It is too often assumed that modern technologies are inherently liberating. Are they not simply tools with which individuals can pursue their own happiness? Allenby and Sarewitz certainly appear to make this assumption, in The Techno-Human Condition, by referring to technologies as “volition enhancers.” There is certainly a bit of truth to the assumption. My cell phone enables me to receive and send voice calls and text messages whenever and wherever I want. If I could muster up the dough to pay for a data plan, I could have the informational wealth of the Internet at my fingertips. Do not all these new capabilities simply improve my ability to choose and to act?
It is true that my cell phone affords me new capabilities and new freedoms, yet those affordances very easily become burdens. By making others more available to me it also makes me more available to others; I find myself answering my phone in annoyance more than not. Many decry feeling tethered to their devices, finding out that new chains have been wrought as soon as the old ones have been broken. As well, I see myself as more easily distracted and more often attempting to multitask in the belief that it will give me more time, a pursuit suggested to be futile (and maybe even cognitively damaging) by Clifford Nass and Nicholas Carr. I am struck how, when feeling lonely, I am more likely to text a quick message to my fiancé than to start up a conversation with a person sitting next to me. Mobile communication technologies enable a virtual privatization of public spaces; think about the usual scene in a Starbucks. At the same time that they have enabled users to multiply their social ties, people have increasingly used them to turn away from the public and in on themselves and their own private networks. Why venture an unsatisfying or risky conversation with a stranger when a loved one is always and instantly available?
Imagine the day you bought your first cell phone. What if the salesperson informed you that eventually you would be constantly on call and working more than ever, loved ones would be irritated or worried if you do not answer immediately, you would find yourself texting at times when you should know better, and you would become a virtual recluse out in public? Would you still have bought it? You may be throwing up your hands at this point, claiming that this not technology’s doing but a simple lack of human discipline.
Yet, social psychological research increasingly supports the view that the human will is much weaker and less rational than most people wish or think it to be. People generally choose to do what seems immediately easier in the local context, not through rationally self-interested and reflective deliberation. Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist, describes the human will through the metaphor of a rider on an elephant. The rational part of the self is the rider, who can only sometimes manage to steer the irrational and emotional elephant. For example, governments can easily quadruple organ donation rates by forcing people to make a check mark to opt out rather than to opt in. A popular computer program promises users the chance to reassert their mastery over their computer and conquer distraction by blocking WiFi access until the next reboot, a program ironically but aptly named “Freedom.”
Philosopher of technology Langdon Winner has cogently argued that technologies have politics. He cites the tunnels on the Long Island expressway as an example, contending they were ostensibly designed by Robert Moses to be low enough to prevent public transit and therefore minorities from having access to “his” beaches. I would go farther in arguing that technologies are also built for particular notions of a good life. Rather than being mere neutral tools, their design encourage certain ways of living over other ones. Appropriating a technology for a different kind of life than it was built for, requires enough extra discipline and effort that many, if not most, people do not bother trying. Again, the elephant leads.
If technologies often nudge people into acting in ways that they, upon reflection, would otherwise find undesirable, then it is logical to conclude that technologies could be better designed to help people live less distracted and more engaged lives. However, the contemporary culture of innovation inhibits this development. Emphasis is placed continually on more and more functionality and ostensible choices, and new “problems” are manufactured in order to justify the increase. Having to wait until arriving at home or work to check one’s email or being unable to take a picture of anything and everything did not seem to be a problem until it became part of the functionality of cell phones. Now, to some, it seems as an unreasonable inconvenience to do without. The idea that progress is the increase of complexity and functionality has been so ingrained that it has become much more difficult to buy a “simple” phone without a touch screen, keyboard, camera or innumerable other gadgets. For my last purchase, I had to settle for a brick phone with a slide out keyboard, which I subsequently taped shut since I found that the relatively more cumbersome character of traditional T9 texting encouraged me to call more and text less. Henry Ford said about the Model T, “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.” Today, customers can have a gadget with any amount of functionality so long as it is has more options and features than yesterday.
How can technologists better serve people who want less rather than more from their technologies? Currently, there are few incentives to promote the making of simpler technologies and even less to encourage their purchase. Increasing functionality increases profits for mobile providers because it permits the selling of extra services to the consumer. That is why they generally offer cutting edge models for free, and cheaper than simpler models, with a contract. Part of the problem is that service providers and manufacturers are too intertwined. Rather than being able to deceptively bundle a contract with a phone, the two purchases should be made separate by regulation. The bundling of phones with service providers prevents a fair and competitive phone market. Imagine if you had to buy your computer from Microsoft in order to use Windows. Going even further, the technologies should be made open enough so that small manufacturers could get in on the game or perhaps even open source cell phones would become a viable option. With the demise of the network of pay phones that once dotted public spaces, the need for affordable and simple access to mobile phone networks becomes more and more a requirement for modern living and thus a matter of the public good; it should be treated as such.
Furthermore, phones and places should be designed to encourage people to use their phones differently or not at all. Why not require a “Do Not Disturb” setting on phones in which it does not ring unless the caller specifies, via a menu system, that the call is urgently important? Why not enforce cell-phone free zones where signal is jammed, as long as a wired phone is available nearby? If unnecessarily complex and distracting technologies already shape one’s life and behavior, are these recommendations anymore intrusive? Without more intelligent, less somnambulistic, technology policy, many people will continue to find themselves taking less time to stop and smell the roses; they will be far too busy buying bouquets with their smart phone.
Taylor C. Dotson is an associate professor at New Mexico Tech, a Science and Technology Studies scholar, and a research consultant with WHOA. He is the author of The Divide: How Fanatical Certitude is Destroying Democracy and Technically Together: Reconstructing Community in a Networked World. Here he posts his thoughts on issues mostly tangential to his current research.
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