Broken Windows

Technology is changing a large aspect of how we live our daily lives without giving us the time to slow down and catch our collective breath. This aspect of technological change should be enough to make anyone pause, but there doesn't seem to be any end in sight. This isn't a negative, it's just what it is at the moment. I'm also not saying that this is a good or a bad thing; it just is. Where my concerns are starting to focus on is what the trade-offs we may not be paying attention to are. Technological change is a Faustian bargain and it seems to be happening before our eyes without an consideration to the trade-offs of living our lives around it.

What am I talking about regarding trade-offs? Technology gives and technology takes; there is always a hidden price to pay for letting it become the centerpiece of our lives. This isn't at all obvious to most people. For most, the price they pay may be of greater importance than the trade-off. For example, take Facebook. In order to use the service we must sign up and agree to the terms before we can begin using it. That agreement is the price right there; we are agreeing to let Facebook do whatever they want with the data that they collect about us. And there are a variety of resources they use that data for such as marketing and advertising, making their product stickier to customers, and user experiments. The ultimate price we pay is our online privacy. I'm not condemning or condoning it; again, it's just what it is.

Online services aren't the only technologies with major trade-offs. Another example is smart-phones and their now ubiquitous nature. They are fantastic devices that many people in the world use on a daily basis, but at what price? How difficult is it to have a conversation with someone without them staring at their phone in the middle of you talking with them? How has it changed our social interactions with other people, and is that a good thing? Automobiles are another example; we were suddenly able to get somewhere faster and more conveniently than ever before and that revolutionized the start of the 20th century due to not only how they were made (Ford lines) but to how it gave people the ability to travel easily. Now we know that they are responsible for contributing to air pollution and traffic gridlock. They have done an incredible amount of damage to our environment and that will not be easy to fix, if it ever can be.

Technological change is our modern day version of Bastiat's Broken Window Fallacy. We buy into a new technology and can only see one side of the benefits. For example, we might start using an app that hires people to deliver us goods (such as food or clothes) and/or services (such as taxis). By doing so, we revel in the new found freedom from the convenience it provides our lives and the time it now affords us, allowing anyone to now focus on much more important parts of their lives. But this is only one side of the story. We aren't opening our eyes or even looking for the trade-offs that are taking place. And this needs to change.

Very rarely do we ask what this technology is undoing for us. What is the other side to that trade-off? How does using this new technology effect the people who are working for it (such as drivers for Uber or deliveries from Postmates). Are the laws being changed to accommodate these new companies and should they even be changed in the first place? What will be the long term effects of those changes to our economy and even our own jobs? There are some very interesting critiques of both Postmates and Uber.

These are all questions that are difficult to answer but the very real point that I am arguing about in this essay is that most of us know very little about the social and psychological effects that new technologies have on our society. And it's in our best interest to really start thinking about, and understanding the costs that these technologies bring to us.