The question was an intriguing one. What are important social causes, where technologists might make a meaningful contribution? I sat with that for a bit, then a different question began forming in my mind.
How about addressing some of the problems that we in tech created or exacerbated over the last few decades?
Uh, oh. Let’s back up, then elaborate.
First things first
I like technology, a lot. I have been working professionally in tech, specifically in software engineering and in and around tech entrepreneurship for more than twenty years. I have worked in numerous different functions, on different products and initiatives.
I care a lot about the craft, the profession, the industry. I like to think I pay attention and strive to learn, to understand.
There for sure have been ups and downs. Overall though, I feel fortunate, I have gotten to work and participate in this industry over the years. I continue to deeply believe in its possibility.
There is so much potential for technology to make people’s lives better, for us to create meaningful value, to effect positive change. Perhaps advance society, humanity.
I am a technologist and I am optimistic about the future we can create.
That said, it is not all good.
Technology and our use of it has caused a lot of pain, too. This is not even about overtly hostile technology, clearly designed to deliberately cause harm or discomfort — though there clearly is plenty of that.
The specific type of adverse outcome I want to discuss here is, where the application of a technology resulted in creating distance. Often that is not at all the intention, but it is what it is.
These days, technology has contributed to challenge for both. Let’s take a look.
You and them
How many friends do you have? Do you speak with them often? How many of your neighbors do you know by name? Do you generally prefer communicating by text, phone or email? How many in-person interactions do you get in a typical day?
There is a loneliness epidemic and we are all susceptible to it. It is not just concerning; the consequences are stark. People pay the price with their mental as well as their physical health. It is related to societal ills and extremist views.
Of course, there are ways in which technology has helped connect us, bring us closer together. But without a doubt there are many, many ways, in which technology has contributed to distancing us from each other, has exacerbated loneliness.
The engagement and filter algorithms of social news feeds that sort us into invisible bubbles, having us understand others less. Job screening and interview processes that are increasingly automated, at times handing much of the process over to computerized systems, such that we might not encounter an actual human at all. Customer service that have evolved into elaborate systems, putting most of the burden for the service back to the customer. Some services truly do bring new convenience into our lives. Perhaps you pay a little extra and have groceries delivered to you. They will likely just be dropped outside your door. Not only do you not go to the store, facing traffic, other shoppers and the cashiers, you don’t even meet the person who dropped of the bags at your home. The price for the convenience is not just the fee you pay.
The list goes on.
To connect means to disconnect. In this case, connecting, being online – often means disconnecting from ourselves and our inner lives.
Devices, sites and services, even if utilized for helpful uses are often also optimized for engagement and distraction. The more we engage with them, the more we allow notifications, pings and alerts to draw us back, the less we are able to spend time alone, to think and reflect.
The more effective the distraction machine, the less we are in control of our time. Attention wanes, we can glance at the headlines, but not read the books.
There remains a vague sense of hurried busyness and we might wonder, where we are in the midst of it all. It is a type of loneliness, too, but clearly different.
I like thinking about distance, often as a way of gaining or articulating perspective. Distance established informs our perspective. Similarly here, the distance created or worsened directly or indirectly by technology and its applications affects our perspective – on us, on others, the opinions we form.
This matters a lot. It is a worthy cause to invest yourself in.