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Psychology of Technology: The Evolution of Connectivity

Have you ever thought about how far we’ve come in our ability to connect with others and how far we’ll go? I’ve been thinking a lot about connectivity recently and have always found that looking back to where we came from can help us better understand where we are today and, more importantly, where we may be going in the future.

Consider the evolution of connectivity. We officially became homo sapiens approximately 200,000 years ago. With the emergence of sophisticated language, we were able to communicate with each other face to face in a way that allowed for the emergence of civilization as we now know it. Of course, this connection was limited to, well, shouting distance, but it was a start.

About 4000 years ago, humans developed their first means of non-face-to-face communication with the discovery of smoke signals and then, about 2500 years ago, drums. For the first time, people were able to connect without being in physical proximity to each other. Amazingly, not much changed in communication technology for the next 2300 years or so.

Then, around 1835, Samuel Morse invented the telegraph, setting the stage for the greatest period of technological development in history that, in a relatively short time, has transformed our lives so dramatically. Think about it. The telegraph was a clear precursor to the Internet and the telegram was an early iteration of email.

Alexander Graham Bell’s patent of the telephone in 1876 (many have laid claim to having invented it) enabled humans to converse directly over great distances as if they were in the same room.

The facsimile followed closely in the wake of the telephone, paving the way for the immediate transmission of something other than voice. For the first time, documents could be shared at a rate far faster than through the mail (what we now quaintly refer to as ‘snail mail’).

Mobile phone technology emerged for commercial use with the car phone around 1979 and progressively evolved to the present where mobile phones are now considered an indispensible part of our lives.

In 1994, the Internet was introduced to the public (it had actually been around since the 1960s) and it has likely been the single greatest leap forward in communication technology, enabling the instantaneous transmission of data, documents, still and moving images, and voice. It has created a veritable torrent of technology that has given us the Web, email, text messaging, and an array of applications, for example, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, and Skype, that have dramatically altered the way we connect.

This brief and, admittedly, incomplete history is obviously not news to most of you, but I wanted to provide a little perspective on how we arrived at the present.

What did all of these communication technologies have in common? They have incrementally enabled us to connect with other people and access more information in more rapid, easy, and less costly ways. And each advancement changed our lives in ways manifest and subtle, direct and indirect, predictable and unexpected. Connectivity may be the most powerful tool in our lives today, with informational, economic, social, cultural, and political impact.

What then of the future of connectivity? What new technologies will be developed that will further change our lives? Perhaps we need look no further than science fiction to see what might become science fact in the not-too-distant future. Will we receive visual and auditory tweets through eyeglasses and ear pieces, respectively? Perhaps 3-D holographic telephone conversations? In the distant future, instead of voice recognition, how about thought recognition?

My concern is not in the technology itself; we cannot and should not try to slow or halt the inexorable march of progress. My interest is in our relationship with that technology and my concern is in how technology will affect us. Will we be passive recipients – dare I say victims? – of technology who allow it to change our lives for better or worse without consideration? Or can we be masters of our technology and deliberately harness its tremendous value while minimizing its risks?

The answer to these questions will depend not only on the technology itself that is developed, but also on our exploration of how new technology will influence our lives. Could anyone have predicted how the latest communication technology would change our lives? Maybe not, but I think it would be worth a try. Good questions to ask include:

  1. What are our goals for this technology?
  2. How will it influence how we interact with others?
  3. How will it affect how we use our time?
  4. What benefit will it bring to us?
  5. What costs might arise from its use?
  6. How can developers prepare us to best use this technology?

Yes, let us continue to nurture emerging technology to further connectivity. But the journey of progress shouldn’t be guided by developers and engineers alone. Such a trip leaves behind other important aspects of connectivity, namely, our relationship with the technology itself, where the risk is that the technology will lead us a down a road of unintended consequences rather than our leading the technology down a road of our choosing.

Let’s not forget that technology is not an end in itself, but rather a means to an end. What is that end? Enhancing the quality of our lives. Yet can we can say unequivocally that the latest technology has done that? I’m not so sure. With that purpose in mind, bringing technologists together with those who reside at the nexus of technology and humanity, for example, experts from psychology, philosophy, and sociology, would be invaluable in answering these questions. Though computer and communication companies use neuroscientists in the “micro” development of technology (e.g., GUIs) and there is some academic study of these issues, I haven’t found anything to indicate that technologists are exploring the “macro” side of technology (please correct me if I’m wrong).

Such a collaboration would serve two essential purposes. First, by fully understanding the relationship between technology and people, developers will actually create technology that will better serve our needs. Second, such a collaboration will increase the chances that we will understand the ramifications of new technology and ensure that it will provide the utmost benefit to humanity with only a minimum of costs.