It is easy to get the impression that the current state of the computer world is the pinnacle of progress. At any tech conference you will find celebrations of innovative solutions, frameworks, or apps that generate, store, transform, or distribute data more conveniently, easier, and faster than ever. We celebrate technology for freeing us from our work, giving us more time with our families, making us more creative, getting us from A to B faster, and making the world a better place.
With all this recent tech development and innovation, shouldn’t we be living in an amazing world? We are automating more and more of our work, becoming wealthier and more connected. We keep trying to make everything faster, smoother, more compelling, even addicting.
So why do we always feel short on time, overwhelmed, and overworked? Why are people so connected, yet so isolated and lonely? Why are we enclosed in filtered news bubbles and social media feeds attuned to our ideological affinities, losing the ability to have our own opinions? Why are so many people worried about losing their jobs? Why is education in deep confusion about how to educate our children? Why are we spied upon by governments, big corporations, employers, and schools?
Let’s pose the question differently: When was the last time you felt real joy when using a computer?
The hard truth is that our immersion in technology is quietly reducing human interactions.
From an engineer’s mindset, human interaction is often perceived as complicated, inefficient, noisy, and slow. Part of making something frictionless is getting the human part out of the way. The consequences of this are dire, and visible for everyone.
Here are a few examples.
While waiting for the next train we stare at our devices and avoid talking to the person next to us, possibly missing out on a genuine connection.
We use online ordering and delivery services to avoid sitting alone in a restaurant, because we think that would be weird, and people might wonder why we don’t have any friends.
We want driverless cars, because they will eventually drive more safely than humans, which will also eliminate taxi, truck, and delivery drivers. Meanwhile ride-hailing apps tell the driver our address or preferred route, freeing us from needing to have a conversation with them.
We use online stores to avoid awkward conversations with shop assistants when we don’t want to buy an item after trying it on.
We use social media, where everybody seems to have a perfect life, in order to avoid the harsh conversations of real life, increasing envy and unhappiness at the same time.
We use video games and virtual reality to lose ourselves in virtual worlds where we don’t have to talk to our friends. And yes, some games allow you to interact with friends or strangers, but the interaction itself is still virtual.
We use robots in our factories, which means no personalities to deal with, no workers agitating for overtime, and no illnesses. No liability, healthcare, taxes, or social security to take care of.
We use online dating apps so we don’t have to learn or practice our dating skills, and don’t have to be in uncomfortable situations where yes means no or no means yes. We even seem to lose the ability to say “hi” to a stranger on the street or in a bar — just swipe right, and you’re a stud!
We get our movies, music, and books from digital media providers which offer algorithmic recommendations, so you don’t even have to ask your friends what music they like. Recommendation engines know what you like and will suggest the perfect match, or at least perfect for spending the weekend at home alone.
I’m sure the creators of these solutions only had our best interest in mind, and people really do benefit from technical solutions, so I’m not trying to pick on them. But there is a built-in assumption that whatever a computer can do, it should do. And we aren’t supposed to ask the purpose or limitations. So everyone uses computers — and is used by them — for purposes that seem to know no boundaries.
Instead of augmenting humans as imagined by the fathers of early personal computing, our computers have turned out to be mind-numbing consumption devices. What happened to the bicycle for the mind that Steve Jobs envisioned? We’ve forgotten that the computer is a tool that was meant to make our lives better, not to transform us into cogs in the machine.
The sad implication is that our technology is driving us apart. But humans don’t exist as segregated individuals. We’re social animals. We’re part of networks. Our random accidents and behaviors make life enjoyable. Instead, we are moving further away from technological solutions that could bring us together, away from each other as people, and away from humanity.
These days more than ever, people are desperate to have real connections. To feel heard, understood, cared about, and maybe even loved.
Why don’t we use our technologies to augment our most human capabilities, to make us better humans?
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