Technology la carte: bad food, but bigger portions
Daily stress, a nagging sense of disappointment, fear that the government knows a lot more about you than you would like it to: if these are some of the ways in which technology reduces peoples sense of well-being, how (if at all) does it increase their happiness? This is terrain that is ordinarily left to the cyberoptimists and transhumanists, who believe that technology should be celebrated for the way it remakes and improves our bodies and minds. But setting flights of fancy aside, there is some intriguingly suggestive work about how certain new technologies make people not just objectively better off but also happier.
In the marketplace, for instance, the Internet has made consumers happier not so much by cutting prices as by expanding the enormous array of choices available to them in a manageable way. In the happiness stakes, expanding consumers options is really a double-edged sword: consumers do have a preference for variety and novelty, and the more choices you have, the better the chance that youll find the thing you really want. But too much choice can actually paralyze people, leaving them, paradoxically, worse off.
A well-known experiment conducted by Professors Mark Lepper and Sheena Iyengar (at Stanford and Columbia, respectively) illustrates the point: they set up two tables in a supermarket, one with 24 jars of jam and the other with six, and offered discount coupons to anyone who stopped to sample the jams. Of the people who stopped at the 24-jam table, only 3 percent went on to buy jam, while 30 percent of the people who stopped at the six-jam table did. More choices often make people frustrated because they have no reasonable way to navigate through them. What the Internet offers, at least in a nascent form, is a host of mechanismscollaborative filtering, shopbots, consumer-rating sitesthat give people the tools to make informed choices relatively quickly and easily, reducing paralysis and making them happier. The important point here is that among the infinite choices that the Internet offers, one is the option of less choice.
Technology has also radically changed the nature of work, or at least some peoples work. This matters because the workplace is central to peoples sense of well-being and is more important to them than anything, including family. Studies show that nothing – not even divorce – makes people more unhappy than unemployment. For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, technologys impact on the workplace was ambiguous at best. While the mechanization of agriculture allowed people to escape the farm, it often propelled them straight into heavy industrial labor, which was well paying but often miserable. Technology increased the productivity of workers, but it also diminished their autonomy: superiors controlled more of the details of their working days. Even the office work of the postwar period exemplified by the endless rows of desks in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment was deeply bureaucratic and controlled. But recently, the rise of the networked society, and the advent of knowledge-based businesses, means that workplaces have become less formal and more open, even while remaining efficient and productive. Already, as Arlie Hochschild points out in The Time Bind, a significant percentage of Americans find the atmosphere at work more congenial than the one at home. As the number of knowledge workers grows, and as companies strive to keep them happy, well-being should increase.
The most important impact of technology on peoples sense of well-being, though, is in the field of health care. Before the Industrial Revolution, two out of every three Europeans died before the age of 30. Today, life expectancy for women in Western Europe is almost 80 years, and it continues to increase. The point is obvious, but important to note: the vast majority of people are happy to be alive, and the more time they get on earth, the better off they feel they’ll be. (Remember, the point about prosperity and happiness is not that prosperity makes people unhappy; its that it doesnt necessarily make them happier.) Now, the picture is a little more complicated than this. Living a few extra years as a geriatric may not be ideal. But until very recently, life for the vast majority of people was (in Hobbess formulation) nasty, brutish, and short. Technology has changed that, at least for people in the rich world. As much as we should worry about the rising cost of health care and the problem of the uninsured, its also worth remembering how valuable for our spirits as well as our bodies are the benefits that medical technology and pharmaceuticals have brought us.
On a deeper level, what the technological improvement of our health and our longevity underscores is a paradox of any discussion of happiness on a national or a global level: even though people may not be happier, even though they are wealthier and possess more technology, theyre still as hungry as ever for more time. It’s like that old Woody Allen joke: the food may not be so great, but we want the portions to be as big as possible.
Technology may only improve the taste of the meals slightly, but it makes them a lot bigger, and for most of us, that has the promise of something like happiness.