The Impact of Digital Technologies on Life & Work
Imagine a possible “near future” experience of going to work:
“As I drink my first coffee of the day, I use the app on my smartphone to order a car. At the designated time, a driverless vehicle pulls up outside my apartment and a push notification on my watch alerts me that it has arrived. The car door is opened by a face recognition sensor. Once seated, I use the voice recognition system to confirm the destination and the car automatically sets off. The car takes the most efficient route as determined by the on-board navigation system in coordination with the city’s intelligent transport matrix. Software code allows the car to communicate, interact and transact with other vehicles to ensure a fast and smooth trip. The arrival time is predicted in advance and the experience is both safe and pleasant. In the absence of anything else to do, my only task is to sit back, do some important work while listening to a podcast about the future of super-intelligent AI. I arrive at the office refreshed and ready to meet the challenges of the day.”
I often wish that we lived in such a world. A world where digital technology delivers on its promise to make our lives more comfortable and convenient. A world where technology provides us with the space to be more productive, but also more creative.
But the reality of modern life is very different.
Take commuting. Too often, I am stuck in traffic in the morning. My levels of frustration slowly building at the time that is being wasted.
I arrive at work in a bad mood and with an Inbox full of tasks urgently needing to be dealt with.
Digital Technologies are Controlling Our Lives
For many of us, technology is not providing solutions to the challenges of everyday life.
Rather, it is becoming a big part of the problem. Our experience of technology adds to our stress levels and sense of alienation.
A simple example is email. My working day — like most peoples — is characterized by a steady stream of emails that need to be dealt with. At the very least, they need to be read. Many require some kind of action. And this work is usually unproductive and boring. Often, I am required to comply with the kind of routinized procedures or processes that dominate the workplace and modern life.
Digital technologies add another layer to the already heavily “proceduralized” and “standardized work”.
Digital Technologies deliver more work, more anxiety and less freedom and opportunities for individual expression. Of course, we shouldn’t let technology control our lives in this way, but “escaping” is not always easy.
For instance, I could “take ownership” of my life and learn how to “disconnect”.
There are many stories of people who wake up early to beat the flow of information and requests that kick off the working day.
Real “daredevils” go even further and attempt to cut themselves off from email and social media.
It is often suggested that these people are in the best position to take their lives back (think normal conversations and actually meeting people in person!), instead of being hooked to a smart phone or other communication device.
However, this is easier said than done.
I know people who have tried it and their experience suggests that not everybody you work with will understand or appreciate such a move. After all, the work doesn’t just disappear. Somebody needs to deal with it, otherwise it just accumulates, creating further problems down the line.
But there is a much more serious “problem” with the new digital technologies.
The exponential growth of Big Data, machine-learning and AI means that technologies are becoming more sophisticated. And such data and data-analytics are increasingly being used by organizations to manage and control their employees. New technologies monitor employees in order to make them work more efficiently, thereby increasing productivity.
An extreme example of this are Amazon’s wristbands, which track employees’ hand movements.
But the patent disclosure goes to the heart about a global debate about privacy and security. Amazon already has a…www.nytimes.com
But, on a much smaller scale, all of us have some experience of being measured, monitored and judged by data-driven technologies. Technology-driven workplace surveillance of employees is now standard practice. And the expectation (demand) is that such surveillance will nudge us into making the necessary adjustments to improve our performance.
These data-driven techniques go way beyond traditional time management and camera systems, particularly when data-analytics and AI are used to decide who gets rewarded, promoted, or let go.
In the modern workplace, unilaterally “disconnecting” ourselves from the grid is not a viable option. At least, if we want to continue working. We are locked into a system that no longer offers the choice to disconnect.
But Here is the Irony: Digital Technologies Offer a Solution
Nevertheless, I remain optimistic about the digital future and believe that new technologies can become a part of the solution. They can give us back control over our lives and contribute to a better future.
Take the example of automation, for instance. Smart technologies can make us more creative by automating many of the routine processes and procedures that organizations have created over the years.
And automated cars, as described above, have the potential to remove the anxieties and “lost time” of a daily commute.
Digital technologies can free us to work on “high value” and more creative activities.
But, in order to achieve this better world, we have to become more informed and much more vigilant.
We have to take concerns about privacy and misuse of data very seriously. More generally, we must be much smarter about our relationship with digital technologies. We need to take control of technology and its place in our collective future.
As I mentioned in several earlier pieces, this needs to start with non-technologists becoming much more familiar with new digital technologies. Too many people are passive consumers of technology without really understanding it.
We must work smarter and harder to make sure that more people understand that new technologies have the potential to create new jobs, while at the same time increase our freedom and creativity.
We must understand how these technologies have the potential to transform the current social and economic structures of society. And in doing this, we also need to realize that we cannot simply rely on traditional social, economic and political models anymore.
But again this needs to start with a better understanding of digital technologies.
Only then will we be able to create a world that offers greater freedom in a safe and healthy environment in which genuine creativity is facilitated and rewarded. A world where digital technologies offer an infrastructure of freedom and not control.