The good and bad of technological development

Happy New Year everyone. I hope that 2016 treats you kindly.

Every now and again I read something which I wish I’d come up with myself. That happened this morning with an analogy Slack founder Stuart Butterfield made on the impact of our always-on tech world. If you look at the history of major technological changes there is usually a period of resistance, then (sometimes difficult) adjustment after which the benefits flow to society, and I believe that it will be the same with social media and our ‘always-on’ smartphones.

Butterfield puts it like this (from CityAM):

[Social media/always-on tech is] like cheap, easy calories. We don’t really know, as a species, how to deal with it, and it’ll take a couple of generations to work it out. In the meantime, there’ll be a cognitive and emotional form of diabetes people go through…. [Making an analogy with fast food over the last 70 years, we are] going from a state of being where people frequently starve to death and worry about their children doing so, to being in a position where they don’t have to worry. It’s the tech equivalent of knowing we have to deal with Burger King and KFC, but no-one will ever die of hunger again.

For all that obesity is a problem today (and it is a problem) it’s worth remembering that until the last fifty years or so the major problem of poverty was hunger. People died of hunger in a way that’s inconceivable in the developed world today. I like this analogy between social media/always on technology and fast food because it recognises that everyone in the world is impacted, the scale of the benefits, and the scale of the accompanying challenges. I also like that it recognises the permanence of social media. Nobody is seriously advocating that fast food will collapse in on itself.

I was tempted to end the post here and keep it simple, but for the those that might want to use this analogy to drive decisions (rather than armchair debate) it’s important to note that social media and always-on tech are evolving much faster than fast food. It will take a generation or so for us all to get fully comfortable with social media, messaging apps and smartphones, but by that time something new will have arrived which changes the game again and creates a new form of ‘cognitive and emotional diabetes’ for us to work through. My bet is that the next big shock tech deliver to society will be augmented/virtual reality.