Slightly less than half of technology experts believe that digital living will help us over the course of the next decade. That’s one primary finding in a recent study of 1,150 technology experts in a joint effort between Pew Research Center and Elon University’s Imaging the Internet Center.  The report, issued today, comes on the heels of several high profile technology debacles including Facebook’s recent admission that 87 million users’ data was compromised. Although the authors admit that their findings are not representative of all points of view, the study nevertheless “reveal[s] a wide range of valuable observations based on current trends.”

The experts that comprised the sample were asked a single question: “Over the next decade, how will changes in digital life impact people’s overall well-being physically and mentally?” According to the authors three themes emerged from the open-ended responses to the question: people will be more helped than harmed when it comes to well-being; potential harms; and remedies that can mitigate foreseeable problems. Each theme was then broken down into five or six sub-categories.

Although the findings cannot be adequately summed up here, a variety of opinions were reflected in the findings. Daniel Weitzner, principle research scientist and founding director or MIT’s Internet Policy Research Initiative said, “Human beings want and need connection, and the internet is the ultimate connection machine. Whether on questions of politics, community affairs, science, education, romance or economic life, the internet does connect people with meaningful and rewarding information and relationships. … I have to feel confident that we can continue to gain fulfillment from these human connections.”

However, connectedness may come at a price. That view was expressed by well-known technology expert Nicholas Carr who said, “We now have a substantial body of empirical and experiential evidence on the personal effects of the internet, social media and smartphones. The news is not good. While there are certainly people who benefit from connectedness – those who have suffered social or physical isolation in the past, for instance – the evidence makes clear that, in general, the kind of constant, intrusive connectedness that now characterizes people’s lives has harmful cognitive and emotional consequences. Among other things, the research reveals a strong association, and likely a causal one, between heavy phone and internet use and losses of analytical and problem-solving skill, memory formation, contextual thinking, conversational depth and empathy as well as increases in anxiety.”

To me, the findings were not all that surprising; many of the experts whose opinions were published have long espoused different opinions on the future of digital living. MIT professor Sherry Turkle (one of the experts in the sample), for example, has published widely on different aspects of living with technology. Her 2012 book (revised in 2017) “Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other” was a New York Times Best Seller. The report, however, is still a good read and it’s good to have ready access to differing views of technology experts in a single document. You can download the entire document using this link: “The Future of Well-Being in a Tech-Saturated World.”

–Jeffrey Maciejewski

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