Always on, always available, always connected—these are the buzzwords regularly touted by successful technology companies. Popular websites like Facebook and YouTube, powered by simple Web 2.0 tools, enable a broad range of users to author and share personalized web content. To improve efficiency and productivity, businesses demand technology that is standardized, modular, and easy to maintain.
Are these criteria—uninterrupted availability, personalization, standardization, modularity, ease of maintenance—sufficient to determine whether or not a particular technology is ultimately good? We can argue that it is necessary that the power grid, the phone network, and the Internet are always on, available and connected. But it may not be so wonderful for a person to be always in contact and reachable. Simply put, an “always-contactable” person is an “always-interruptible” person. A cell phone is great when you are lost, stranded, or in an emergency—help is just a call away. But it’s an utter nuisance when you are sharing an intimate moment and the client, telemarketer, or, worse still, a computer calls. These interruptions of down-time, away from the workplace, used to happen to a small group of professionals in the event of emergency. Nowadays, face-to-face conversations, a quiet stroll in the park, a sustained period of reading or listening to music, and a restful day in the sun are all fair game for electronic interruptions.
The success of Web 2.0 technologies is related to its ease of use, ability to connect to a global community, and its lack of censorship. Blogs and YouTube videos are important tools for democracy. In Malaysia, where the mass media backs the ruling party, the opposition gained five of thirteen states in the 2008 general election, aided in no small part to thousands of bloggers and the effective use of YouTube. In 2007, when the video of a Polish immigrant being tasered by RCMP officers at Vancouver International Airport was posted on YouTube, the ensuing public outcry sparked eight separate investigations and a public inquiry.
For all the good it has done, Web 2.0 technology does have its downside. For better or worse, it is changing the way we relate. What does friendship mean when we spend more and more time swapping videos, email, and text messages with friends? Electronic communications potentially shield us from the emotional nuances of face-to-face interactions. Email firings and divorce by text messaging spare the sender from engaging with the receipient’s negative feelings. The flip side is we do not participate in the happy emotions of friends who receive good news or a humourous video.
In the business world, it is no longer just about being big. Increasingly, it is about being fast. Standardized technology and streamlined processes promote efficiency and speed. Fast business is run by high performance professionals who can multi-task in a competitive environment. This fast pace of life, however, is detrimental to the overall health of workers. Sustained stress with no respite eventually leads to fatigue and burnout. The high-speed, multitasking lifestyle of the work week should be balanced by inefficient rest during the weekend. The problem arises when we continue to run at a fast pace through the weekend, routinely checking and responding to work email along with personal email. Perhaps, technology that is good should turn off when we want it to.
A mobile phone company in the Middle East has a service which automatically reminds Muslims of the five daily prayer times. There may be a market for cell phones with two numbers, one for work and the other for personal use, with the ability to turn either one on or off independently. This suggestion modifies the technology mantra of “always on, always available, always connected” with “only when we choose.”
While technology allows us to extend our human ability to do more, faster, its unintended consequences are at best ambivalent. We need wisdom to use technology without its biting us back. The overuse of technology may be harmful to our physical, emotional, and spiritual health. Over dependence on convenient electronic communications may weaken the social fabric of the communities where we work, live, and play.
As such, we need to recognize that the common criteria used to evaluate technology come from the world of business and work. Is this technology profitable for business? What technology will increase the production of mass manufactured goods? Will this technology speed up the delivery of services? These are not necessarily wrong criteria—but they are limited criteria. As we grow increasingly sophisticated in our use of technology, we need to ask, “Is this particular use of technology good for me? Is it good for us?”
Here are some additional criteria for evaluating technology. Does this technology help me rest well and restore my energy? Does it help to build deep bonds, strong relationships, and promote intimacy? Does this technology, by its scale, reach and control structure, give me power or leaves us powerless? Whether technology is good or bad depends on our exercising judgment, discernment, and wisdom in our choice of technology. With 99% uptime readily available, technology in and of itself has matured. Our next challenge is to grow increasingly mature in how we use technology for our good.