Technology is getting closer and closer to us, literally and figuratively. It touches our lives in progressively deeper and more intimate ways. How should we feel about this? (Photo by h heyerlein on Unsplash)
I describe myself as a technologist. I’m fascinated by technology both because of the challenge of understanding how it works and because of the potential it holds to improve the human experience. I used to believe naively that more technology is always a good thing, but recently I’m less sure about this. More and more, I find myself pondering questions such as, Has technology actually made my life better? If so, how? What are some concrete ways that it has? And if not, why not?
One of the benefits of getting older is perspective: the more change you experience, the more you can put that change into context and understand the impact it’s had on your life and on the world around you. Technology evolves pretty quickly these days, and by now I’ve experienced a couple of technological revolutions.
As one of the first members of the Millennial cohort I’ve always had access to the Internet, but I remember life before laptops and tablets, e-books, smartphones, social media, sharing economy, and videoconferencing, just to name a few of the technologies that have emerged during my lifetime. I remember writing software before git and GitHub, containerization, virtualization, and the cloud.
One of the core themes of this blog is technology and how to bend it towards good. In order to do this we need to be honest about both the positive and the negative effects of modern technology. The positive effects may seem clear. Technology has become objectively better over the past few decades in key ways. Computers today are faster, cheaper, and more reliable. We now all carry supercomputers in our pockets, and we can stay connected anywhere, anytime, cheaply and easily. These are big, important improvements. But if I asked you to list concrete ways in which tech has made your life easier, what would you say? This is not as easy as it sounds, especially without falling back on generalities such as “life is easier” and “technology has made life more convenient.”
On the flipside, there’s growing backlash against some forms of modern technology, especially social media and big tech firms. Some prominent scholars feel that the pace of technological innovation has slowed considerably. Rather than high level analysis and pronouncements, however, I think a good place to start is with my personal, lived experience of technology. What technology has had the biggest direct impact on my life, and has that impact has been good, bad, or neutral?
The area that’s impacted me most during my lifetime is, broadly, information and communications technology (ICT): the Internet, email and instant messaging, the Web, mobile phones, videoconferencing, photo and video sharing, social media, etc.. Let’s start with professional life where the impact of ICT is clear and, I think, overwhelmingly positive. The value of being able to communicate, collaborate, and share data and code with friends, classmates, and colleagues all over the world, in real time and for free, cannot be overstated. To me, these tools have meant freedom: freedom to work with whomever I want, when and wherever we all happen to be. Physical location no longer makes much difference when what you’re collaborating on consists purely of bits, e.g., code, design, or writing. To be clear, collaboration over large distances is not yet seamless: poor Internet connections still occasionally cause headaches, especially on the road, as do timezones and language barriers. But I suspect that someday we’ll overcome most or all of these.
In my personal life, the answer is far less clear. It took a while, but I’m no longer under the spell of the early days of social media when IMing, poking, and tweeting all felt novel, exciting, even edgy. We now see social media for what it really is, and it’s not pretty. Thanks to recent political events, disinformation and polarization, and films such as The Social Dilemma, it’s become clear that social media benefits big tech companies far more than it benefits us as individuals. To be clear, this has little to do with the technology itself and more to do with the business models that have emerged around it.
While the idea of always being connected and in touch was exciting and appealing in the early days of social media, in practice today I find that the less time I spend on social media, the happier I am. Similarly, while I’m in touch with many more people than I was in the pre-Internet, pre-social media era, the depth and quality of those interactions is, on average, far lower. I find that the fewer people I’m in touch with, the deeper and more meaningful those interactions are and the happier I am. In sum, I’d rate the concrete impact of ICT on my personal life as neutral to negative. It’s positive only when I engage with it mindfully and intentionally, which is still a work in progress.
Closely related to ICT is the hardware that enables that technology. This includes laptops, tablets, and smartphones, but also watches, bluetooth headphones, e-readers and the like. I’d also include virtualized hardware such as cloud computing, as well as enabling technology like better batteries in this category.
Computers have improved a great deal during my lifetime, and faster processors and more memory, bandwidth, and disk space are objectively better. However, better hardware isn’t unambiguously a good thing. For one thing, hardware that only ever gets better has made programmers lazy and led to terrible software. While it’s certainly possible to do more different things with computers today, to work faster, and to do more things in parallel, the overall reliability of applications has decreased in tandem. Interfaces are much noisier and there’s much more distraction. While I don’t miss the days of ultra-slow download speeds, laggy, low-res video games, and waiting ages for even the most basic apps to load off a floppy disk, I do think the modern state of computing and, in particular, the application stack leaves something to be desired.
There’s a fallacy in technology where it’s easy to believe that something faster and sexier, with better specs and more features, is always a good thing. But this isn’t always true. Doctors still like using pagers because they’re simple, reliable, indestructible, have very long battery lives, and don’t drown you in ads and notifications. In other words, they just work. This is the same reason that I prefer running with a GPS watch rather than my smartphone, and I prefer reading a book on a Kindle rather than on an iPad. These devices all do one thing, and they do that thing very well. Of course, none of these devices (except maybe pagers) existed when I was born.
I think this one is a toss-up. My gut feeling is that modern, simple, specialized devices such as bluetooth headphones, GPS watches, and e-readers are clear wins and definitely make my life better. The case is much less clear for general purpose computing devices.
The biggest advance in health in my lifetime is better understanding of diet, in particular, the harms of added sugar, simple carbohydrates, and processed foods. We’ve finally recognized the awfulness of the food pyramid that my generation grew up with. My diet today, which includes a lot more healthy fat and protein and a lot less simple carbs, is a lot better than it used to be. At the same time, I don’t have a counterfactual since our nutritional needs change as we age. I also have to account for the psychic cost of constantly worrying about what to eat and where to find healthy food, especially while traveling. When I was younger, I ate and drank whatever I wanted and my health was okay.
The development of health and fitness tracking devices and quantified self software is interesting, and I’ve used quite a few such devices and apps, but it’s unclear whether they’ve actually made my life better in some concrete way. They feel like another thing to think about and worry about, another data set to manage. It’s nice to know how my VO2 max is trending over time, but this has no direct impact on my running, my fitness, or my life in general. I suspect these tools are wonderful for professional athletes or for those who have specific goals such as weight loss or improving performance, but for someone without such goals they’re mostly a waste of time.
I try to use such devices the same way I use social media: mindfully, temporarily, with a specific goal in mind or question I want to answer. Since I haven’t found many answers yet, this one is also a toss-up.
Food and Drink
While most digital health technology doesn’t feel life changing, certain modern, functional food and beverage products do. The most obvious of these is Soylent. While the media loves to treat Soylent as a punching bag, it’s one of the clearest and best examples of technologies that have had a positive, concrete impact on my life. I love cooking and I love good, real, slow food and can appreciate all of these things, but I don’t need them all of the time. I think of Soylent the way I think of water: cold pressed juice and frappucinos are nice once in a while, but I don’t need them all the time, either. Water is also nice, it’s cheap, and it does a perfectly good job of keeping me alive. The same is true of Soylent. While I won’t claim that it’s truly 100% healthy and complete, it does a wonderful job of replacing those one or two daily meals when I would otherwise spend more time and money and eat something less healthy. I am similarly enamored of functional foods and drinks such as bulletproof coffee, Super Coffee, and Catalina Crunch. Overall, for this category, it’s a clear yes.
Entertainment and Education
While I rarely consume video content, I’m an avid consumer of text- and audio-based content. Digital access to great books, magazines, and podcasts has allowed me to consume tons of excellent content wherever I am without having to carry around reams of paper. Digital textbooks made school easier and more convenient for the same reason.
I listen to 10x as many audiobooks as I read paper books. I’ve taken a number of free online courses, and while I don’t think the experience replaces old-fashioned in person learning, it does augment formal learning and has allowed me to continue to explore topics I didn’t study in school and wouldn’t otherwise study. This one is also a clear yes, but I want to add the caveat that, for most people, I fear attempting to replace formal education entirely with online study may be quite dangerous at this stage.
For years I’ve made heavy use of sharing economy services such as ride sharing, car sharing, and home rentals while traveling. While Airbnb faces a number of challenges in the runup to its planned IPO, my experience with the platform has been overall quite positive. It’s saved me a lot of money many times, and it’s also enabled me to visit places I would otherwise never have visited, usually far from city centers. Similarly, in my experience, ride sharing services such as Uber and Lyft generally offer a significantly better experience than traditional taxis for the same cost or less.
On the other hand, my experience with other types of sharing economy and on-demand services have been much less positive. Food delivery services, in particular, seem like a waste of time and money. They charge more than ordering directly from a restaurant and their fees are exorbitant and unpredictable—and in spite of this, they’re nearly all losing money. I can live without them.
We should be mindful of the fact that the experience is not always as good for the providers as the platforms would have us believe. Sharing economy services have definitely made life easier for me and I’m hopeful that we can find a way to make them sustainably beneficial for both services providers and consumers.
I want to briefly mention a few other technologies that haven’t had a large, direct impact on my life but that have had an indirect impact and/or stand to do so in the foreseeable future.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention blockchain, cryptocurrency, smart contracts, and Web3 technology since it’s the thing I work on full time. While I think these technologies have incredible potential, they’re simply too new to have made much of an impact on my life or on the lives of most people I know—even those who work on them full time as I do. There’s clearly value in seizure-resistant, censorship-resistant, self-sovereign digital money like bitcoin, especially if you happen to live somewhere like Argentina, Venezuela, or Zimbabwe. Aside from this use case, however, blockchain does not yet have a “killer app” and it’s still in the process of finding product market fit. Most of the things being built on blockchain today are still toys. Working on this cutting-edge technology brings me enormous joy and inspiration, and being exposed to the culture and ideas of the blockchain and Web3 community has totally changed how I think about privacy, my data and the existing computing and application stack. It’s made me question even bigger things like banks, the role of money, and how human society is structured and governed. For all that, it hasn’t had much of a direct impact on my life—at least not yet. But I think it will.
Cryptography has advanced by leaps and bounds during my lifetime. At the same time, it’s the sort of enabling technology that tends to be invisible. While I wouldn’t say it’s had a large direct impact on my life, behind the scenes it quietly powers many of the other technologies I described here including communication and collaboration tools, blockchain, sharing economy, entertainment, and health technology. It also makes it possible to shop and transact online, a big innovation in its own right. It’s right up there with computers and the Internet themselves, and the software that powers the Web, in terms of the impact it’s had on enabling modern, digital life.
Life sciences, from minimally-invasive surgery to implants to cancer treatments to pharmaceuticals to gene editing, have developed rapidly during my lifetime and they continue to do so. There’s no doubt that this has a direct, mostly positive impact on the lives of millions if not billions of people around the world. While the direct impact of these technologies on my life has been limited so far, they’ve saved the lives of people close to me. And the direct impact is likely to increase soon, for me and billions of others, with one of the biggest developments in life science ever: the development of vaccines for SARS-CoV-2 in a few short months.
This is another example of an enabling technology that powers much of the modern economy that’s mostly invisible unless you work in manufacturing, supply chain, or e-commerce. Companies that manufactured and sold consumer goods, from toaster ovens to cars to computers, used to need to manage large inventories and big, expensive warehouses. Over the past few decades, better communications, software, and logistics networks have enabled these firms to outsource manufacturing and optimize their supply chains. This makes consumer goods much cheaper and allows us to receive them much more quickly. It also leads to shortages in times of excess demand, like right now.
What about all of the other fancy technology that’s been developed during my lifetime? What about electric and self-driving cars, AI and machine learning, VR, and 3D printing? In their present form, these all feel like “nice to haves,” and none has had a big, direct impact on my life so far. This isn’t to say that they won’t have a bigger impact as they mature!
Having the knowledge and tools to maintain a healthy diet, being able to work from anywhere, having cheap, near-immediate access to great books and other digital content, and being able to travel more cheaply and conveniently are just a few concrete examples of the ways in which modern technology has had a positive impact on my life. However, the case for communication tools, which have probably had the biggest impact of any technology that’s emerged during my lifetime, is much less clear-cut.
Has technology made my life better overall? I think the answer is a reserved “yes”—with the caveat that interfacing constructively with modern technology requires a lot of mindfulness, something most of us have very little training in, and something that’s very much still a work in progress for me. I suspect this is true of any sufficiently advanced, sufficiently powerful technology: we must be cautious how, where, and why we use it, to make sure that we’re using it in ways that are beneficial to us and those around us. Powerful technology is like a sharp knife: fantastically useful if used carefully and with intent, incredibly dangerous in the wrong hands, or if used carelessly or for the wrong purpose.
As we design, build, and use more and more powerful technology, it’s critical that we consider not only theoretical applications and implications but also the concrete, lived experience of interacting with that technology. Only in this way can we ensure that it does as much good and as little harm as possible.
What concrete impact has technology had on your life? Do you feel that it’s made your life better in concrete ways? Leave a comment and let me know how.