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Riding the tech wave and getting dumped

Odds are you will think I am from the Dark Ages by the end of this post - prior warning

I recall in college when I first started using social media. It was a little site known as Bebo where, like the now universal Facebook, you could connect with friends, post photos and share your thoughts with your network. I think at the time I also had a Myspace account which operated in a similar way. I was about 15, old enough to remember a time when the internet wasn’t pervasive and be somewhat level-headed about what I experienced on social media, but young enough to be sucked in to new fads. Yes, at the time these websites were fads even if the notion of social media is enduring. With hindsight I feel fortunate that I haven’t had a social media account from cradle to grave which brings me to the main point of this post.

Knowing what we do now, do you still want a social media account? Or would you have given it a miss?

The use and development of new technology and design choices around what is appropriate needs more careful thought and forward planning. This matters a great deal given the speed at which new technology can spread in a globalised well-connected world. Note I am not talking about new technology as being a new pair of pants here but technologies like computers and cars. I will focus on the adoption of social media and smartphones as examples when discussing this topic but I think the point can be generalised.

Of course there are huge benefits to social media and smartphones. With social media the ability to stay in touch with friends across the globe and share content is powerful and satisfying in a globalised world. With smartphones the ability to reach into your pocket and access a vast sum of knowledge over the internet is game changing. This is obvious and I don’t intend to detract from these achievements. Where challenges exist for new tech is in its misuse and flow on effects across society to potentially vulnerable audiences.

Person sitting at their computer browsing social media unaware of the hidden impact such as social anxiety and addiction

Many of the negative side effects of social media have become apparent with increased mental health issues and the amplification of misinformation. Social media use encourages constant comparison leading to anxiety and jealousy as we see that Joe Bloggs from marketing has a fancy new car. Social media can make us feel sadder and more isolated, exactly the opposite of what was intended. It seems there is no substitute for face-to-face interaction. Social media has been put to the particularly sinister use of influencing elections through the spread of misinformation and has been linked to creating a more polarised electorate. Of course it is very difficult not to be a part of a platform when many of your connections have an account and your network communicates via the platform. Do you even want to use the platform or do you use it because everyone else is?

Younger audiences in particular are vulnerable to these negative effects. You can be cyberbullied 24/7. The new teenagers of today have never lived in a world without social media and the experience of adopting a new technology in its infancy is no doubt very different compared to when its use is wide-spread. Imagine what it would have been like to be one of the first to drive a car compared to learning to drive today. It is harder to be critical when it is all you have ever known.

Some clever entrepreneurs with a good idea changed the world, but some of these changes imposed negative effects that are remarkably difficult to opt out of as network effects make it difficult to say no. No doubt the initial innovators and designers of social media didn’t intend these negative effects, which is kind of the point. The consequences should be more fully understood.

With smartphones, broad uptake was premised on the ability of users to do everything under the sun from the palm of their hand. Smartphones have largely lived up to this promise. Increasingly however we can see negative impacts with addicted smombies (smartphone zombies) slothing the streets with back problems and car accidents from distracted drivers. Smartphones have also been linked to sleep deprivation from phone use before bed. Governments, companies and individuals have caught on to these negative effects, in New Zealand it is illegal to use a phone while driving, but if people are already addicted it is very hard to change behaviour.

We need regulation responsive to change and smart design choices to ensure society can capture the benefits of new technology while mitigating the risks. Principles-based legislation that encourages data privacy for consumers and protects minors are existing regulatory examples. Governments should prioritise objectives such as addressing misinformation, actively collect data to measure success and discipline companies that are non-compliant. Something as simple as a default setting on a phone app limiting use to 30 minutes a day or time warnings could help people with phone addiction. It should theoretically be possible to run studies on people to understand the forward impacts of new technology.

There is a cost to this in terms of government effort and companies needing to meet certain requirements. The key is to strike the right mix between supporting the innovation to realise its benefits and mitigating misuse through appropriate design choices. Of course technology regulation is difficult and if a product or service is successful there could be fast uptake limiting response time. I appreciate that there will probably always be an element of responsiveness when managing the adoption of new technology.

I believe the pros of new technology outweigh the cons. However, the controlled adoption of new technology is increasingly important with automation and AI threatening a massive shift in terms of how we organise our workforce and day-to-day lives.


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