Righting the Ship: Redesigning Technology to Actually Improve Our Lives

Technology is amazing. In the last few years alone, we have seen new forms of technology detect and cure diseases, level the information playing field around the world, and help solve some of humanity’s biggest problems. Objectively speaking, the world is seeing some incredible improvements, and technology is often seen as a big driving force (Diamandis & Kotler, 2012). But it’s not all good. At a time when we’re more connected than ever before, entire countries are declaring social isolation epidemics (Hafner, 2016). In America, when asked, “how many people do you have to discuss important issues with,” the most popular answer is zero (McPherson, Smith-Lovin, & Brashears, 2006). And teenagers are living through alarmingly increased rates of depression, anxiety, and suicides (American College Health Association, 2016; Twenge, Joiner, Rogers, & Martin, 2017). How can this be?

It turns out, there is a pretty stark difference between objective and subjective views of the world. As technology plays a significant role in objectively improving the world, some forms of technology seem to have the opposite effect on our subjective views, how we feel about the world. Fortunately, research is catching up and we’re now starting to wake up to the scientifically evidenced downsides of some of the latest technology we’ve created in the past couple decades, namely smartphones and social media. And understanding the problem is the first step in figuring out how to re-design the technology to actually improve our subjective lives. It may be early days, with research just starting to make headway, but at the rate technology is moving, every day counts. To put it in perspective, Facebook, founded in 2004, has 1.45 billion people using the platform every day (Statista, 2018). Snapchat, founded in 2011, has 191 million people using the platform every day (Statista, 2018). This is incredible scale, and incredibly quickly. We’re at a time when the new technology we create can reach millions of people within just a few days, making the impact, whether positive or negative, more important than ever before.

It’s time to leverage what we know about the effects of technology to iterate for a more positive subjective world. What could this look like in a few years? Let’s consider three key decision points we face on a daily basis: 1) what apps to download and prioritize, 2) what to do right when you wake up, 3) how to spend your day.

1) What apps to download and prioritize? Put another way, this is asking what new technology you want to be accessible to at the touch of a few taps? Today, the app stores are ordered primarily by volume and frequency of app downloads. This isn’t inherently a bad way to organize a list of apps; it helps people easily identify and download the most popular apps at any given time. But what if there’s a better way to promote technology than a popularity contest? What if you could see a ranking of apps based on how much people enjoy using them, how much it positively impacts their lives, or how much they value their time spent on the apps? It turns out that many of the most popular apps in the app stores are also the most addicting and are reported by its own users to result in unhappiness (Center for Humane Technology, 2018). If you want to use technology to aid you in living a subjectively positive life, selecting apps based on utility, value, and enjoyment would naturally be a good place to start. The app stores could rank apps accordingly, making it that much easier to shape our phones, and hence lives, in a positive light. Perhaps this would simultaneously encourage tech companies to consider their impact on subjective well-being a little bit more, re-aligning technology incentives with human values.

2) What to do right when you wake up? Research shows that we’re now more likely to think about our phone in the morning than our significant others (Consumer Mobility Report, 2015). This is pretty disturbing. I don’t want to live in a world where technology comes first, I want to live in a world where technology helps me cultivate stronger human connection. It is relatively easy for me to explain the type of mornings I would like to have: wake up after a good night’s sleep, meditate, go for a run, shower, write in my journal, have breakfast, and then make my way into the office to start the workday. It’s also relatively easy for me to explain the type of mornings I often have: wake up, check my texts and emails, and scramble into the office already preoccupied. What if our phones encouraged us to have the mornings we want, and maybe need, as opposed to how they operate today? We could program our phones to serve up a meditation app first thing after we wake up, removing the opportunity to decide to skip that morning. We could hide email and social apps for the first hour after we wake up, unless something truly urgent came through. We could lock certain apps until we’ve hit a certain mileage or step count. Or maybe as a simpler first step, we could monitor our morning consumption patterns and note how we feel each day, better understanding how the decisions influence our ability to start the day on the right foot.

3) How to spend your day? It sometimes feels like we can make it through entire days, even weeks, on autopilot. Many of the apps we use today originated to help us live more productive, enjoyable, and connected lives. However, we’ve somehow entered a world in which these same tech companies are now more focused on competing for our finite attention to grow their slice of the pie and to generate more advertising revenue. What if, instead of trying to maximize our attention, our phones helped us live more deliberate, positively oriented lives? We could program daily time limits for certain apps, limiting the risk of mindless scrolling and over-usage. We could use notifications to encourage us to stay active, connect with friends, or get off our phones, as opposed to draw us in to one of the many addicting apps or social apps we have. We could hide or bucket less positive apps, surfacing instead apps shown to be more useful and happy-inducing, like Skype, Google Maps, and Pandora (Center for Humane Technology, 2018). We could create physical spaces that automatically turn our phone into sleep mode, ensuring we truly focus on real social connection and engagement.

The first step to fixing our current technology problem is admitting we have a problem. We now know that the technology we’re creating, that billions of people are using every day, is often contributing to a subjectively worse off world (McCarthy et al., 2018). Better understanding the negative effects from over-usage, our own consumption patterns, and the psychological tricks used to compete for our attention is a critical first step to righting the ship. This knowledge can then be leveraged to drive change at scale. And that is exactly what has been happening over the last couple years. In the last few months, both Google and Apple launched digital well-being initiatives to help create more informed consumption and improved relationships with devices.

Here are some of the key changes made by Google and Apple, reflecting the importance of re-designing technology to actually improve our lives:

  • Consumption patterns: the ability to see how much time we spend on our phones, what apps we spend the most time in, and how many notifications we get.
  • Time consciousness: the ability to turn on reminders to take a break in certain apps (e.g. after watching too much YouTube) and set time limits for certain apps.
  • Reclaiming our lives: the ability to snooze alerts, hide notifications, and personalize updates to help us more easily disconnect.

These changes are critical steps in the right direction, reflecting many concepts proposed by the Center for Humane Technology, an organization focused entirely on realigning technology with humanity’s best interests. Having a respected organization dedicated to righting the ship, an increase in academic research, and leading technology companies listening and iterating their products accordingly are all signs of moving in the right direction and improving our subjective lives. In an upcoming post, I will delve into how we can design new technology to improve well-being from the get go. Stay tuned!

 

References

American College Health Association. (2016). American college health association-national college health assessment: Undergraduate students reference group executive summary fall 2016. Hanover, MD: American College Health Association.

Center for Humane Technology. (2018). What’s the difference between apps we cherish vs. regret? Retrieved from: http://humanetech.com/app-ratings/

Consumer Mobility Report. (2015). Bank of America. Retrieved from:https://promo.bankofamerica.com/mobilityreport/assets/images/2015-Trends-in-Consumer-Mobility-Report_FINAL.pdf

Diamandis, P. H., & Kotler, S. (2012). Abundance: The future is better than you think. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster.

Hafner, K. (2016, Sep 6). Researchers confront an Epidemic of Loneliness. The New York Times. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/06/health/lonliness-aging-health-effects.html

McCarthy, J., Bauer, B., Sood, A., Limburg, P. J., Goodin, T., Malleret, T. (2018). Wellness in the Age of the Smartphone. In Global Wellness Institute. Retrieved from: https://www.globalwellnessinstitute.org/global-wellness-institute-blog/2018/4/10/new-report-wellness-in-the-age-of-the-smartphone

McPherson, M., Smith-Lovin, L., & Brashears, M. E. (2006). Social isolation in America: Changes in core discussion networks over two decades. American sociological review71(3), 353–375.

Statista (2018). Number of daily active Facebook users worldwide as of 1st quarter 2018 (in millions). Retrieved from: https://www.statista.com/statistics/545967/snapchat-app-dau/

Statista. (2018). Number of daily active Snapchat users from 1st quarter 2014 to 1st quarter 2018 (in millions). Retrieved from: https://www.statista.com/statistics/346167/facebook-global-dau/

Twenge, M., Joiner, T., Rogers, M., & Martin, G. (2017, Nov 14). Increases in Depressive Symptoms, Suicide-Related Outcomes, and Suicide Rates Among U.S. Adolescents After 2010 and Links to Increased New Media Screen Time. Clinical Psychological Science, 6(1), 3–17.

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