Will technology adoption bring us closer or drive us further apart?

three guys working around a computer

Written by Caroline Styr, Research Analyst in Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work in Europe

Rampant technology adoption threatens to divide us. We need to navigate the shift toward human augmentation by applying it to societal and workplace good.

The promise of technology adoption was, in many ways, to bring us closer together. Railroads transported us from the barren countryside to the city center. Radio, television and tablets let us experience the same stories and access the same information as someone in an opposite corner of the world. Telegraph wires, phone lines and then wireless mobile technology allowed us to communicate with each other faster and faster (and with less and less crackle).

We lapped this opportunity up. Over 60 years, landline adoption in the U.S. went from 10% to 90%. Radio, over 45 years, jumped from 10% to 99%. Color TV, 10% to 95% in 25 years. Social media, 5% to 70% in just 10 years. Smartphones, 35% to 80% in a mere five years.

A Bridge Too Far?

It wasn’t long before the innocent promise of connectivity turned sour. Now, our digitally-powered communication is a toxic game of “whose life looks better online,” the source of constant competition. (4.2 billion Instagram likes a day, but who’s counting? Well, everyone.) At its lightest, it’s a laughable misuse of #nofilter; at its worst, it can lead defenseless youngsters to take their own lives.

We can create things online that appear true offline. It’s not just the perfect filter on Instagram that has the potential to mislead. Now, deepfakes can make anyone appear to say – or do – anything. It won’t be long before deepfake technology breaks out of the realm of research and into consumers’ hands. Adobe, for example, is developing prototype software called VoCo, which lets users edit recordings of speech as easily as a picture. WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) exists no more.

We can create any reality and try on any identity in our digital worlds. “Online” is not a single world that we all share; it’s a world unique to each individual engaging with it. Pockets form when groups of individuals choose to share the same reality. Kitsch is fine when it’s a collection of nail-art fanatics but can be catastrophic when it’s an extremist political movement. The internet has the power to bring people closer together who should remain worlds apart.

Timeout from Tech

It might feel like we’ve already fallen too far down the rabbit hole in terms of technology adoption. But we haven’t reached the singularity yet – we can still switch off. The digital detox movement is a rebellion against constant connectivity and the abusive realities that people are unwittingly sucked into online. People no longer want free WiFi – they want to be WiFi-free. Coming together the old-fashioned way (IRL) is having a renaissance. It makes a lot of sense, considering that it takes on average of 23 minutes to refocus after interrupting our work by checking email.

But one WiFi-free café does not a return to shared reality make. Let’s be real – if you wanted to avoid technology, you’d have a pretty tough time. Full-on off-the-grid, deserted island, depths-of-the-jungle life might be your only choice. Even if we did get off the grid, our data trail would be inked in the skin of the internet. We unwittingly handed over our data for decades in exchange for shiny digital services that came at steep price: our privacy.

Privacy? What Privacy?

This – privacy – has become the burning question. Has it been lost forever, or will there be a resurgence?

The French data protection authority has imposed record-breaking fines on Google for failing to abide by regulatory requirements for transparent, adequate and accessible information concerning data consent. Other countries are stepping up to follow the UK’s lead in charting and codifying the ethics surrounding the use of personal data for profitable gain. Will the politicians’ fight for data protection save us? Or can Tim Berners-Lee’s “Solid” (Social Linked Data) save us?

Our addiction to technology crept up on us. Metaphorically glued to us (our eyes, our thumbs), our devices are so well adopted that we reach for them even when we don’t receive a notification. There’s even a medical term for obsessive phone checking – nomophobia.

Life Beyond the Keyboard

In the future, it’s possible we’ll be putting the phone down – but only to put the VR goggles on, altering our manufactured realities in even more profound ways. One day, we might even replace those with technology that delivers digital services directly to our brains and senses. Chip implants like Elon Musk’s Neuralink are the next stop on the road to becoming fully-fledged cyborgs. Smart contact lenses are already in development and will sink the technology deep into the fabric of life.

Nobody wants to be the person who unconsciously gets their phone out while walking down the street, only to cause a domino effect of angry commuters behind them. But this is our reality. Don’t be so naïve as to think the next wave of human-machine interaction won’t creep up on us, too. The question is, will it bring us closer together or push us even further apart? This begs an answer to how we can navigate this change (human augmentation) and apply technology for societal (workplace) good.

Originally published here.

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