This is a guest post by of Cardiff Met University.
Computer science is changing our world in many positive ways (automation, communication, mobility, connectivity, efficiency…). The technologies it drives have changed not only how we see and do things but also how we live and work. Despite incontestable benefits, technology also brings a range of challenges, particularly as technology gives us new experiences which can change who we are and what it means to be human. As Illing (2018) highlights ‘Our technology is developing so much faster than our culture and our institutions, and the gap between these things can only grow so far before society becomes dangerously unstable‘.
As a technologist, it is often difficult to foresee or predict the impact of our creations on society. However, more so than ever, I feel it is important for us to remember our human values when we design and develop the science. The new technologies we create need to take on board our society’s moral and ethical values and in doing so, need to prioritize human well-being. Without our ‘wellbeing’, what good are any of the technologies? What good is the cutting-edge science?
In the UK today, 88% of adults are known to use the internet, spending an average of one day a week online (Ofcom, 2018). Imagine, twenty-four hours a week in cyberspace – essentially a virtual world created by millions of connected computers, servers, routers, switches, and cables. This is a space characterized mainly by processes and technology rather than by the physical properties normally associated with real-world existence (with different textures, distances, sizes, smells and so on). Yet cyberspace is clearly appealing for many; indeed, for some people real life is no longer enough – the smartphone makes it so easy for us to get that virtual fix, providing a pocket-sized gateway to cyberspace.
McLuhan (1964) described technology as extensions of ourselves; he spoke about how we as technologists shape the tools and then the tools go on to shape us. The smartphone has truly become an extension of ourselves, it is with us every minute of the day, it is the last thing that most of us see before we go to sleep at night, and the first thing we see when we wake up. You only need to look up from your own phone to see the impact of this device on society. We cannot deny that cyberspace made readily accessible through the smartphone has become such an essential part of our existence that life without it is for some, totally unbearable.
‘If technology is getting smarter, does that mean humans are getting dumber?” (McNutt, 2016). I believe that the more time we spend on our phones in cyberspace, the more impact it will have on us as humans (i.e. how we think, feel and behave). Aiken (2017) in her book ‘The Cyber effect’ describes a scenario on a train where a young mother is holding a baby and that baby is staring adoringly up at the mother, but the mother whose eyes are exclusively fixed on her mobile phone, does not make eye contact. Aiken asks: What messages are we giving our children? What will the impact of this technology and our use of it be on the development of our children? Pells (2017) goes one step further by describing the act of ‘giving your child a smartphone is like giving them a gram of cocaine’.
As a technologist, I ask the question, do we – intentionally or unintentionally – want to be designing and developing technology which will destroy the essence of our humanity? During an interview, which aired April 28, 2004, Zuckerberg described Facebook as a place to ‘find some interesting information about people’ and technically, it does this very efficiently, it allows people from all over the world to make connections. Yet, did he ever envision or even consider Facebook as a tool that would nurture depression, anxiety, cyberbullying, disinhibition and the fear of missing out (FOMO), to name a few, amongst its community of users? Looking specifically at our experiences in cyberspace: what happens to our sense of personal privacy? Why are we suddenly less safety conscious when we go online? And why have we suddenly become less patient? Is it the result of the instant gratification effect that cyberspace so easily affords? Moreover, why are we less inhibited online? Why have we become less empathetic? Research shows that excessive selfie postings are linked to higher levels of narcissism and lack of empathy for others (Seidman, 2015).
Without a doubt, technology has already started to change the way we behave. Online, we are now more gullible but also, as a result of the “Google Effect”, we are remembering less. I truly believe we need to stop and think about what is actually happening to us when we go online. We need to ask the question, what is it about cyberspace that is nurturing an epidemic of cyberbullying? And perhaps more importantly, why can’t we break away? Why are we becoming more and more addicted yet at the same time ‘numb’ to the effects that excessive interaction in cyberspace is having on us?
As technologists, we need to start addressing these questions. We need to think beyond the functional goals (and technical problems) and focus on the bigger picture. This will involve (re)building the trust between humans and our technology that is needed for a fruitful yet healthy relationship with technology in our daily lives (IEEE, 2017). My current work with Dr. Phil Legg (University of West Of England) on the design and development of a CyberNav (an online navigation support loosely based on the idea of the satellite navigation system) explores the concept of putting the human back in control. We feel that people need to be more aware of what exactly is going on when they exist and interact online and we are working towards giving them more sensible control of their own online experience.
In 2013, Snowden said ‘A child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all. They’ll never know what it means to have a private moment to themselves, an unrecorded, unanalysed thought. And that’s a problem because privacy matters, privacy is what allows us to determine who we are and who we want to be’ (Walker, 2013). If we don’t start putting things like trust, privacy, empathy, self-worth and ultimately human wellbeing at the forefront of technology, our children will grow up in a world where ‘distraction is the norm, consistent attention is impossible, imagination is unnecessary, and memory is inhibited‘ (Taylor, 2012).
I believe that technologists (including myself) have reached a point where we now need to switch our focus from performance and efficiency. We need to apply human values and morals, to determine how to harness and control technology for the benefit and well being of humanity. We need human technology.
• Aiken, M. (2016).The Cyber Effect: A Pioneering Cyberpsychologist Explains How Human Behavior Changes Online. New York: Spiegel
• Huddleston, T. (2018). Here’s how 19-year-old Mark Zuckerberg described ‘The Facebook’ in his first TV interview.
• IEEE (2017). The IEEE global initiative on ethics of autonomous and intelligent systems. ethically aligned design: A vision for prioritizing human well-being with autonomous and intelligent systems, version 2.
• Illing (2018). Technology isn’t just changing society — it’s changing what it means to be human.
• McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York:Signet,
• McNutt, R. (2016) Quotes about Future.
• Ofcom (2018). Adults’ Media Use and Attitudes Report
• Pells, R. (2017). Giving your Child a Smartphone is Like Giving them a Gram of Cocaine, Says Top Addiction Expert. Independent, June 7.
• Seidman, G. (2015). Are Selfies a Sign of Narcissism and Psychopathy?
• Taylor, J. (2012). How Technology is Changing the Way Children Think and Focus.