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Can Technology Save Itself from Itself?

With the 20th anniversary of the birth of Internet just passed, I thought it a good time to step back and reflect on the role of technology in our present lives and the role it may play in the future.

There is no doubt that the technological developments of the past two decades made possible by the Internet, including web sites, smartphones, email, texting, and social media, have dramatically changed the way we live, work, communicate, and, more generally, spend our time.

There are many “techno-evangelists” who believe that technology is making the world a better place and improving our lives. At the same time, there are many Chicken Littles who see the growing intrusion of technology in our lives as evils that will mark the end of civilization as we know it.

The reality inevitably lies somewhere in between these two extremes, with technology providing wonderful benefits while also bringing its share of costs and unintended consequences. As with so many innovations throughout history, how we use technology determines whether it is beneficial or harmful. The technological revolution is now at a critical juncture that may very well determine whether it has a generally positive or negative impact on future generations.

I see technology as I would a developing person who is transitioning from adolescence into adulthood. Much like a person’s early life, these first 20 years have been filled with rapid development, exuberance, awkwardness, impulsivity, excess, impatience, a lack of wisdom and perspective, and missteps. I’m not suggesting that this adolescence has been unhealthy; it has simply been the inevitable journey on the road to maturity.

I liken our response to this new technological landscape to children left alone at home who discover a freezer full of ice cream. At first, they gorge on it, savoring every sweet spoonful without concern for how such large amounts of ice cream will affect how they feel or their health. But, no matter how much they love ice cream, they reach a point where it loses its allure and they just can’t eat any more. Also, as a sign of impending maturity, they realize that too much of a good thing may not actually be a good thing.

This is the point at which we are now arriving. Both technology and its digital natives are experiencing growing pains and those coinciding occurrences will have a dramatic impact on the role that technology plays in our lives in coming generations. My concern is that technology, both its creators and consumers, is going to get stuck in a perpetual adolescence that prevents it from realizing its potential to truly change the world for the better. The next few years will determine whether technology remains a stunted adolescent or evolves into a mature adult.

There are some early warning signs of this potential crisis of identity. For the technology companies, the arc of innovation appears to be flattening out. The Internet-driven landscape is now well-trodden and it is increasingly difficult to blaze new trails. For example, the last few generations of smartphones haven’t offered any truly game-changing developments in either hardware or software. Much of the new technology is really just refinements or extensions of the existing technology, rather than anything truly disruptive. Despite the influx of highly intelligent and well-educated young people into the tech industry, could the intellectual marketplace be running out of ideas?

Moreover, technology seems to be regressing in its moral development. There is no doubt that there are many techies working to develop something of great value to humanity. At the same time, it is equally clear that the center of gravity of the tech community has shifted from social good to financial ROI.

The primary impetus for the current generous of tech geeks seems to be to become the next Sean Parker or Mark Zuckerberg, create the next Facebook or Google, and turn their IPO into billions of dollars before they reach 30. Additionally, so much innovation these days, particularly focused on the massive smartphone market, seems to be aimed at providing conveniences for which there is no demand (think wearable technology) and entertaining a seemingly stupid audience (think Bubble Wrap app).

As for the consumers of all these technological innovations, the number of new users of Facebook, Twitter, and other popular social media sites has leveled off along with these companies’ revenues. Fewer people are signing up and increasing numbers are opting out.

I also sense a shift in the relationship that digital natives have with their technology as they mature. The novelty is starting to wear off as that which was once exciting is now mundane. The enthusiasm of the consumer market to buy, download, and use the “next big thing” is waning because those next things aren’t really all that big.

Digital adherents are also realizing that the marginal benefits of being connected are declining and the marginal costs are growing as increasingly mature digital natives begin to recognize the unexpected drawbacks of technology on their lives.

Some of these costs arise from “tech fatigue,” in which people come to see how exhausting 24/7 connectivity is. Other costs may be the toll that being connected constantly takes on their ability to think and focus, whether in school or at work. More people are also recognizing the immense opportunity costs; time devoted to technology is time not spent on other pursuits.

Perhaps most potently, a distancing from technology may come from the inevitable changes in values, interests, and priorities as the younger generations grow up, establish careers, and begin families. Friends become more important than “friends.” Being liked takes precedence over “likes.” And quality of relationships gain meaning over quantity of relationships.

So, can technology save itself from itself? Can it remain relevant as both it and its consumers mature? Certainly, technology will continue to play an outsized role in our lives; there is no going back. But there is an enormous difference between being omnipresent and being truly meaningful and impactful. With its smartphones and millions of apps that entertain and fill time in the most trivial ways, technology is at risk of losing its significance as a positive force in our lives. Technology will undoubtedly continue to make money, but will it improve our lives? As more people come to recognize this distinction, the tech industry will be forced to grapple with these questions itself.

Jim Taylor, Ph.D., Psychology, is the author of Raising Generation Tech: Prepare Your Children for a Media-fueled World.