level of food security."
— Andy, bioengineer, University of California, Berkeley
"When I think about the negative sides of technology I think mostly of the traffic I'm stuck in every day. Cars are great, but here in LA there are just far too many of them. Every day, depending on traffic, I spend between 2.5 and 3.5 hours commuting. Looked at this way, I don't feel the car is a positive aspect of my life. And what all this traffic is doing to the air quality and environment in general is a whole other issue."
— Sandeep, administrative assistant, Torrance, Los Angeles County
"When I think about the developments in office and production technologies I wonder about two traits of technological innovation, which so far have been 'agreed on goals': the innovation serves human needs and it brings about productivity gains. I've been noticing tendencies in the last few years that make me question how clear these goals still are. If our technological innovation efforts orient themselves too closely to that which technology needs, then our innovations will develop machine-serving dynamics that in turn will make human needs and perspectives less relevant."
— André, business consultant, Zurich, Switzerland
"I'm originally from Cameroon. When I came here to study I did not have a cell phone, nor did my family and friends. I think smart phones can be beneficial, but one has to be very careful that they do not take up too much of one's time and attention. I generally turn my phone off after 10pm. I've also noticed a negative effect on my hearing and wonder about potential negative effects of all the radiation. I think of technological development as overcoming a wall or a challenge. It's the human way to do so. There are two vectors in dealing with a challenge: the first is to overcome the challenge in a technological / scientific way. The second one is to anticipate conditions after the challenge has been overcome. We, as a society, are probably putting too much attention on the first and too little on the second vector."
— Alfred, international relations student, University of California, Los Angeles
"I notice the problematic aspects of technology particularly regarding social issues, i.e., the effects of our technologies of communication and social media. We are increasingly connecting in the virtual world, but less in the physical one. We are also far less aware of our surroundings when engrossed with our phones. I also wonder how all this delegation of human abilities to computers, e.g. simple math skills, will affect us in the long run."
— Marissa, public health student, University of California, Berkeley
"Social media has greatly influenced my romantic relationships - and that of my friends as well. In a way it's much easier for us to connect to guys we may be interested in, but this increase in interactions has led to a decrease in quality. The way people portray themselves online distorts personal realities, e.g., by exaggerating aspects of themselves and therefore creating false expectations."
— Sahra, waitress, London
"The increasing prevalence of genetically modified ingredients in our foods concerns me. The power of the corporations behind GMOs is reflected in the distribution channels at their disposal. This makes access to natural, local produce more difficult and more expensive, thus increasing inequality."
— Malak, social anthropology student, London School of Economics
"The underlying problems of technology use are not really on my or my social network's radar. We are not concerned about them and so we don't think/talk about them. When rarely these issues are brought to our attention - like those surrounding GMOs - they are usually presented in small, over-simplified morsels, which seem to reflect the opinion of a professor and don't lead to open, impartial discussion."
— Samantha, medical student, University of California, Davis
Below are questions that can help stimulate discussion about the relationship between us humans and our technologies. You are very welcome to suggest questions of your own. Please do so through the contact form (link below).
In what ways do you feel that technology empowers you and gives you more options? In what ways do you feel that technology restricts you and limits your choices?
What positive views, “energies” and values could be the contributing forces to a cultural transition thanks to which technology does not become overbearing and all-defining?
Stephen Hawking and others have warned against the hurried advance of artificial intelligence (AI). What are the potential risks and how can we individually and as a society try to manage them?
What kind of cultural activities do you personally enjoy? E.g. singing, painting, playing an instrument, dancing, fashion, cooking, spiritual/religious practices, politics, community work, reading, etc. What aspects do you enjoy particularly and why?
What kind of ethical questions do you think need to be considered in the context of our growing ability to manipulate the genetic make-up of life-forms in general and our own human genetic make-up in particular? E.g. sanctity of life, or the golden rule?
Prenatal diagnostics is a prominent example of how the technologies we create need to be embedded in our values and beliefs. The more human conditions and traits we can discern in an embryo's DNA, the more we become our own “natural selector”, increasingly influencing our own evolution. Is the question of abortion entirely a private one? Are we capable of taking on so much responsibility for our own evolution? What kind of principles could help create an ethical framework for these tools?
When you look at a clear night sky and see all the stars – what thoughts and feelings do the impressions of this vastness trigger in you? Doe they influence your world views?
Do communication technologies make you connect more often or less often with family and friends? What are the differences in quality of communication when connecting through these tools compared to real life contact? Do the differences influence your communication behavior, e.g., that you communicate some things only face-to-face, and other things only via text, email?
What do you think of the outlook that robots may take care of humans in hospitals or nursing homes? If you think robots could take on certain tasks, do you think that other tasks should be off-limits for robots? Which tasks would those be?
How do online course-work and online-degrees change the learning experience? How important are face-to-face interactions between students and professors and amongst students for our learning? What gets lost when we don’t have these direct interactions?
In what ways are technological innovations in warfare influencing the democracies we live in? For instance, how has drone warfare affected democratic oversight? How can this development be counterbalanced? Does policy / democracy still have an influence?
If more and more of our human biological aspects (e.g. tissues, organs, and genes) are manipulated and owned by corporations, what kind of ethical, social, economic, and political issues could we be faced with? How can we counteract those developments?