(Towfiqu Photography)
(Towfiqu Photography)

When the Pew Research Center asks American internet users for their bottom-line judgment about the role of digital technology in their own lives, the vast majority feel it is a good thing.

Yet, over the past 18 months a drumbeat of concerns about the personal and societal impacts of technology has been growing – and it crescendoed last week in the congressional grilling of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg about his company’s power and impact on American life. More broadly the concerns are highlighted by headlines about the “Heavy Toll of ‘Always On’ Technology,” the emergence of a “techlash” driven by people’s disillusionment with the online environment, and worries over digital dystopia. There has also been commentary and research about the effects digital technology usage can have on people’s well-being, their level of stress, their likelihood of committing suicide, their ability to perform well at work and in social settings, their capability to focus in an era of information overload, their capacity to modulate their level of connectivity, and their overall happiness.

In light of these mounting concerns, Pew Research Center and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center queried technology experts, scholars and health specialists on this question: Over the next decade, how will changes in digital life impact people’s overall well-being physically and mentally?

Humans need tools. Humans need and want augmentation. And as the saying goes ‘First we make our tools, then our tools form us.’
Paul Jones

Some 1,150 experts responded in this non-scientific canvassing. Some 47% of these respondents predict that individuals’ well-being will be more helped than harmed by digital life in the next decade, while 32% say people’s well-being will be more harmed than helped. The remaining 21% predict there will not be much change in people’s well-being compared to now. (See the section titled “About this canvassing of experts” for further details about who these experts are and the structure of this canvassing sample.)

Many of those who argue that human well-being will be harmed also acknowledge that digital tools will continue to enhance various aspects of life. They also note there is no turning back. At the same time, hundreds of them suggested interventions in the coming years they feel could mitigate the problems and emphasize the benefits. Moreover, many of the hopeful respondents also agree that some harm will arise in the future, especially to those who are vulnerable.

Participants were asked to explain their answers, and most wrote detailed elaborations that provide insights about hopeful and concerning trends. They were allowed to respond anonymously and many did so; their written comments are also included in this report.

Three types of themes emerged: those tied to expert views that people will be more helped than harmed when it comes to well-being; those tied to potential harms; and those tied to remedies these experts proposed to mitigate foreseeable problems. The themes are outlined in the nearby table.

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These findings do not represent all the points of view that are possible in responding to a question like this, but they do reveal a wide range of valuable observations based on current trends. Here are some representative quotes from these experts on each of these themes.

The benefits of digital life

Connection: Daniel Weitzner, principal research scientist and founding director of MIT’s Internet Policy Research Initiative, explained, “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.”

Commerce, government and society: Pete Cranston, a Europe-based trainer and consultant on digital technology and software applications, wrote, “There’s a top-1%, first-world response, which is to bemoan the impact of hyperconnectedness on things like social interaction, attention span, trolling and fake news – all of which are real but, like complaining about the marzipan being too thick on the Christmas cake, are problems that come with plenty and surplus. There’s a rest-of-the-world response which focuses more on the massive benefits to life from access to finance, to online shopping, to limitless, free research opportunities, to keeping in touch with loved ones in far-away places (and think migrant workers rather than gap-year youth).”

Human beings want and need connection, and the internet is the ultimate connection machine.
Daniel Weitzner

Crucial intelligence: Micah Altman, director of research and head scientist for the program on information science at MIT, said, “Most of the gains in human well-being (economic, health, longevity, life-satisfaction and a range of choices) over the last century and a half have come from advances in technology that are the long-term results of scientific advances. However, these gains have not been distributed equitably, even in democracies. Many advances from the fields of computer science, information science, statistics and computational social science are just beginning to be realized in today’s technology – and there remains a huge potential for long-term improvement. Further, since information is a non-consumptive good, it lends itself to broad and potentially more equitable distribution. For example, the relatively recent trends towards openness in scientific publication, scientific data and educational resources are likely to make people across the world better off – in the short term, by expanding individuals’ access to a broad set of useful information; in the medium term, by decreasing barriers to education (especially higher-ed); and in the long term by enhancing scientific progress.”

Contentment: Stephen Downes, a senior research officer at the National Research Council Canada, commented, “The internet will help rather than harm people’s well-being because it breaks down barriers and supports them in their ambitions and objectives. We see a lot of disruption today caused by this feature, as individuals and companies act out a number of their less desirable ambitions and objectives. Racism, intolerance, greed and criminality have always lurked beneath the surface, and it is no surprise to see them surface. But the vast majority of human ambitions and objectives are far more noble: people desire to educate themselves, people desire to communicate with others, people desire to share their experiences, people desire to create networks of enterprise, commerce and culture. All these are supported by digital technologies, and while they may not be as visible and disruptive as the less-desirable objectives, they are just as real and far more massive.”

Continuation toward quality: Paul Jones, professor of information science at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, proposes that future artificial intelligence (AI) will do well at enhancing human well-being, writing, “Humans need tools. Humans need and want augmentation. And as the saying goes ‘First we make our tools, then our tools form us.’ Since the first protohuman, this has been true. But soon our tools will want, demand and create tools for their own use. The alienation of the industrial age has already given up the center stage to the twisted social psychology of the service industry. Next, will our tool-created overlords be more gentle and kind than the textile factory, the sewing room or the call center? I believe they will be.”

Concerns over harms

Digital deficits: Nicholas Carr, well-known author of numerous books and articles on technology and culture, wrote, “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.”

Digital addiction: David S.H. Rosenthal, retired chief scientist of the LOCKSS Program at Stanford University, said, “The digital economy is based upon competition to consume humans’ attention. This competition has existed for a long time (see Tim Wu’s ‘The Attention Merchants’), but the current generation of tools for consuming attention is far more effective than previous generations. Economies of scale and network effects have placed control of these tools in a very small number of exceptionally powerful companies. These companies are driven by the need to consume more and more of the available attention to maximize profit. This is already having malign effects on society (see the 2016 presidential election). Even if these companies wanted to empower less-malign effects, they have no idea how to, and doing so would certainly impair their bottom line. Thus these companies will consume more and more of the available attention by delivering whatever they can find to grab and hold attention. The most effective way to do this is to create fear in the reader, driving the trust level in society down (see Robert Putnam’s ‘Making Democracy Work’ for the ills of a low-trust society).”

Keeping people in a continual state of anxiety, anger, fear, or just haunted by an inescapable, nagging sense that everyone else is better off than they are can be very profitable.
Judith Donath

Digital distrust/divisiveness: Judith Donath, author of “The Social Machine, Designs for Living Online,” commented, “If your objective is to get people to buy more stuff, you do not want a population of people who look at what they have and at the friends and family surrounding them, and think to themselves ‘life is good, I appreciate what I have, and what I have is enough.’ If your goal is to manipulate people, to keep a population anxious and fearful so that they will seek a powerful, authoritarian leader – you will not want technologies and products that provide people with a strong sense of calm and well-being. Keeping people in a continual state of anxiety, anger, fear, or just haunted by an inescapable, nagging sense that everyone else is better off than they are can be very profitable. In short, the individual researchers and developers may be motivated by a sincere desire to advance understanding of mood, cognition, etc., or to create technologies that nudge or control our responses for our own good, but the actual implementation of these techniques and devices is likely to be quite different – to be used to reduce well-being because a population in a state of fear and anxiety is a far more malleable and profitable population.”

Digital duress: Jason Hong, professor at the Human Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, wrote, “Many years ago, the famed Nobel laureate Herb Simon pointed out that ‘Information 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 click-through 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 [has the] equivalent [health effects] of quitting smoking, and today’s platforms are unintentionally designed to isolate us rather than helping us build strong relationships with others.”

Digital dangers: Tiziana Dearing, a professor at the Boston College School of Social Work, said, “People’s well-being will be affected for the worse by digital technology for three reasons. 1) Because we have evolved as interpersonal, social creatures and therefore are unable to adapt to the behaviors, needs, even maybe the wiring required to thrive socioemotionally and physically in a digital world at the pace that digital change will require. 2) Because digital technology – from design to algorithms – has evolved without sufficient consideration of social empathy and inherent bias. 3) Because we have not figured out how to mitigate the ability that certain forms of technology have created to be our worst selves with each other. Don’t get me wrong. Technological developments hold tremendous potential to cure disease, solve massive human problems, level the information playing field, etc. But our ability to adapt at a species level happens on a much slower cycle, and our human behaviors get in the way.”

Intervention ideas to ease problems

Reimagine systems: Sherry Turkle one of the world’s foremost researchers into human-computer interaction and professor at MIT, shared the following action steps: “1) Working with companies in terms of design – [these tools] should not be designed to engage people in the manner of slot machines. 2) [There should be] a movement on every level to make software transparent. This is a large-scale societal goal! 3) Working with companies to collaborate with consumer groups to end practices that are not in the best interests of the commons or of personal integrity. 4) A fundamental revisiting of the question of who owns your information. 5) A fundamental revisiting of the current practices that any kind of advertisement can be placed online (for example ads that are against legal norms, such as ageist, sexist, racist ads). 6) Far more regulation of political ads online. 7) An admission from online companies that they are not ‘just passive internet services.’ 8) Finding ways to work with them so that they are willing to accept that they can make a great deal of money even if they accept to be called what they are! This is the greatest business, political, and social and economic challenge of our time, simply learning to call what we have created what it really is and then regulate and manage it accordingly, bring it into the polity in the place it should really have.”

Reinvent tech: Susan Price, lead experience strategist at USAA, commented, “We can use human-centered technology design to improve our experiences and outcomes, to better serve us. I have a vision for a human API that allows us to moderate and throttle what occupies our attention – guided by principles and rules in each user’s direct control, with a model and framework that prioritizes and categorizes content as it reaches our awareness – to reduce effort and cognitive load in line with our own expressed goals and objectives. Today we cede that power to an array [of] commercial vendors and providers.”

Regulate: Dana Chisnell, co-director of the Center for Civic Design, wrote, “There are dozens of projects happening to try to make the internet a better place, but it’s an arms race. As individuals find tools for coping and managing their digital lives, technology companies will find new, invasive ways to exploit data generated on the internet in social media. And there will be more threats from more kinds of bad actors. Security and privacy will become a larger concern and people will feel more powerless in the face of technology that they don’t or can’t control. And it will take many years to understand how to negotiate that race and come to some kind of detente.”

People are adaptive. In the long run, we are reasonable, too. We will learn how to reign in the pitfalls, threats, bad guys and ill-meaning uses. These will continue to show up, but the march is towards progress.
Sheizaf Rafaeli

Redesign media literacy: Alex Halavais, director of the M.A. in social technologies program at Arizona State University, said, “The primary change needs to come in education. From a very early age, people need to understand how to interact with networked, digital technologies. They need to learn how to use social media, and learn how not to be used by it. They need to understand how to assemble reliable information and how to detect crap. They need to be able to shape the media they are immersed in. They need to be aware of how algorithms and marketing – and the companies, governments, and other organizations that produce them – help to shape the ways in which they see the world. Unfortunately, from preschool to grad school, there isn’t a lot of consensus about how this is to be achieved.”

Recalibrate expectations: Sheizaf Rafaeli, a professor at the University of Haifa in Israel, wrote, “People are adaptive. In the long run, we are reasonable, too. We will learn how to reign in the pitfalls, threats, bad guys and ill-meaning uses. These will continue to show up, but the march is towards progress. Better, more meaningful lives. Healthier, more-supportive environments. It is a learning process, and some of us, sometimes, get an ‘F’ here or there. But we learn. And with digital tech, we learn faster. We converse and communicate and acknowledge each other like never before. And that is always a good start. Bad things, like greed, hate, violence, oppression will not be eradicated. But the digital is already carrying, delivering and instantiating much promise. This is not rosy-colored utopian wishful thinking. It is a realistic take on the net effects. I would rather trade places with my grandkids than with my grandparents.”

Fated to fail: Douglas Massey, a professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University, responded to say that interventions are not likely to be possible. He wrote, “I am not very optimistic that democratically elected governments will be able to regulate the internet and social media in ways that benefit the many rather than the few, given the vast amounts of money and power that are at stake and outside the control of any single government, and intergovernmental organizations are too weak at this point to have any hope of influence. The Trump administration’s repeal of net neutrality is certainly not a good sign.”