After all, we’ve always hyperventilated
over technological progress, only
to see things turn out in more happy, mundane, benign ways. So, the
scary-looking humanoid cleaner robots
that were seen in consumer exhibitions
in the 1950s turned out to be sleek,
subtle, and silent Roombas. The Fran-kenstein-like movie monsters have been
replaced by cutesy Wall-E robots—
there’s even a robotic pillow that you
can hug to send you to sleep (Figure 2).
So perhaps we can—nestled up to
one of the pillows—relax and sleep
THINGS ARE WORSE
THAN WE THOUGHT
Not quite yet.
Cut to another scary image, this
time of a customer, emerging from a
tech store, the newest mobile phone
in hand. He holds it aloft, his eyes
raised to the heavens. It looks like he
is on drugs—and he is, and so are we.
Enchanted by the devices that offer us
endless interactions, entertainment,
connection, and creativity.
Much has been written over the
past several years of how these devices
are turning us all into modern-day
Narcissuses, staring down into the
dark pools of our sleek mobile devices,
oblivious to those around us who love
and care for us. You’ll no doubt have
experienced many situations when you
are sitting with friends and family at a
restaurant, in a meeting, or even on a
sports field while they peer down and
prod the dead glass screen.
While there’s much debate about
the actual impact of such behaviors
on our well-being, it’s undoubtedly
the case that many people are worried
about what these technologies are
doing to themselves and those around
them. Unlike earlier moral panics
around technology, those worrying
include the next generation; for
example, in a CNN survey in 2017, 54
percent of children worried that their
parents spent too much time on their
mobile devices [ 1].
WE ARE BECOMING
When I was a kid, one of the scariest
robot forms was the Cybermen in
the TV series Doctor Who. Humans
were gruesomely transformed into
these machines in a process involving
chainsaws, with their original flesh
and bones co-opted bit by bit into a
metallic form. The final step of the
conversion came as the human’s
emotional abilities were extracted,
leaving them deadened and devoid of
empathy. As we stare down into our
mobile devices, are we fusing with the
metallic forms of our mobiles, click by
click, only too late realizing that we
are becoming the robots?
While the Cybermen frightened me,
there’s an even scarier picture you can
find by googling “Mark Zuckerberg VR
crowd.” You’ll see an image of a seated
throng all wearing VR headsets, their
eyes blanked by the devices strapped
to their faces. If that’s not concerning
enough, the juxtaposition of a smiling,
unencumbered Zuckerberg walking
purposefully down the aisle adds to
the discomfort. We have become the
robots, enslaved to provide data, value,
and money to a powerful few.
It’s not too late and now is the time to
act—so what can we do? As a start, I’d
like to suggest four ways forward:
• Promote and practice digital detox
and design for digital well-being.
• Design out tempting trivial
interactions and make tech less
obtrusive and more shareable.
• Amplify what it is to be human.
• Get a new perspective from people
who are still more human than robot.
Promote and practice digital detox
and design for digital well-being. If
you haven’t tried a digital detox, I’d
recommend it as a way of comparing
your sense of well-being before and
after. You’ll find you feel more, not
less connected to what matters if you
follow simple steps like keeping your
phone out of sight during meals and
meetings [ 2].
If you are an app designer or
developer, you can help others, too.
For inspiration, experiment with the
dashboards launched by both Apple
and Google to help users understand
and moderate the use of their mobiles.
If you want to be more creative,
consider designing in a way that draws
on what our bodies do if we abuse
them: What happens if you spend too
long in the sun? Your body gets hot
and eventually burns, warning you to
Figure 3a. Some technology, like conventional
watches, keeps us human.
Figure 3b. Using smartwatches to act as a public display. The display is designed to be visible
by and useful for the onlooker (in this case, Tim’s companion) rather than the watch wearer
( Tim). The onlooker here can remind Tim of the upcoming meeting [ 3].