Does Technology Make Us More Human?

Watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

Amber Case in her TEDTalk, "We Are All Cyborgs Now," concludes, "... it's not the machines that are taking over. It's that they're helping us to be more human, helping us to connect with each other. "

As someone who has focused her career on how we negotiate our work and family lives, I wonder if information and communications technology (ICT) encourages us to be more human. In fact, it appears that ICT is a mixed blessing with the potential to negatively impact our ability to have meaningful lives and meaningful work.

True, cell phones, laptops and tablets makes it easier to be in touch with the important people in our lives. As Case indicates, we are able to connect instantaneously to everyone we know, no matter where they are or what they are doing. ICT has helped today's working families to manage their busy lives since parents and kids can stay connected during the work day. With our devices always on us, unexpected events can be communicated in real time.

However, it seems that all these "screens" can negatively impact our relationships with family and friends. A family might be watching a movie together, but typically cell phones are within reach, and family members might also be surfing the internet on their laptops or checking their Facebook pages. The presence of these devices, with their pinging and buzzing, reduces the chances that everyone will be laughing at the movie together or commenting about the plot. Rather, they may be texting a friend or reading a review about the movie on Rotten Tomatoes. So, they are not really totally focused on interacting with their family members in the room. In addition, they may be directing their energy to acquaintances listed as friends or contacts, rather than their close connections.

Many have written about how ICT interferes with our ability to think deeply or reflect on our lives. Case notes that, "... people aren't taking time for mental reflection anymore." We are continually responding to incoming stimuli and feel tremendous pressure to be "in touch" which interferes with our ability to slow down and calm down. We are often multi-tasking, so it's very difficult to restrict ourselves to a single point of focus and think creatively.

The impact of ICT surfaces on the job. ICT allows many people to work more flexibly, particularly knowledge workers with jobs where work is not where you go, but rather what you do. These days, our jobs can be more fluid and integrated with non-work time. So maybe you get up, work a few hours, head to the gym, work some more, pick up a kid at school, finish up on the laptop while they are doing their homework, and then put in a few hours in the evening when the kids are asleep. You might check email on Sunday evening to get organized for Monday. The good news is that you can work anywhere, anytime. The bad news is that you can work anywhere, anytime. It's hard to know when work ends if you interact with global teams across time zones or you don't leave an office to signify the end of the day.

A 2010 study found that more frequent use of ICT (computer, email, cell phones, Internet) results in being more effective at work, but also generates increases in workload and the pace of work demands. In a subsequent paper, 83 percent of workers indicated that ICT increases productivity, but 53 percent describe greater stress levels.

The November 2012 Pew Internet Research survey found that 29 percent of cell owners describe their cell phone as "something they can't imagine living without." Employees report tremendous pressure to be immediately responsive to co-workers and bosses. Our digital devices are hard to turn off for fear of missing out. Recently, a New York Times article reported on device-free parties where people check their phones and other wireless devices at the door, like we used to check our coats! The article also described 4-day Digital Detox retreats where you can focus on your internal self for a reprieve from the endless stream of incoming external stimuli.

If ICT is going to make us more human, then we need to focus on our high-quality connections and set boundaries around the presence of ICT in our lives. Our relationships with ICT will change as technology evolves. But we must take charge of ICT, or technology won't make us more human, but rather more stressed, less creative and more disconnected from our friends and family.

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