Around 370 BC, the Greek philosopher Plato described his vision of a future ruined by technology:
For this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external … and not remember of themselves. …[Y]ou give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.
Surprisingly, he wasn’t talking about the Internet or the iPhone, but the written word. Fortunately, writing has served us pretty well in the ensuing millennia. But not all technologies are created equal. While many are entirely beneficial, others can have unfortunate consequences.
To get an extreme view of the unintended consequences of technological advancement check out Terminator 2: Judgment Day. But technologies don’t have to rise up against us in order to wreak havoc. They’re quite capable of exerting more subtle control.
Humans shape technologies, but our lives are then shaped by the technologies we create – for better or worse. Technology is neither good nor bad. It is what it is. It’s what technology facilitates or hinders us to do that is the real issue – whether it’s intentional or accidental. Recognizing this is an important aspect of our wellbeing that can guide us choosing the specific technologies we allow into our lives. And hopefully it will guide designers and engineers in the types of technologies they create.
Whereas most technologies until recently dealt with the physical, technological advances are now more information based. Physical technologies with unintended physical consequences required the field of ergonomics to save our bodies from our inventions. But with information technologies, our minds and brains are now at risk.
I recently came across a whole area of research on the phenomenon of coping with new information technology: technostress (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technostress). Technostress is problematic, because the body only has one stress response (activation of the sympathetic nervous system), and too much chronic stress is bad for your physical and mental health.
When evaluating the technostress potential of an individual piece of technology, the most important feature is how useful it is (Ayyagari 2011). The more useful it is, the less stress we experience from it. So one of the first steps to reducing stress is to eliminate the technologies from your life that aren’t particularly useful.
The next most important element of a technology for reducing technostress is reliability (Ayyagari 2011). This makes sense given what we know about the brain’s emotional limbic system. Things that are uncertain or unpredictable amplify the limbic system response. Thus when a technology is unreliable and breaks down, it causes physiological consequences in the body, including large increases in the stress hormone cortisol (Riedl 2012).
Interestingly the complexity of a technology doesn’t have a significant effect on technostress (Ayyagari 2011) – meaning that as long as a technology is useful and reliable, it doesn’t make a big difference if it’s complex. Think about writing. Is it useful? Yes. It it reliable? As long as you can find piece of paper. Is it complex? Heck yeah. But it’s worth it.
Usefulness and reliability are helpful features to pay attention to, but the question quickly becomes “useful and reliable for what?” Unfortunately, one big source of technostress is the fact that technology is generally designed to serve its own ends. It may serve yours as well, but not as well as it could. As Tristan Harris points out in his great TED talk (https://www.ted.com/talks/tristan_harris_the_manipulative_tricks_tech_companies_use_to_capture_your_attention): “You open up Facebook. And in that moment, the designers in the control room want to schedule exactly one thing, which is to maximize how much time you spend on the screen.”
But is that what you want? To spend as much time on facebook as possible? No, you want to connect with your friends. So a technology may be useful and reliable for serving it’s own ends, but you should evaluate it with a critical eye. Ask yourself if it’s actually useful and reliable in accomplishing the things that you want to accomplish.
Lastly, technostress also arises from the pace of change of technology in general (Ayyagari 2011). Any change that requires us to adapt increases stress. That’s sort of the definition of what stress is. Fortunately, that transition can be eased by technologies that are intuitive, and take advantage of our natural instincts. That’s something Steve Jobs understood when he designed the Mac and the iPhone. Technologies don’t seem so overwhelming when they behave as we expect them to. By utilizing technologies that are adapted to us, rather than the other way around, we can ease the stress on an overtaxed brain.
So be mindful of the technologies that you let into your life. There’s more than one way for the machines to start taking over.
Ayyagari, R., Grover, V., & Purvis, R. (2011). Technostress: technological antecedents and implications. MIS quarterly, 35(4), 831-858.
Riedl, R., Kindermann, H., Auinger, A., & Javor, A. (2012). Technostress from a neurobiological perspective. Business & Information Systems Engineering, 4(2), 61-69.
Conflict of Interest note: Dr. Korb has been paid as a consultant for technology companies.