Don’t Buy That New Gadget
Does technology make us happy? Technologists, businesspeople, and most politicians assume so, celebrating its ability to improve our persons, experiences, and material circumstances. And ordinary human behavior seems to answer the question: if technology doesn’t make us happy, why do we spend so much time, effort and money developing and buying all the stuff?
But the answer is not so simple, as James Surowiecki explains in “Technology and Happiness.” People are irrational about what will promote their well-being, and they aren’t very good at anticipating their future preferences. Considering how many decisions about choosing new technologies are based on little (or even erroneous) information, perhaps we sometimes get stuck with technologies that don’t make us happy.
The social sciences have been nearly silent on the subject. Since 1974, however, when Richard Easterlin published an article titled “Does Economic Growth Improve the Human Lot?”, and more frequently in the last decade, economists have turned their attention to the vexing question of the complex relationship between wealth and happiness. Some of their insights can also be usefully applied to technology.
Easterlin and his disciples have demonstrated that while there is a strong correlation between poverty and misery, you can’t buy happiness. Despite the fantastic increase in the prosperity of the United States since World War II, most Americans are no happier today than they were in 1947 (when happiness surveys began). Indeed, according to social scientists, the numbers of Americans who say they are “very happy” has actually fallen since the 1970s, even while the average income of someone born in 1940 has increased 116 percent. It turns out that when everyone’s income swells, people’s subjective sense of what they minimally require to be happy inflates, too.
Psychologists call this “hedonic adaptation” – and it works for technology as well. We become desensitized to our good fortune. When international telephone calls, jet travel, or broadband Internet access first appeared, they were wonderful things that seem to clearly make our lives better, but as their price fell and they became commonly available, they quickly seemed quotidian. In no time at all, we were irritated when they did not work perfectly.
So are we happier for new technologies? In one sense, Sure (imagine yourself, hedonically adapted to this world, stripped of all your stuff). In another sense, No. Happiness economists have shown that there is a kind of decreasing return to increasing income. Except for the very wealthy (the Forbes 400 consistently report that they are very cheerful indeed), people who strive ardently to become richer don’t report any significant increase in well-being. Some happiness economists suggest that “inconspicuous consumption” – that is, investment in health, family, or community – tends to have a better return in happiness than buying bigger cars or houses.
It is the same with new technologies. Purchasing lots of the latest gadgets is unsatisfying: you know that in a few months there will be new, improved versions of the things. But some technology consumption is less conspicuous. Internet technologies like search or social networking are informational and affective networks that expand our knowledge and relationships. Biotechnology and health care offer a better and longer life. They’re the better buy.