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How Virtual Distance beats the ‘Culture Lag’ of Technology

In our industrial society, we measure ‘progress’ by the speed of technological progress: The more inventions and the faster our technology evolves the more progress or society makes, right?

Technology = Progress?

Introducing new technology used to take time: The telephone took 75 years to reach 50 million people, the radio just 38 years and the TV even less, only 13 years, and the Internet and Facebook each less than 4 years. Countless new apps and smart devices become available every day. We invite them into our lives more and more allowing them to penetrate our space and privacy deeper and deeper, such as smartphones glued to our hand and omnipresent smart speakers surrounding us, for example. This is progress, right?

With all new technology, though, come intended consequences.

As humans, we had a generation or two to get used to the telephone. The popular “Angry Birds” app reached the same level of penetration 1,000 times faster - in just 35 days. An estimate in 2011 on productivity loss due to workers playing Angry Birds amounted to approximately $1.5 billion (with ‘B’) per year in the United States alone.

But these numbers measure only some direct economic impact such as the losses in productivity for companies. They do not measure the impact it has on us as individuals ‑as humans‑ nor on our network of families, friends, and co-workers or on society.

Separated by machines

We see the symptoms of excessive use and reliance on digital technology playing our everywhere, in our personal lives, at work, in politics, and in public life. As humans, it becomes a struggle to keep up with the technological progress as being human seems to erode as humans in an increasingly remote world in which we communicate and do business mostly through computers and ‘smart’ digital devices. We live more in our heads now and less in the real world surrounding us.

While we believe the devices are meant to connect us, in fact, we feel the disconnect as humans in the real world on meaningful and human levels. We can feel our lives being influenced increasingly by the impact of our technology, be it through right-out addiction to using smart-devices (do you get nervous when your smartphone is not in reach?) or feeling depressed from watching seemingly happier lives of others as portrayed in their Facebook pages, for example.

‘Culture Lag’ meets …

The unintended consequences of newly introduced technology are an expression of a general ‘cultural lag’ where technology leads the way, but many aspects of our culture fall behind and are slow to catch up (if at all), such as our values, habits, ethics, legislation and government institutions but also our understanding of society and ourselves. The term ‘culture lag’ was coined by sociologist William F. Ogburn in 1922 and picked up again by Alvin Toffler in his book Future Shock in 1984. In consequence, culture lag inhibits “our ability to direct technology and to control it wisely, ethically, and prudently” as Daniel Ellsberg concludes.

As digital and ‘smart’ technology disrupts and transforms our lives at an ever-increasing speed, breadth, and depth, the ‘culture lag’ widens and manifests along many aspects of our daily lives – and most often without us noticing it consciously, unless we know what to look for.

… Virtual Distance

This phenomenon of the digital age is called ‘Virtual Distance’ and has been researched for over a decade. Virtual Distance measures the disconnect that people feel when most communications between us are being mediated by digital technology, and when we rely (too) heavily on smart devices in our personal lives and at work.

Since Virtual Distance gives us a reliable and quantitative metrics, it enables us to measure, manage, and reduce the unfavorable build-up of Virtual Distance in all its forms, which aims to bridge if not close the gap of the digital culture lag.

Technology Backlash

As for the unintended consequences of digital technology, the situation is grave already. The writing of the digital culture lag or ‘technology backlash’ is on the wall. It starts showing up in the news more frequently; here are just a few recent examples:

  • Based on the overwhelming scientific evidence, a major investor asked Apple publicly to address the horrendous backlash their smart products have on the most vulnerable consumers, children and teenagers. The impact spans a vast range including a lack of focus on educational tasks and depression to addiction and suicide as well as other physical and mental health challenges!
  • The former U.S. Surgeon General addressed “Work and the Loneliness Epidemic” in a recent HBR cover story (Harvard Business Review, September 2017) where employees feel a disconnect from their workplace and their colleagues even while surrounded by people. Many lack a feeling of ‘belonging’ in their organization and perceive their work as increasingly meaningless with mental health problems on a rise.
  • As of this year, the WHO recognizes ‘gaming disorder’ as mental health condition relating to video games that spawned across the digital platforms.
  • The UK even appointed a ‘Minister of Loneliness’ to tackle social isolation, a growing problem across many developed countries.

How can it be that we feel lonely when we have all the technology in the world at our disposal to connect us with other human beings?

A child’s view

Perhaps, the unintended consequences are more apparent to my ’threshold generation’ than to younger generations. The threshold generation is the last generation growing up without ‘smart’ digital technology. As kids, we lived in the real world until digital technology came into our lives later in adulthood as something artificial and distinctly different that is added to the real world. The following generations (which still seem to be called ‘Millennials’ as a catch-it-all term) were born into and grew up in a digital world with devices and online connectivity available everywhere and all the time – which comes with blurring boundaries between reality and virtual worlds.

Taking the increasingly popular ‘smart speakers’ as an example, how does a young child intersect with the speaker and how does the speaker affect a young child’s thinking, behavior, and development?

A child, if you ask it, believes there is a tiny person “living” in the box. This person speaks back and can do things you ask for. The way we communicate with Amazon’s Alexa is via snappy commands that the machine can single out and interpret – it is only a narrow subset of the language and natural speech reduced to the imperative.

Humanizing Objects

The speaker even comes with a name now, “Alexa” (it used to be the anonymous and neutral ‘Echo’ previously) and a human-sounding voice which makes the device stand out from other technology and meant to be perceived even more ‘human’ instead of the lifeless piece of technology it actually is.

So, how does this experience of commanding a perceived human around translate to how this child speaks to other kids? How does it influence their social behavior? How does it shape their thinking if there is no abstraction and separation between what is real and what is not?

Guilty of Non-Ethical Engineering

These are serious consequences with ‑potentially‑ long-lasting and vast implications. But are these consequences ‘unintentional’ or, in fact, deliberately designed features of the apps and smart products we use? ‑ Consider this:

  • In an interview with Fast Company, a senior designer and executive at Apple expressed his ‑too late‑ concerns about the impact of products he helped to develop, among them the iPod and the iPhone. After becoming a father of three children, who sit right next to each other each glued to devices that prevent meaningful interaction and keep their minds apart in separate cyber realities, he now states: “I wake up in cold sweats every so often thinking, what did we bring to the world?”
  • Even more concerning is the “tremendous guilt” that, for example, Chamath Palihapitiya, a former Facebook executive once in charge of user growth, expressed in a recent interview for “having built tools that are ripping apart the social fabric of how society works,” or his colleague and former Facebook president, Sean Parker, admitting that “the initial goal was to get people hooked” by exploiting human vulnerability.

The “tremendous guilt” comes from willingly building addictive technology and knowing about the negative impact has on society and on individuals. These are not unintended consequences anymore but were very much intended goals for introducing the technology to manipulate people with most unethical motives and in the complete absence of social values, responsibility, and accountability.

Do As I Say, Not As I Do

The bigotry shows most clearly when the high-tech executives do not want to expose their own kids to the technology they build and sell. Instead, many Silicon Valley tech executives send their own kids to tech-free Wal... while at the same time they push their technology even further down into elementary schools reaching the kids of everyone else.

Knowing about the scientific findings on the impact that this technology has on kids and the bigotry around its proliferation more than justifies the call for establishing a framework for accountability and policies for ethical engineering practices on a broad scale. It is time to put us humans back in the center of enabling technology and enabling us to control the technology with a social consciousness and appropriate tech-savvy.

In this context, we will see if the just-announced Center for Humane Technology is a true effort to battle the (un)intended consequences or just a PR-stunt or paper-tiger by former tech-executives trying to smoothen the waves by appearing responsible and remorseful, retrospectively.

Return to living and working as humans again

Back from the schools and homes to the workplace, the build-up of Virtual Distance can be identified, measured and managed. Now it is up to us again to establish our ‘human self’ back in the real world through genuine, meaningful and trustful relationships with other humans, and to catch up with the culture lag while using technology skillfully as a powerful enabler.

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Tags: Distance, Virtual

Comment by Kevin Wood on April 8, 2018 at 8:34am

My interest/concern with the blog is the "technology=Progress?" statement.  (I share the concerns about the social impact).  However, many of the technology=progress advocates see incremental changes as 'progress'  and companies are taking advantage of it.  How frequently does Apple churn out a newer phone (or other companies) and how much of the change is really 'new technology'? But the public rushes out to spend on a newer device that is somehow better at meeting needs they consumer did not know they had.

The down-side is 'different power connectors (the old ones no longer work, so buy a plethora of new ones. The interface has changed, so users have to learn the new methods of doing everyday tasks. And features that were used are no longer there. (For example, I receive eamils. Because I use outlook, I can right click on the sender's name and the address can be added to my outlook address book.  At one time, connecting my phone to my computer would sync the information. Now I have all the information at home and on the road.  Now, I must manually enter the SAME information manually in the cloud just to download the information to my phone. . . Added steps for the same functionality.  Why must I put my information in the cloud? So I can get it 'anywhere'? (But then so can the government and hackers.  Is that REALLY progress? (For the government and hackers, yes. For me - not so much) and I get to pay more (new phone, new cables and cloud services) for less convenience. 


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