The concept of "tech addiction" has been controversial since the idea was first proposed half-jokingly in 1995.
Now, as more and more hours of our daily lives are consumed by interactions with technology, and as the consequences of a tech-consumed life become more apparent, the question of tech addiction — or, if you reject the term, problematic tech-related behavior in line with addictive behaviors — as an existential threat becomes more pressing.
One ex-Google employee, Tristan Harris, recently shared his thoughts on the existential threat of modern technology, pointing out the key threats that could make this an epidemic, and the underlying infrastructure that makes technology already threatening.
He isn’t alone. Dozens of organizations supporting the treatment of tech-related addictions, including addiction recovery centers, have started to emerge, and more people are questioning whether the tremendous power associated with technology is worth the cost of using it.
So is technology-related addiction really an existential threat?
The Case for Technology
Despite technology’s propensity to influence addictive behaviors, there are two strong arguments for why technology addiction shouldn’t be a major issue. First, there’s the stance that any improvements in technology are steps of progress which shouldn’t be impeded. Technology has many positive uses in our society, which far outweigh the potential negative consequences. It can even be used as a way to promote recovery for other, more dangerous addictions.
Second, tech addiction isn’t an officially recognized illness. Despite acknowledgment that problematic behaviors associated with technology clearly exist, internet addiction and other tech addictions aren’t included in the DSM-5 (the leading resource for diagnosing mental illnesses). However, they are recommended for further study.
Three Main Problems
Those who believe tech addiction could be an existential threat tend to recognize three main problems with modern technology:
Exploitation of the Human Mind. First, many technologies are designed to exploit the weaknesses of the human mind. Social media platforms, for example, are designed to encourage repetitive behavior, much like slot machines. They use properly timed notifications, infinite scrolling, and bright coloration to keep your mind occupied, and keep you using the app far longer than you realize you’re using it. If pushed to the extreme, one could consider these design choices to be manipulative to the point of reducing free will to a minimum.
Lack of Regulation. The lack of regulation is another concern. For the most part, big tech companies can do whatever they want with user data and their app designs, with few (if any) repercussions. The EU has stepped up their efforts to prevent this abuse, with its General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), but these measures only go so far, and can’t protect the rest of the world. With no expert oversight, power is concentrated among the people designing technology with profit (and potentially user exploitation) in mind.
Scale and Speed. The final problem is one that compounds the severity of the other two: the speed at which technology can increase in scale. We may be past the era of Moore’s Law, which refers to an observation, originating in 1965, by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore. He saw that the number of transistors per square inch on integrated circuits doubled every year — since their invention. But, we’re rapidly approaching an era of superintelligence, where our capabilities can (and most likely will) grow exponentially, far faster than laws, regulations, and scientific research can keep up with them.
This will make it much harder to gauge whether a new technology is problematic before it hits the market and starts creating problems.
Ultimately, unchecked growth in technology promoting addictive behaviors could deepen societal inequalities, influence the development of mental illnesses, and possibly have ramifications for the economy as a whole.
Principles for a Better Future
So, assuming there are at least some problems with tech addiction in our society, what can we do to secure a better future for ourselves?
Adhering to these main principles would be a good start:
- Awareness. First, we need to build awareness of how the technology we use every day is designed to capture and exploit our attention — then promote awareness in others.
- Transparency. We should also be pressuring big tech companies to be more transparent about their privacy policies, and the way their apps are designed.
- Regulation. As a next step, we should be influencing the development of legal regulations for big tech companies, if for no other reason than to proactively detect threats before they become a public problem.
- Moderation. Finally, we can moderate our use of technology by setting time limits, app restrictions, and other forms of self-control to prevent ourselves from being consumed.
So is tech addiction a full-fledged existential threat? That depends on your perspective, but it’s clear that technology has incredible power over the human mind. If we don’t take measures to control and regulate it, we should at least take measures, individually, to recognize that power wherever it exists, and help others recognize it as well.
Things are only going to become more advanced from here.
Larry Alton is a professional blogger, writer, and researcher. A graduate of Iowa State University, he's now a full-time freelance writer and business consultant. Currently, Larry writes for Entrepreneur.com, Inc.com, and Forbes.com, among others. In addition to journalism, technical writing and in-depth research, he’s also active in his community and spends weekends volunteering with a local non-profit literacy organization and rock climbing. Follow him on Twitter (@LarryAlton3), at LinkedIn.com/in/larryalton, and on his website, LarryAlton.com. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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