The question of technology: net loss or net gain?
In trying to decipher how technology affects well-being, then, it’s worth paying attention to a few things. First, there have been few rigorous studies of the specific relationship between technological change and how people feel about their own lives. So the question Does more (or better) technology make people happy? is irreducibly speculative. Second, there is something inherently unstable about peoples accounts of their own states of mind. Forget people’s uncertainty about what will make them happy in the future; can we even trust that people know what makes them happy now?
Most seriously, thinking about technology is hard because people adapt so quickly to the technologies that are available to them. If you had asked someone in 1870 whether she would be happier if she had a personal vehicle that would give her the freedom to travel hundreds of miles a day, in whatever direction she chose, at relatively little cost; the opportunity to fly across the ocean in a few hours; and the ability to speak to people who were thousands of miles away in real time for a few cents a minute, chances are very good that she would have said, yes, it would make her a lot happier. But today, it’s the rare person who gets excited about cars, planes, and telephones. We recognize their utility, but they’re also sources of frustration and stress. On balance, most people would say they’d rather have cars and telephones than not, but – and this is what makes thinking about happiness so hard – its not clear they really make us happier.
This seems to be close to a universal phenomenon. In fact, one of happiness scholars’ most important insights is that people adapt very quickly to good news. Take lottery winners. One famous study showed that although winners were very, very happy when they won, their euphoria quickly evaporated, and after a while their moods and sense of well-being were indistinguishable from what they had been before the victory. Psychologists even have a word for the phenomenon: hedonic adaptation.
So, too, with technology: no matter how dramatic a new innovation is, no matter how much easier it makes our lives, it is very easy to take it for granted. You can see this principle at work in the world of technology every day, as things that once seemed miraculous soon become mundane and, worse, frustrating when they don’t work perfectly. Its hard, it turns out, to keep in mind what things were like before the new technology came along. That’s why broadband users should occasionally use dial-up: it makes them appreciate just what a difference a high-speed connection really does make.
Does our fast absorption of technological progress mean, then, that technology makes no difference? No. It just makes the question of technology’s impact, for good and ill, more complicated. Let’s start with the downside. There are certain ways in which technology makes life obviously worse. Telemarketing, traffic jams, and identity theft all come to mind. These are all phenomena that make people consciously unhappy. But for the most part, modern critiques of technology have focused not so much on specific, bad technologies as on what Heidegger called the question of technology – that is, the impact of technology on our humanity.
Those critiques have staked out two apparently opposed positions, which nonetheless share a common skepticism about peoples’ ability to use technology to their own ends. The first position, which one can see in the work of the French critic Jacques Ellul or, more oddly, in the novels of Philip K. Dick, is that technological progress is leading to an ever more rigid, controlled, soulless society, in which its easier for people to be manipulated and monitored. The second position, which has been well articulated in books like Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death and Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, is that technology is central to the increasing privatization of experience, which in turn is creating a fragmented, chaotic society, in which traditional relationships are harder to sustain, community is increasingly an illusion, and people’s relationships to each other, mediated as they often are by machines, grow increasingly tenuous.
Theres obviously something to both arguments. Privacy has become increasingly fragile in a world of linked databases. In many workplaces, technologies like keystroke monitoring and full recordings of phone calls make it easier to watch workers. The notion that technology disrupts relationships and fractures community gained mainstream prominence as an attack on television, but in recent years it has also become central to the critique of the Internet. In Bowling Alone, Putnam suggests that TV is a chief culprit in the gradual isolation of Americans from each other and the erosion of the social capital that makes societies run smoothly. Similarly, the deleterious effects of the Internet, which supposedly further isolates people from what critics always call the real world, were pointed to early on in a famous study of 169 Pittsburgh residents, Internet Paradox: A Social Technology That Reduces Social Involvement and Psychological Well-Being? According to the study, published in the September 1998 issue of American Psychologist, instead of allowing them to connect with a much wider set of potential friends and exposing them to information they might otherwise never have come across, the Internet made people more depressed and lonely than they would otherwise have been.
This broad criticism of technology’s impact on relationships is an interesting one and is especially relevant to the question of happiness, because one of the few things we can say for certain is that the more friends and close relationships people have, the happier they tend to be. But the evidence that the Internet or even television fundamentally erodes relationships as opposed to changing them is not especially convincing. For instance, when the authors of that 1998 study revisited the question a few years later, using a slightly different methodology, they arrived at the opposite conclusion, finding that the Net had a slightly beneficial impact on peoples sociability, connections with others, and sense of well-being.
Obviously, a technology as wide-ranging and ubiquitous as the Net will have myriad, immeasurable effects. But the Internet is essentially a communications technology, one that, like the telephone, allows people to expand their affective and informational networks. The Net is hardly the ideal public sphere, where all discussions are rational and everyone agrees on a definition of the common good. But it is a public sphere, and one that crucially functions without gatekeepers.
The dominant critiques of technology have, then, something exaggerated about them. But one way in which technology, as a rule, does make people less happy is in its relentless generation of newness. One of the key insights of happiness studies is that people have a very hard time being content with what they have, at least when they know that others have more. Today, technological change is so rapid that when you buy something, you do so knowing that in a few months there’s going to be a better, faster version of the product, and that youre going to be stuck with the old one. Someone else, in other words, has it better. It’s as if disappointment were built into acquisition from the very beginning (unless you’re buying a 70-inch plasma screen, in which case you should be fine for at least a couple of years). There’s no way to circumvent this drooping of the spirit, which creates dissatisfaction in the heart of the modern consumer.