SALT LAKE CITY — Is complete digital immersion a good thing or a bad thing for humanity?
Depends on whom you ask.
Nearly half of the 1,150 experts who weighed in on that question told Pew Research Center that we'll all be better off over the next 10 years — thanks to technology.
Another 32 percent weren’t so sure, believing tech will harm, more than help future generations, while 21 percent said they saw little change, according to a new report, “The Future of Well-Being in a Tech-Saturated World.”
This canvass— the ninth non-scientific survey from a collaboration between Pew and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center released last week — offers a glimpse into the minds of researchers, professionals and cultural and industry leaders regarding the world’s increasing dependence on digital tools.
And it's a hot topic these days, with conversations swirling around privacy, government regulation of big data, the power of social media platforms, and ultimately, the question of how cozy we want to be with our digital technologies.
While these conversations aren't necessarily new, the Pew canvas with its broad scope of expert voices illustrates just how pressing these questions have become and how urgent the need to find solutions — solutions that involve not just companies, designers and government regulators, but individuals and families.
"People are talking more about this stuff, especially in the context of is it helping or hurting," said Lee Rainie, director of internet and technology research at Pew and co-author of the report. "It's a much more intense and urgent set of questions."
Pros and cons
"Using the internet to connect people to resources (health information, world events, education, communication with real friends and family) is a win-win that most people agree on," said Karen Panetta, IEEE fellow and dean of graduate engineering education at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, who did not comment in the Pew canvas. "If the internet was just used for these purposes in an ethical, honest and respectful manner, we would not have any further issues to discuss."
But because the internet is being used in unethical, illegal and unkind ways — we're all still talking.
In fact, the canvas allowed researchers to compile written submissions on what they believe is the first comprehensive “laundry list” of digital concerns/faults/sins, said Janna Anderson, fellow co-author and director of the Imagining the Internet Center at Elon University.
And at first blush, it sounds bad.
Diminished memory and creativity.
Digital addictions and dopamine-dosing hooks.
Crumbling interpersonal skills.
Privacy breaches, weaponized fear and threats to democracy.
Yet, that’s a very pessimistic way to view the world, says Avery Holton, an associate professor of communication at the University of Utah who weighed in on the questions for Pew.
“I take a positivist approach with some caution,” he told the Deseret News. “This is a device-oriented culture that we’ve moved into, and we can’t let ourselves forget that.”
Digital connectivity has allowed millions of people around the globe to access information that was previously out of reach, and created the ability to connect with family, friends and even strangers in new and previously unheard of ways.
It has revolutionized commerce, politics, civic life, agriculture, scientific research, education and interpersonal relationships.
And despite the daily headlines about its dangers, "we also can't forget that we live in a world where it is conceivable that a person born with mobility challenges might never need to rely on the kindness of others to buy them groceries because they will have access to their own self-driving automobiles," wrote Ross Rader, vice president for customer experience of Tucows Inc. in Toronto. "Something as simple as ‘Alexa, turn on the bathroom light’ is a game-changer for many.”
Greater technology also means advances in health care, increased access to telemedicine, better public health data and even improved ways of interacting with the world itself.
Laura Guertin, a professor of earth sciences at Penn State Brandywine, wrote "I have to hold out hope that we as a society will be better off with digital technologies in assisting with medical breakthroughs, natural hazard warnings and disaster recovery and overall digital applications to create a sustainable planet for future generations.”
And because billions of people are using digital technologies in myriad ways every day, it's no longer feasible to think about avoiding it or breaking free, Holton told the Deseret News.
"We know that it will always be there," he said. "The perspective has changed and that's a big deal. Instead of just saying, it's easy to leave, vacate, (we're saying) 'how do we figure out these problems together.' "
And for the first time in the canvass, experts were asked to weigh in with specific solutions — which 92 percent said they believe exist.
Sherry Turkle, an MIT professor and leading researcher into social/tech interactions, particularly with computers, wrote that change begins with redesigning systems so they're not engaging human beings like slot machines. Software should become transparent, ownership of information should be discussed and regulation on ads should increase.
"This is the greatest business, political, and social and economic challenge of our time," she wrote. "Simply learning to call what we have created what it really is and then regulate and manage it accordingly, bring it into the polity in the place it should really have.”
Organizations like the Center for Humane Technology have teamed up with Common Sense Media to reshape the conversation around software design, while organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics have encouraged greater research and awareness into the use of technology and its impacts on children and adolescents.
Even individuals can push back against digital omnipresence by "going gray," on their phones (changing screen settings from enticing color) installing monitoring apps on their phone or even choosing less fancy phones to begin with.
Hal Varian, chief economist at Google, told Pew, “Every new technology goes through a phase of euphoria, followed by a phase of retrenchment. Automobiles were a fantastic replacement for horses, but as their numbers increased it became clear that they had their own health and cleanliness issues. The same is true of the internet. A few years ago, freedom of the press went to those who owned one. Now everybody has a platform, no matter how crazy they are. But we will learn to live with this by developing better technology, better media and better critical awareness.”
Humans have always had to evolve alongside their technology, said Rainie, whether it was adapting to horses, factory work, the microwave, television or smartphones. However, what's different now is the rate of change, he says, which is exponentially faster than it was several decades ago.
In fact, when Pew asked questions of tech experts in 2010, 80 percent agreed with the statement that "the hot gadgets and applications that will capture the imagination of users in 2020 will often come 'out of the blue' and not have been anticipated by many of today’s savviest innovator."
Because of such rapid advancement, there's a lot of energy to find solutions that stave off "worst-case scenarios," said Rainie. And many of those relate to how companies treat our personal data.
Congress recently grilled Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg about data harvesting from the platform, and he presented Facebook's safeguard to-do list that included restricting the amount of personal data developers can access, investigating apps and building in better controls — like showing users what apps they've used and how to revoke permission to their data.
But it's not just Facebook's issue to solve.
Other experts told Pew about the importance of maintaining a free and open digital space that's not economically divided or politically managed.
That's tough following the "devastating blow" of the repeal of "net neutrality," writes Evan Selinger, a professor of philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology, because "net neutrality" is ultimately about social control.
Nathaniel Borenstein, chief scientist at Mimecast, a cloud-based email management company for Microsoft Exchange and Microsoft Office 365, said, “most obviously, rigorously enforced 'net neutrality' would prevent many of the worst outcomes," but individuals must also develop "spiritual and philosophical disciplines" to help them "minimize the chances that they become cyberbullies or other cybermisfits.”
Other government rules may also be necessary, because "most stakeholders do not operate as charities," wrote Rob Frieden, a professor of telecommunications and law at Penn State University. "If governments conscientiously embrace their consumer-protection and public-interest advocacy roles — a big if — society can integrate new technologies accruing measurable benefits.”
The problem with just relying on government is that "things changes too quickly, governments don't," says Tom Coughlin, IEEE fellow and president of Coughlin Associates, which provides consulting on digital storage and applications.
Laws may help address questions of ownership and copyright law in a digital age, but better solutions will most likely come out of agreements between providers/services and customers who are "knowledgeable about what companies are doing and are choosing or not choosing to be part of what they're doing."
"The biggest challenge facing us is how do we make sure that the tools serve us," Coughlin said, "and we do not end up serving the tools."
The best way to keep those tools in check is through more robust, nuanced media literacy beginning with the youngest users, says Alex Halavais, director of the M.A. in social technologies program at Arizona State University, who's been sharing his thoughts with Pew for years.
His son recently came home with a third-grade homework assignment and the only guidance was "no Wikipedia." A better assignment would have been to check Wikipedia, plus a host of other sources, and update Wikipedia if it's inaccurate, since "that's what it's for," Halavais told the Deseret News.
In the past, media literacy meant being a good audience, but now that "we create media as much as we consume it," that education must change, Halavais said.
Students must learn not just how to create an Excel spreadsheet or compose a tweet, but how to appropriately take credit for online contributions and respect the rights of other creators, how to identify misinformation and mal-information, how to keep personal information safe, and how to be a respectful digital participant.
Coughlin also believes it's crucial that individuals learn how to seek for truth, and minimize their time spent in online echo chambers.
"You learn more from the diversity of opinions than you do listening to a single group," he said. "You stretch your mind, exercise yourself and find out whether everything you believe is truly what is true or if you need to expand your horizons and create nuances in your opinion."
Holton tackles the topic of online truth by having students in his Digital Media II class post something that they know is slightly inaccurate and then review the analytics of their post or tweet.
When students recognize just how far their "cascade of misinformation" has traveled — often into networks of people they don't even know — he said they become cautious and take greater responsibility for what they post.
He also has them repost to admit they made a mistake — a crucial step that reinforces the value of truth, he said.
This type of media literacy, with attention to the "ethical, social and political dimensions" of digital use moves people away from just being "savvy consumers," and more toward "engaged citizens in democratic polities and, most grandiosely, human beings pursuing good lives of flourishing in informed and conscious ways," wrote Charles Ess, a professor in the department of media and communication at the University of Oslo. "All of that is obviously a lot to demand — both of educational systems and of human beings in general."
Yet a growing number of people are willing to do just that, evidenced by the pages and pages of suggested solutions in the Pew report.
"These experts put a lot of time into writing their opinions," said Anderson with Elon University. "We want the public to look at this (and realize) that everybody has to work together to make that happen."