The Inexperienced Technologist

Image credit: peoplematters

In 1943, an American psychologist by the name Abraham Maslow developed a “Hierarchy of Needs”, classifying men’s needs into five levels. Based on his model, it can be said that I began my journey into this world already fulfilling the first two needs, the physiological and safety needs. Indeed, I am extremely privileged to live a stable life in Singapore with an excellent standard of living compared to countless around the world today who are still struggling to survive. I wish to say that I capitalised on my good fortune at birth and avoided or overcame suffering early in life; regrettably, I failed to do so. The era in which we live, characterised by the prevalence of digital technology, has brought about its own set of problems.

Before examining the problems, we should understand the two defining traits of digital technology today. The first is the mass adoption of it; the second, the humanisation of it. We all recognise the former, but the latter is perhaps the more interesting characteristic, especially since it led to the former. Humanisation of technology refers to making originally foreign and inaccessible technologies familiar and comfortable for the average person to use. A further step can be taken with regards to familiarity; technology begins to take on human traits, appealing to emotions and the human psyche.

The first step towards humanising technology was taken in the late 1960s with the creation of the graphical user interface (G.U.I.) by American engineer Douglas Carl Engelbart for computer-human interaction. Before, a computer was accessed by typing text known as “commands”, into a “command line” field, which the computer reads instructions from. Users then had to learn many different complex commands to operate tasks. The conception of the G.U.I. made the computer easier to use. A mouse pointer was created as an intuitive method of accessing different functions of a computer, making use of humans’ natural ability in spatial awareness. Computer interfaces grew a desktop, designed to resemble an actual physical desktop. To make the G.U.I. even more accessible, a concept known as skeuomorphism was applied. Iconography was designed to visually replicate the meanings of their real-life counterparts. For instance, folders on the desktop resembled physical folders, while functions such as delete and search are represented by the bin and magnifying glass iconographies respectively.

With this development, computers became much more accessible to the general user. However, computers were generally still considered as specialised tools mainly used by corporations. This continued till the 1990s. In the meantime, a new idea in product development was conceived within a company known as Apple. Steve Jobs, the Chief Executive Officer then, decided to turn his attention from the electronic specifications of the computer to its aesthetic design. He worked closely with designer Jony Ive, and in 1998, launched a computer named the iMac G3. The iMac differentiated itself by its rounded shell and striking colours, instead of the more industrial and faceless appearance of its competitors, creating a friendly look that spoke to people’s emotions. This idea worked, and the iMac took the consumer market by storm. Its success was unprecedented; in 139 days, 800,000 units of it were sold (Apple, 1999). This led to scrutiny on its development process, and consequently, a huge shift towards a more design-centric approach to product development. Designers in many technological companies were suddenly given more authority, sometimes even surpassing that of engineers. With designers in charge, the trend towards humanising technology would grow exponentially in the next two decades, vastly increasing the user base and forever changing the relationship between technology and its users.

I was one of amongst many, having grown up in this digital age, who was unfortunately negatively affected by this change. Since my early schooling years, I was known to my teachers as a quiet and serious child, a stark contrast to my mischievous and energetic self at home. I attribute this trait due to my discomfort in being forced to interact with people that I do not know on a personal level, which basically consisted of my teachers and classmates. At the same time, I came to know about electronic gadgets, and became obsessed with a new breed of devices — the smartphone. Lacking the awareness and ability then to solve these issues then, they gradually turned into my greatest source of suffering. I grew increasingly tense and introverted, retreating from the physical world into the digital. My free time can be summarised as staring at my phone screen or being unfocussed, my mind constantly thinking about the latest gadgets. Finally, the growing unhappiness of my social environment and unhealthy obsession with technology, with a final push from a tiny voice of wisdom at the back of my mind, led to a climactic moment where I smashed my second smartphone as a symbolic attempt to end my downward spiral towards greater suffering.

Thankfully, the financial cost of the phone was worth it. As I reverted back to a more basic phone for a year and a half and the idealised image of digital technology in my mind was gone, my life changed for the better. I also had a newfound aim to understand the digital technologies that I loved. Thus, in university, I naturally chose to study computer science, which is the study of the logic and mathematics used to program and manipulate computers.

Now, through experience, I see the problem of addiction to technology. The rapid acceptance and integration of many technologies into the daily lives of people poses a danger of immature reception. This is especially so for the youth who are still developing awareness, and are generally more impressionable. Taking inspiration from German philosopher Karl Marx, I argue that technology is the opium of the people. Before proceeding, we should examine why people are addicted to technology.

Firstly, digital technology in the form of social media applications are designed to promote addictive behaviour (Andersson, 2018). As these applications are free to use and companies profit through data mining and advertisement revenue, user attention becomes the product. Development teams implement features like infinite scrolling to encourage action before cognitive awareness, and randomised notifications, a slot-machine addiction-mechanism used in gambling. So effective are these methods in promoting addiction that a phenomenon known as “phantom phone sensations” (Sauer, Eimler, Maafi, Pietrek & Krämer, N, 2015) occurs, in which people believe that their phone is vibrating in their pockets when they are, in fact, not. The serious implications have recently led to a new bill in the United States to ban these mechanisms (Hawley, 2019).

Secondly, rapid advancements in digital technology create a false sense of empowerment to users. Unlike older industries like the automotive industry, the young digital industry has much room for growth. Frequent innovation and sizable improvements to modern technology, such as smartphones gaining higher-resolution screens, water-resistance, more cameras, and the latest craze, foldable screen technology, provide never-ending promises of achieving one’s potential. When faced with problems such as unproductivity, lack of skill in shooting photos, or poor social status, caused by internal insufficiencies, people turn to these external material goods as solutions. Perhaps a faster and newer phone would help them accomplish tasks faster. Perhaps a camera upgrade is what is needed to become a better photographer. And perhaps the latest and greatest gadget would elevate others’ opinions of them. As such, many become addicted, relieving their short-term dissatisfaction through regular acquisition of new gadgets.

Finally, the instantaneity of digital technology creates an easy way to escape problems in real life. A bad day can be lightened by a comedy video or online shopping. Boredom can be countered by a computer game. Loneliness can be forgotten by engaging in social networking sites. There are endless options, always ready to satisfy the desires of people, causing addiction. A study revealed that online chat and forums are ranked the second most significant factor that increases the risk of being addicted to the internet (Kuss, Griffiths & Binder, 2013). Indeed, there appears to be no need for struggle and effort to solve problems when a “quick fix”, a temporary way to escape, is always available. Why experience the hardship of confronting a problem when one can distract himself from it? Why suffer when one only lives once? With such strong temptations of instant gratification to be had from digital technology, it is no surprise that many become addicted to it.

From the two reasons above, it should be clear that like opium, technology can relieve short-term suffering. Yet, like opium, it is addictive, and has unhealthy implications in the long run. Professor of neuroradiology at Korea University, Dr Hyung Suk Seo, discovered that addicted individuals had a significantly higher ratio of gamma aminobutyric acid in their brains, which causes drowsiness and anxiety (RSNA, 2017). Additionally, logical reasoning would show that chasing new technology to solve personal issues, without active engagement to do so, would only prolong suffering and undermine long-term well-being. This is aptly explained by a line from renowned photographer Ansel Adams, “there’s nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept”.

Luckily for me, addiction was my only problem. Sadly, it is not the only danger to well-being that technology brings. An idea from philosophy known as self-estrangement is another. American professor Melvin Seeman described self-estrangement as one of the five distinct aspects of alienation (Richard, 1970). It is a form of emotional and psychological distance of self. The problem of self-estrangement is tied to a modern form of humanisation of technology, social networking sites. Social media transcends the previous forms of humanisation of technology through the idea of creating online identities.

The function of social media is simply to replicate social interactions on a digital domain which offers a global audience that is not geographically or temporally bound. In these sites, the very function of profile-creation allows users to start on a clean slate. Users become in control of how they would like the world to know them. People generally tend to design their personas based on an idealised version of themselves, with many feeling pressured to do so. A study revealed that even mothers feel socially pressured to display a perfect life with their newborns when it is not true (Gil-Or, Levi-Belz & Turel, 2015). Ultimately, the combination of a new positive identity and engagement with a wider group of people leads to self-estrangement, as individuals feel a widening gap between their false, online self and their real self. In fact, multiple studies have found that self-esteem is negatively associated with time spent on social networking sites such as Facebook (Bergagna & Tartaglia, 2018). Surprisingly, the German philosopher Friedrich Hegel’s definition of self-estrangement, at a time before the rise of social media, was piercingly accurate in describing the results for the research mentioned. To Hegel, self-estrangement is a state when an individual is alienated from himself and his emotions, loses his purpose in life, objectifies himself and negatively views his capabilities (Marx, 1844). Without effort to reconcile the two identities, individuals would suffer from living disintegrated. In this view, it is somewhat ironic that the de-alienation (in common language) of technology and people led to alienation (in the philosophical term).

The recent years have seen the growth of a new form of technology that further personalises it: recommendation algorithms. Recommendation algorithms work by indexing the pieces of information that the user interacts with, then presenting similar content to the user in the future. Common forms of recommendation algorithms include e-commerce product suggestions, personalised advertisements, and the most important being news (including opinion pieces) recommendations. In my view, news recommendations are harmful to the well-being of people. The current basic form of algorithms creates an echo chamber that intensifies the initial few sentiments that an individual has, while decreasing the likelihood of the individual being exposed to different, opposing, perspectives. At worst, the user would be unaware of the subtle but powerful influence the recommendation algorithm has over his thoughts. An individual could turn biased and increasingly opinionated, negatively reacting to others without the similar thoughts. Worse, individuals who are emotional vulnerable may be exposed to depressing content. Overall, current forms of recommendation algorithms narrow the mind and encourages herd mentality unknowingly, which can lead to conflict and unhappiness. Due to the subtle effect, it may be difficult for one to detect the source that feeds the sentiments, which increases the severity of the problem.

In an ideal world, technology would be framed as a powerful tool that, if used in a mature manner, can aid in improving quality of life such as by connecting people and democratising knowledge. However, the fundamental idea to bridge the gap between technology and people by making it more familiar and comfortable, instead of through means of teaching and understanding of its inner workings and purpose, has an effect of framing technology as an extension, or even, a reflection of an individuals’ personality. In this essay I hope to have provided a convincing argument, through real-world examples and some experiences of my own, why the opposite effect is observed — the dangers of humanisation (de-alienation) of technology, namely, addiction, alienation, and limited exposure to knowledge, in the lens of happiness and suffering.

The further integration of technology in the very fabric of our lives would be inevitable. Nations are starting to make smart cities and driverless vehicles a reality. Research groups are at the same time building more human-like artificial intelligence as digital assistants, with the next milestone being the ability to cater to our emotional needs. It is no imagination that technology would infiltrate more into our private lives, influencing our innermost thoughts and emotions. As an inexperienced species to modern technology, I believe, as a computer science student, that it is pertinent to have a solid foundational understanding of how technology works, so as to be able to see through the humanisation into the binary bits and mathematics behind it; to view it simply as an incredibly powerful tool in a detached manner. There is no better way to do so than to take courses relating to programming and to read more books from software engineers on how things work and come together. I urge the reader to do so. After all, seeing is believing, and once we see through the illusion of humanised technology, we would be able to use it in a healthy way and achieve greater happiness.

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