What kind of a question is this anyhow?
To start with I want to set the stage for how to interpret the question. I was sitting next to a white haired man who proclaimed he "loves watching Fox News" (because that tells him - directed at Lee - "how your fellow citizens are really like"), and he certainly left me with the impression that he was very happy about that.
This reminded me of an article I read last month about a criticism of 'educational' children's TV by Aric Sigman, a US psychologist living in Britain. He was quoted (in this article) by saying
"Television makers will always justify themselves by saying that children enjoy their programs," Sigman said. "They say they make children smile and laugh.
"But children will also smile if you give them cocaine. The argument that children enjoy something or laugh at something is not the basis on which you decide what is good for them."
Notwithstanding the question of whether or not that specific BBC program Sigman was referring to can compete with cocaine, the point is well made. There are lots of examples for behaviour that make humans happy on the short term, but on the long term will lead to more unhappiness. Addictions of any kind fall into that category. That's why people try to give up smoking. That's why parents tell their children not to eat chocolate all day long. And that's why by now people make new years resolutions not to check their emails all ten minutes, and the Departments of the Canadian government urge their employees to turn off BlackBerries over night. Because despite the dopamine kick when you have new mail, on the long run it can have side-effects like increased stress and attention deficit.
Thus in the following I will understand happiness as that of the sustainable kind, such that it does not on the long run lead to damage. I believe that was meant with the question raised, but given some of the comments I just wanted to clarify this in the beginning.
Do you want to live in the last century?
One of the most frequent arguments I have heard for why technology increases happiness is that the circumstances of our living have objectively considerably improved during the last centuries. Since I am not a technology enthusiast, I have repeatedly encountered the question that was also raised in this meeting "But who would want to live in the last century?". Underlying this criticism is the implicit assertion that people living in the last century must have been less happy than we are now.
To give credit to the steady increase in life-expectancy, Ruut Veenhoven proposed to use the 'Happy Life-Expectancy' (HLE) as a measure, which is the life-expectancy in years multiplied by average happiness - a factor that increases with improving medical supply. There are factors that are absolute about happiness. For example seeing children suffer from illness or war is certainly a cause of pain that, if avoided, objectively increases happiness. The same goes for generally covering all basic human needs like clean water, food, housing.
Most of these basic needs are fulfilled for the majority of people living in North America and Europe . Further economical growth does not correlate with happiness in any obvious way. As Robert Hill from the University of New Brunswick puts it "Measures of average happiness in industrialized countries typically show little or no upward trend over time, despite substantial growth in real per capita incomes."
I therefore want to mention two other factors besides the absolute level of the circumstances that remain important even in industrialized countries with a high living standard
Change in itself has a positive meaning for many of us. Stagnation results in frustration, and lack of novelty is perceived as a troublesome crisis. This is not so surprising as contempt and satisfaction with the state of things can't have been much of an evolutionary advantage over those cave-men who where constantly trying out new ways to use nature for their purpose. I.e. the time derivative matters.
Knowing (or believing) that other people live in better circumstances, are happier, wealthier, prettier, have greener grass, more sex, and whiter teeth lowers the own happiness. I.e. the spatial derivative matters as well.
[If anybody can point me towards references supporting/defeating the importance of these factors, this would be greatly appreciated.]
How people weight these both factors is of course individually different, and differs also among nations. The question of improvement for example is very much tied to hope and faith, and it is in this regard quite interesting that a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research asserts
"while "poor and left-wing Europeans" are unhappy about inequality, [i]n the United States, in contrast, the poor may believe in "social mobility" (so that being poor now doesn't mean they will be poor in the future) and thus be less concerned than Europeans about inequality."
(One may wonder however how much attention should be paid to a study by a Bureau of Economic Research which claims that believing in "social mobility" -aka the American dream - is the way towards happiness. Says the middle-class, middle-left, middle-European. It is also worthwhile to note that such happiness which relies on psychological factors is vulnerable to ego blows like e.g. an economic crisis.)
Taking into account factor A), since we all live in the 21st century and know how our life is like, even if we would be willing to accept a lowered life-expectancy we most likely wouldn't be happy to be thrown into a lower standard environment. Happiness is path dependent - it doesn't only depend on where you are and what you see, but it depends on where you've been before and what you've seen before. It is an interesting question whether it makes you unhappier about your own situation to imagine the potentially much better circumstances of living people might have in the year 2200.
Interestingly, there was one person in this meeting who indeed said he'd like to live around the time of Maxwell when electricity was invented. I think he made a good choice there, it must have been a tremendously interesting time with a lot of change and progress.
To come back to the effects of technology: Technology changes our world incredibly fast. Think of how much has changed in your life within the last 15 years. You take your cellphone everywhere, can log onto a wireless in almost every café, and have your music collection stored on an MP3 player smaller than your hand. Many of us just like to try new things. I am not much of a gadget person (in that I hardly ever buy something) but since early childhood I have a fascination for buttons that in some sense still exists. You'd push and something would happen! I just loved pushing buttons of all kind, whether that was the elevator, the stereo, or everything on the car's dashboard. Today I see adult men pushing buttons on fancy looking electronic equipment in the Futurestore. Falling in love with remote controls probably isn't encoded in our DNA but playing with and understanding new toys likely is.
And we get used to new gadgets so fast. We no longer wonder when somebody on the streets talks into the air - because we know he most likely wears a headset and is on the phone. We have navigation systems with GPS, sleep with our cell-phones or BlackBerries, and pay our bills online. I've gotten used to people who start typing on their handheld in the middle of a conversation, and I am reasonably sure I have several friends who check their emails while sitting on the loo.
"Some people who are persistently wired say it is not uncommon for them to be sitting in a meeting and using a hand-held device to exchange instant messages surreptitiously -- with someone in the same meeting. Others may be sitting at a desk and engaging in conversation on two phones, one at each ear. At social events, or in the grandstand at their children's soccer games, they read news feeds on mobile devices instead of chatting with actual human beings.
These speed demons say they will fall behind if they disconnect, but they also acknowledge feeling something much more powerful: they are compulsively drawn to the constant stimulation provided by incoming data. Call it O.C.D. -- online compulsive disorder.
The article quoted above is from 2003.
It is this constant novelty and improvement about technology that keeps people happy when their basic needs are fulfilled, not the actual level of complexity of the technology. The twist is now if one identifies technology = change = improvement one is tempted to believe it is technology that makes us happy. Needless to say, it is far from necessary that technology will always lead to improvement of the quality of our living that increases happiness.
- "Futures made of virtual insanity
now always seem, to be governed by this love we have
For useless, twisting of our then new technology
Oh now there is no sound for we all live underground
For both factors A) and B) too much variation, over time or space respectively, is as undesirable as too little.
B) Inequality is very much a source of competition and keeps us going. Maybe your neighbor's grass is indeed greener, and maybe the highways in Europe are indeed better, and maybe the streets in Toronto are indeed cleaner. Our constant wish for improvement is very often what eventually leads to progress, and knowing that others do better can be a huge motivation. However, it can also be a source of jealousy and anger. If inequality is too large as that there is hope the higher level can ever be achieved, it can lead to violence because the less fortunate have to fear they are being left behind. You see these tension in many large cities where the very rich live right next to the very poor, in countries where social barriers are to high to be crossed (again it matters what people 'believe' how high these barriers are) .
A) Technological improvement isn't necessarily a source for happiness. (I hesitate to use the word progress here, since I'd think progress should imply improving happiness.) Humans need time to adapt to change, and if time is insufficient those who can't adapt will be left behind. Having learned that technological improvement leads to more happiness, we see a rapid incorporation of new technologies into our lives. This however means for many people that they are in a constant pressure of learning new things, or they will no longer be adequate for their job. Peer pressure is also an important factor in this regard.
If you don't have a TV, no cellphone, no high speed Internet access at home, don't write emails, are not on Facebook, not on MySpace, and don't know what Twitter is... - Gee, what century do you life in? Do you actually exist?
The capacity of the human brain to process new information is finite. It is hard to say when this capacity will be reached, and our working memory will no longer be sufficient. Not all of us will reach it at the same time, and those who reach it first will be left behind. There are limits to how many news feeds we can follow, and how many people in our social networks we can really keep up contact with. More scary, our understanding of the economical and ecological systems that are at the very base of our well-being is very insufficient.
Maybe we are close to reaching the stage at which humans start falling behind and are no longer able to cope with the change they have caused themselves. But I would guess that with the invention of the automobile there have been voices saying the human brain wasn't meant to deal with speeds as high as 30km/h, yet it turns out after some practice driving a car at much faster speed feels pretty much natural.
Once and again, the human brain has proved to be a marvelous result of natural selection. But no matter how marvelous, if the changes we cause continue to take place faster than the evolution of our brain - as has been the case for several thousand years now - then there will be some time when our brain reaches its limits, when we will no longer be able to fully grasp the change we are causing ourselves.
If technological progress becomes too fast as that we can really understand and appropriately act on its implications, we start to move on very slippery terrain.
Choosing between worms
I think it was Michael who pointed out that technology is nothing but a tool. It is intrinsically neither good or bad, and the outcome depends on how we use it. People make mistakes with new tools, and it takes some time to learn how to use new technologies appropriately. Somebody else mentioned that there is a huge pressure to use technologies to begin with, and not really an option to just not use them, instead we might end up being forced to "choose between worms" (so I finally figured out what was in Pandorra's box).
I very much agree that we have to learn how to deal with new technologies, that making mistakes is often unavoidable but that in most instances they can be corrected. This requires however that there is sufficient time, and a mechanism in place to make these corrections. As I argued in an earlier post The Spirits that We Called, I am concerned that the rapid distribution of the internet and the unregulated development of its features messes with the institutions of our societies and our political systems that are meant to deal with these technological changes to begin with.
To borrow a term from Homer-Dixon's book "The Ingenuity Gap", one has to wonder whether we have the social ingenuity to appropriately deal with the changes we have already caused. And that is the actual problem.
I want to mention some examples of where technologies have unwanted drawbacks that were brought up in this discussion, and I invite you to submit yours in the comment section (I will add them). Unsurprisingly, much was about the Internet, esp. the Web2.0, but feel free to to comment on technological developments in a broader sense
- Splitting of Communities
I think it was Lee who mentioned this first, and it was later picked up by others. The believe that the internet allows access to all kinds of opinions and thus supports open-mindedness is doubtful. Yes, in principle the internet allows us to collect an abundance of information, and to connect with millions of people all around the globe - people who belong to all kinds of nations, political orientations, and religions, and have a large variety of opinions.
But in practice most of us put together own social networks of necessarily limited size, because it is just not feasible to deal with all of that information (this goes along the lines of the previously mentioned necessity to filter and structure when faced with information overflow).
However, in contrast to our actual neighbors, relatives, or people we meet in cafes and so on, it is very easy to keep an online social network 'clean' of disturbing influence. Like, I can forward your email into my junk folder, remove you from my friend's list, and delete your comments. Even better, if I have picked the right people, they will support the decision to do so and reward my in-group favourism. Outside the virtual world it is much harder to get my friend's husband/landlord/cousin to shut up on family meetings (not to mention these guys I meet in cafes). The websites we check daily belong in many instances to some kind of community whose general sentiment we like, and we stick to forums where we share a common interest. The example was mentioned that changing on the internet from the camps of Clinton to Obama is like entering another world.
Thus, in many instances the possibility to select people in our networks can indeed increase gaps in our community instead of bridging them.
- Distortion of Online Communication
Somebody pointed out that scientific discussions on blogs in many instances are overloaded by noise and insults (a comment that caused many people to nod). It is sad, but though blogs would offer the possibility to build and improve global scientific networks, one has to wonder whether the impression that is de facto raised by such discussions in the public about the way science is done, is favourable or damaging. To generalize the issue, especially non-verbal online communication between people who don't know each other personally is attached with difficulties. Failing to realize limits of people's abilities to adequately express themselves, combined with lacking patience, a low attention-span, the usual temptations of anonymity, and cyber-disinhibition in general results in ugly social phenomena in the virtual world that can very really affect people's happiness.
- Impact on Social and Political Systems
I just want to list the previously mentioned point that the impact of mass media like TV and especially the internet on our social and political systems is very poorly understood and potentially worrisome. As a recent example, read this article of how cellphones spread hate messages in Kenya. It is easy to dismiss such events, and to believe oneself is immune to such hypes. But go ask yourself how often you are affected by things you have read. Especially if one has heard and read about a topic repeatedly it will acquire some status of importance. And as things are with the internet, some importance leads to some more importance. The internet is a tool that affects the opinions of millions of people, and it does without doubt influence the way we form opionons and make decisions.
There is an abundance of drawbacks that came with the industrialization era that were only realized with delay, such as air and water pollution, health and environmental hazards in chemicals, side effects of food preservation such as lack of certain vitamins or overdose of metals used for storage.
- Civilization Diseases
We were not evolutionary trained to live with an abundance of food, or to sit in a chair 12 hours a day. Neither where we meant to cope with constant noise, frequent travel over several time-zones, or staring at a screen for hours and hours. In many cases, overweight, back-, stomach- and sleeping problems are a result of these changes.
- Teaching and learning
There were several examples of how the use of technologies in teaching can have drawbacks. I believe it was Diane who mentioned that teaching via Powerpoint presentations, and making them accessible online leads the teacher to believe they can go through topic faster than appropriate (they can just look at it again later), makes students believe they don't need to take notes (which would be beneficial to structure thoughts), or lowers attention generally (if I don't get it, I can download it tomorrow). I don't teach myself, but I've heard similar remarks about making lectures accessible online - it leads students to believe they can always look up things later, yet they don't actually do it, or if, they do it last minute - just because it is possible.
- Information Overload
“[I]nformation overload is not only caused by the sheer volume of information, but also because of the complexity or confusing structure of information that might overtax the user’s cognitive skill to focus on relevant information ... Therefore Helmersen et al. (p. 2) characterize information overload as “difficulties in locating, retrieving, processing, storing and/or reretrieving information due to the volume of available information.” Information overload may lead to stress, health problems, frustration, disillusionment, depression, as well as impaired judgment and bad decision making ...”
~ Behr, Nosper, Klimmt & Hartmann (2005) Some Practical Considerations of Ethical Issues in Virtual Reality Research, Presence Teleoperators & Virtual Environments 14:6, 668 (2005).
Many of us equate technology with progress, improvement, and an increase of happiness. Even if the actual value of a gadget in terms of progress is not clear, they are often a source of novelty, and novelty - in technology, as much as in art, entertainment, science, or your peer group's gossip - can be pretty much addictive. For these reasons, technological developments are mostly considered positive changes, which in turn leads us to push forward these changes and incorporate them rapidly into our daily lifes.
But it must not necessarily be the case that these changes are good and lead to increased happiness. It needs time for us to judge on the advantages and drawbacks of changes. Dealing with unwanted side-effects is not an easy task, not one that takes place automatically, and not one that an invisible hand guides; it requires care, thought, and political institutions that ensure happiness is sustainable even on the expenses of dopamine-kicks. Instead of 'Can Technology make us Happy?', the question we should then actually ask is
- If technology makes us unhappy, will we be able to realize and correct our mistakes in a timely manner?
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TAGS: SCIBARCAMP, SCIENCE AND SOCIETY, TECHNOLOGY