From instant messaging to online shopping, technology has lead to almost every aspect of everyday life getting faster and faster, and yet despite the increased convenience, we still worry about the effects of a speedier life. Here, technology writer Robert Colvile explores why we’re so concerned about new technological advances and yet still can’t resist the latest shiny new gadgets…
By any standards, we live in a world of technological marvels. We have unravelled the genome, probed the deepest nature of the universe. Each of us carries in our pocket a device that connects us instantly to everyone else on the planet, and to humanity’s accumulated knowledge.
At the same time, however, we have never been more concerned about technology’s effects. We worry that the internet is destroying our ability to think properly, that robots are stealing our jobs, that we spend too much time on our phones and not enough with our friends.
In my new book, The Great Acceleration, I explore the way that technology is speeding up the pace of life, and the effects that this is having. And I soon discovered that as long as the world has been accelerating, people have been fretting about it. For example, in 1881, a psychologist called George Miller Beard blamed the excessive pace of American life for a variety of ailments including “insomnia, flushing, drowsiness, bad dreams, cerebral irritation, dilated pupils, pain, pressure and heaviness in the head, changes in the expression of the eye, neurasthenic asthenopia, noises in the ears, dribbling and incontinence of urine, falling away of the hair and beard, convulsive movements, a feeling of profound exhaustion [and] general and local itching”.
Whatever the period of history, whatever the latest technology, you can find as many commentators worrying as celebrating. People came up with convincing arguments against the introduction of clocks, telegrams, railroads, radios, televisions, mobile phones and so many more. In 1907, the Journal of Education complained about the death of family conversation because of the way each individual sat “with his head buried in his favourite magazine”. When the bicycle came along, there were dark warnings of the sinful consequences of unmarried couples taking rides in the country together, and of the dangers of “bicycle face”, a permanent impairment suffered by women who tried to pedal against the breeze at high speeds. More recently, we were told that turning on the Large Hadron Collider would cause a black hole to devour the world. (It didn’t.)
I don’t mean to dismiss such worries entirely. As my book makes clear, technology often does have negative effects to go alongside the positive ones – and even when it doesn’t, it’s right to make sure. But the irony is that, however much we complain, we inevitably vote for greater speed and greater convenience with every decision we make – every gadget bought, every text message sent. Our mouths say one thing, our brains and bodies do another.
What lies behind this strange pattern? Well, it turns out that suspicion of technology is hardwired into us – just like our willingness to ultimately embrace it.
Our brains are addicted to novelty – to new information and new experiences. Yet at the same time, they are also addicted to familiarity. Whether it is the music we listen to or the food we eat, we get surprised and upset by anything that is too shocking, too divergent from what we are used to.
This is, if you think about it, entirely rational evolutionary behaviour. Sounds which were strange, or plants that tasted different, were likely to signify danger to primitive man – or at least were likely enough to do so that those without a healthy sense of caution didn’t survive to breed.
This also helps explain our reluctance to take risks, which is one of the most fundamental, deep-rooted attributes of human (and animal) behaviour. If you offer people a choice between winning a guaranteed £10, or flipping a coin to decide whether they get £20 or nothing, most will go for the sure thing – even if you start nudging their guaranteed jackpot down to the point where taking the risk becomes, mathematically, far more attractive.
Risk aversion is also encouraged by the “endowment effect”, in which we prize things that we already have, to the point where we ascribe them far more than their actual value. The Nobel-winning behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman carried out experiments in which random students were given $6 mugs and asked how much they’d sell them for: inevitably, people asked for far more to give up the mug than they would have been willing to pay to acquire it.
All of this is completely understandable. It makes every kind of sense, biologically speaking, to want to protect what we have – and to focus our attention on anything that promises to endanger or threaten it. Newspapers sometimes get criticised for filling their pages with bad news, but they do so because that’s what we’re hardwired to pay attention to.
So strong is this phenomenon, as the journalist Clive Thompson writes in his book Smarter Than You Think, that we literally think pessimists sound smarter than optimists. Back in the 1980s, a Harvard researcher took the same book review, and produced two new versions: one tweaked to be as positive as possible, and the other packed with negativity. Overwhelmingly, people rated the “writer” of the second piece as far more intelligent and perceptive than the ludicrous optimist who’d penned the other version. Similarly, if we want to impress people with how clever we are – for example, when talking about a film we’ve just seen – we instinctively pick out the cons rather than the pros.
The result is a strange paradox. We’re biologically programmed to crave a faster life – and, the statistics show, to enjoy it. Yet the same biological programming inclines us to focus on technology’s terrors, rather than its wonders. So next time someone starts talking about how technology’s taking us to hell in a handcart, you’ve every right to tell them it’s just their inner caveman talking.
Robert Colvile’s new book ‘The Great Acceleration: How the World is Getting Faster, Faster’ is published by Bloomsbury and available now.
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