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Technology and the Promise of Happiness

James Surowiecki the author of the excellent The Wisdom of Crowds [Amazon UK] has written an interesting article in the Technology Review questioning whether technological progress actually makes us any happier.  It seems like a good time to be asking that question.

It is generally assumed that technology enhances our lives.  From the ability to make international phones calls for little money, to downloading music, booking tickets and having vast swathes of audio video content available as broadcast and on-demand.  However, technology often undermines social networks and stable practices, which are seen to correlate well to indices of happiness.  An example here is the Amish who shun motors and electricity but are some of the happiest people – or so they tell us.   Counter-pose the simplicity of the Amish with the mainstream ‘developed’ world where there’s been a tenfold increase in depression accompanying pretty rapid technological development. How many people do you know who say they’re "stressed"?  The message seems to be simplicity = happiness.

Economists use proxies to measure increased well being or ‘happiness’ and the proxy is often choice.  Choice is measurable, happiness is not [at least not by any verifiable metric]. Aside from it being a questionable proxy, the increase in choice is not necessarily a good thing – it can be disabling and confusing.  Surowiecki uses published research on  consumers who were given the option of discounts on jam in a supermarket – they could choose from a shelf with 24 types of jam or one with 6 – the outcome? The side with 6 type of jam was ten times more likely to get a buyer.  The internet enables us the opportunity to get virtually any information but while that is a good thing it can be disabling – finding what you want is hard.  The more popular tools on the internet – collaborative filtering, shopbots, user-ratings etc. actually help to reduce and limit choice.  US television offers some of the best programmes there are [esp sitcoms] but they are buried in a sea of detritus.  Other examples are  music and images.  With BitTorrent and digital cameras we are able to create huge archives of media assets.  In an excellent post Rootburn talks about the effect of this on her audio consumption

my hard drive is full of music that I’ve never heard, and the DPE
[distributed processing environment] starts to kick in. So what do I do? I listen to the same old albums
over and over …
because I know I like them and that they won’t disturb me while
working. Most of the time these happen to be albums that I’ve ripped
myself, after having listened to the CDs a lot. So having more music
available has made me seek the comfort of what I already know.

The message seems to be: too much choice is not good; less is more.

Mobile phones [cellphone for you Stateside folks] are a good example of a double edged technology.  It enables me to meet with people and make plans on the move.  However, it invariably means that people can contact me and that I’m always available to work, or change my plans for others.  The cons cancel out the pros.  I now leave my mobile off for large chunks of the day.  Email is losing it’s value to me as a tool due to the huge number of emails I receive [and am expected to reply to].  My control and autonomy are constantly being questioned by these "technological enablers". 

Additionally, new technologies also seem to have shorter and shorter shelf life.  The newer model is already around the corner.  It’s dated when you buy it – or as Surowiecki says "it’s as if disappointment were built into the aquisition from the very beginning".  Perhaps this explains the continuing appeal of vinyl and other "old skool" tech.  You know where you are with it.  It does the job – the very old techniness of it itself has some cache.  New tech also loses it’s sheen of luxury quickly; we forget how good it is and it quickly becomes another utility – from a luxury to a  necessity.  It no longer makes us happy.  Advertisers, or "persuaders", realise this.  Many technologies are advertised and promoted on the basis of their simplicity – but the simplicity of the tool itself is extrapolated out to simplifying your life.  For example, Apple’s advertising is simplicity itself and Apple stuff tends to be simple and intuitive to use but try using iTunes with another digital player than the iPod.  Try getting your anaolgue music in digital format.  Then try and make sense of those 10000 songs you have on your iPod. Like Rootburn above, you’ll seek simple solutions – old favourites or "random" play, the most popular feature on the iPod.  Simple usability does not make for simple technology.

Where does this argument leave social software if technology fundamentally undermines our relationships with one another?   Social software is about building social relationships yet social software ‘is’ inherently technological.   Can we build things that makes our lives simpler, slower, happier?  It seems to me that the negative effects of a particular technology would be a good place to start in looking at designing good social experiences… but this may be counterintuitive to good design e.g. making it harder to do things so you raise the ‘cost’/value of doing them.  Try selling that to the user!

1 Comment
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