Thoughts on the Future of Technology and Well-Being

I just filled out a survey by Pew Internet and Elon College about the future of Internet technologies on well-being. Here are my responses:

Our question: Over the next decade, how will changes in digital life impact people’s overall well-being, physically and mentally?

Many years ago, the famed Nobel laureate Herb Simon pointed out that "[I]nformation consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention." Simon presciently pointed this out in 1971.

However, back then, the challenge was information overload. Today, we now also have organizations that are actively vying for our attention, distracting us with smartphone notifications, highly personalized news, addictive games, Buzzfeed-style headlines, and fake news. These organizations also have a strong incentive to optimize their interaction loops, drawing on techniques from psychology and mass A/B testing to draw us in. Most of the time it's to increase clickthrough rates, daily active users, and other engagement metrics, and ultimately to increase revenues.

There are two major problems with these kinds of interactions. The first is just feeling stressed all the time, due to a constant stream of interruptions combined with fear of missing out. The second, and far more important, is that engagement with this kind of content means that we are spending less time building and maintaining relationships with actual people.

Having good friends is the equivalent of quitting smoking, and today's platforms are unintentionally designed to isolate us rather than helping us build strong relationships with others.

Please share a brief personal anecdote about how digital technology has changed your daily life, your family’s life or your friends' lives in regard to well-being - some brief observation about technology's impact on life for you, your family or friends. Tell us how this observation or anecdote captures how hyper-connected life changes people’s well-being, compared to the way life was before digital connectivity existed.

WeChat is not well known in the US, but is perhaps the most popular app in China. It's primarily a messaging app, like Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp, but also serves as a social network and message board. What's really amazing is how it's really helped my family (from China) connect with others here in the US. My father-in-law found people to go fishing with. My mother-in-law found a monthly foodies group to go to. My wife found some of her old high school classmates, plus a group of people that buy foods in bulk at discount and split the costs. As for me, well, I'm the boring one, I just use it to send text messages and emoji to my wife.

For my family, WeChat works well because it lowers the transaction costs of finding individuals with similar interests and backgrounds. My parents-in-law don't speak much English, so WeChat acts as a major filter for people who do speak Chinese. WeChat also lets you organize message boards by geography, making it easy to find groups that are geographically nearby. It's pretty amazing, since these weren't really problems that we knew we had, and the WeChat groups just filled those needs quite nicely. Furthermore, it was a good tool that let us first find people virtually and then transition to real-world relationships.

Do you think there are any actions that might successfully be taken to reduce or eradicate potential harms of digital life to individuals’ well-being?

There are three big things people can do to take back control of their time and their attention, and improve well-being.

The first is to turn off notifications from apps and services. When I sign up for a new service or install a new app, the first thing I do is figure out how to minimize the number of notifications it sends. The default for most apps is to buzz and make loud sounds when it receives a notification. It turns out that you can often block these notifications or make it so that they silently send notifications, making it so that you don't get interrupted all the time.

The second is to decrease use of apps and services that try to monopolize your attention, in particular social media. Learn about the psychological strategies that they use to capture your attention. Put your smartphones away when dining with friends. Also, try reducing your usage of these apps too. You'll find that you're not really missing that much if you reduce your use of Facebook or Snapchat to once a week or less. Focus on the here and now, on the people around you right now, rather than the virtual you.

The third is to change how you use these apps. Social media is a lot like TV: you can watch it by yourself, or you can use it as an excuse to get friends to watch things together. In one case, TV is isolating, and in the other case, it is bonding. Instead of mindlessly browsing information about acquaintances, use social media to build or maintain strong relationships. Check in directly with close friends to see how they are doing, or use these social media platforms to coordinate meetups with friends.


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