Widgets Magazine


Has tech gone too far?

It’s generally assumed that technology is a good thing. The word itself brings up images of unprecedented inventions, medical breakthroughs and a more streamlined life. But do those images truly reflect the impact technology has had on our lives? The answer is a lot more complicated than some may think.

The entire notion of technology being a force for good is based on a two-fold premise. First: the almost-universally held assumption that technology makes our lives easier. Second: It is widely understood that tech raises the standard of living for all.

Generally speaking, these things are taken for granted. Given, however, the current attitudes toward Silicon Valley and the tech industry at large, these are statements that are worth examining. Because while we often choose to focus on the material consumption or ever-increasing length of life, we rarely consider what it means to have a fulfilling life. In more ways than one, technological advancements fail in this regard.

Questioning the benefits of technology is downright sacrilegious in Silicon Valley, a region more defined by its relationship with tech than any other on Earth. This is a place where technology has fundamentally changed the human experience. In under 30 years, the Bay Area’s identity has shifted from one of diversity, creativity and industrialism to one dominated by a single, plugged-in industry. Given the all-encompassing nature of technology here, doubts and questions are not encouraged – they’re essential.

It is indisputable that the tech sector has improved many aspects of the human experience. Information is more accessible than ever, education is more equitable, data is easier to obtain and analyze and the burdens of past generations have largely been eased by new developments. And in that same vein, only a true sadist could ever really believe that much of the last human innovation over the last 200,000 years has been negative. After all, without these advancements we’d all still be hunting and gathering – or worse. But despite those truisms, it’s worth asking if – and more importantly, when – technology has gone too far.

It is nearly impossible to define when we’ve innovated too much. After all, if tech is a good thing, we can never really get too much of it, right? Metrics would suggest, though, that that’s not entirely true. Studies consistently show that people are less happy now than they were in the past, be that five, 30 or 100 years ago. Reasons cited include the deterioration of relationships and increased working hours, both direct consequences of tech’s proliferation.

Additionally, psychologists consistently contend that the key to happiness is not more but less. Simplicity, rather than materialism, seems to be the key. Technology flies right in the face of this premise.

And if that is still not enough, then what explains the clinically tested fact that the elderly are happier than any other age demographic? Those same 60- and 70-year-olds who can’t operate a television remote are much more content than their ever-plugged-in grandchildren. Is it perhaps because their perspective enables them to see what’s really important in life, and to recognize that what we have is pretty good? There’s no real way to prove this, but the list of plausible explanations is a short one.   

What is the point of innovation? In 2017, does technology still make us happier? Does the relentless pursuit for more truly improve our lives? Do I need my washing machine to connect to Wi-Fi? Most people can agree that at a certain point, automating and streamlining every aspect of our lives is unnecessary. But when do we, and have we already, hit that point?

Almost all of these questions are too complex to truly elicit good answers. But nonetheless, it’s a healthy mental exercise to truly consider what we need more of in life. Personally, I’m not convinced that technology is the answer.

Since the dawn of the industrial revolution, technology has raised our expectations for happiness. It has limited the depths of our relationships and created a society where individualism thrives while the collective suffers. As technology has become more commonplace, wealth inequality has proliferated and happiness has declined. All of this is not to say that tech is evil. It’s just that we need to reconsider our constant lust for more.

The onslaught of technology has given us a lot. It’s taken a great deal away as well. At some point, though, we have to ask: When have the costs become too great? Words alone will not stop the relentless forward march of progress. It’s quite probable that nothing will. But given that eventuality, there may come a day in the future when we will look at all that we have and realize that it’s too much. If, or rather, when that day comes, we will yearn for days gone by. But by then, it will be too late.
Contact Harrison Hohman at hhohman ‘at’ stanford.edu.