Technological developments have always had a drastic impact on human life. Because of weapons and tools, homo sapiens became the dominant species on earth. Different innovations have made life increasingly pleasant over the course of time – a life without a toilet, fridge or telephone is almost unimaginable now. However, the pace of technological development is going so fast that our brain can barely keep up. The dangers of becoming slaves to technology and artificial intelligence specifically are explained in a clear and disturbing way in “Do you trust this computer”, a documentary endorsed and spread by Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX and since this year the wealthiest man on earth. In this blog I want to share my view on this from a psychological perspective.
Our brain is a fascinating organ, but it does have some limitations. In my book “Negativity Mania” three thinking biases are described which result from these limitations:
- Negativity bias: negative information comes in faster than positive information and therefore we overvalue it;
- Short-term fixation: the brain overvalues issues that are relevant in the short term;
- Self-overestimation and groupthink: we have an overly positive picture of ourselves and the groups we belong to and an overly negative image of strangers.
Technology and thinking biases
Technology affects all the fallacies above and it can strengthen or weaken them. In this blog I will concentrate on the influence of technology on the short-term fixation and groupthink. A computer is not affected by a short term bias and can therefore support us in planning for the long term. When we put an appointment in a digital calendar, we automatically receive a reminder. This helps us come out of a short-term fixation. But there is also another side. If we are not aware of the natural limitations of our brain, we run the risk that technology will dominate us. Everywhere around us we see people staring hypnotised at their smartphone. The continuous flow of messages on social media or news sites is designed to hold our attention. The same goes for games and other apps. It is tempting to get stuck in the short-term fixation, but it becomes problematic if it leads to social isolation or if it distracts from work or attention to family life.
Another bias that is becoming more prominent because of technology is groupthink. The overload of information and the rise of social media causes filter bubbles. People live in their own information reality, where dissenters are filtered out by their own preferences and algorithms. If people don’t listen to those who think differently, there will be no ground for understanding. Groups will only polarise and drift apart. Evidence that empathy is decreasing is found in longitudinal research on empathy in the U.S. (Konrath, O’Brien and Hsing, 2011). This is worrying as the rise of empathy is positively correlated with world peace and the growth of prosperity over the last 500 years (Steven Pinker; Better Angels of our Nature). By reversing this trend there is a risk of falling back in a more voilent and less prosperous world. The Brexit, separatism in Catalonia and the growth of populist parties in Europe might be examples of the political instability this lack of empathy and polarization is causing.
A technology diet
Staring at a screen is easier for the brain than entering into a personal conversation. It is also a phenomenon that reinforces itself. Young people who look at their smartphone screens a lot find it more difficult to make eye contact and therefore flee back to their screen. Game designer Jane McGonigal talks about an exodus of young people turning their backs on reality and escaping into the virtual world. This exodus will not stop if we do not take action. Even (former) executives at Facebook and Apple are sounding alarm bells. Technology will only become more attractive in the coming decades. If we want to remain autonomous social beings, we must consciously deal with technology. Just as we have to control our eating patterns so as not to become too fat, we have to keep our intake of digital impulses under control. Otherwise computers and robots will be controlling our brain and we’ll turn into digital zombies in a virtual landscape. There will even be a serious threat that artificial intelligence will rule as a dictator from which we can never escape, as Elon Musk warns us in “Do you trust this computer”.
Control our limitations
If we take our limitations into account, technology can make life more enjoyable. In the future we can delegate many more tasks to technology (driving, housework, monotonous tasks), giving us more time for personal development, relaxation and social activities. But we do need to avoid the pitfalls of our own brain and be aware of the dangers of technology. Artificial intelligence will soon outsmart us. Before it does we need to deal with our own limitations. Maybe we should start with limiting the exposure to technology and focus on things that really make us happy. Happiness can be found in our interactions with other people rather than in activities with a screen. Making an appointment in a digital calendar is useful, but if you are gazing at your smartphone during the appointment, technology has won. Then we have become slaves instead of bosses.
More on this topic in Chapter 4 of “Negativity Mania“; “Technology: a blessing or a curse?”