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Is technology making you miserable? Watch the debate

On the 11th of March 2019, experts in law, the psychology of technology use, social media, and gamification, met to debate whether technology is making us miserable and what can be done about it.

Chaired by Dr Sarah Steele of the Intellectual Forum, this sold-out event for the Cambridge Science Festival was highly successful. You can watch it on YouTube or read our Twitter moment from the event further down this page.

The event began with a recap of the state of affairs. At present, a lot of research is being directed towards understanding the effects of technology on our physical and mental wellbeing. While there is a growing number of correlations indicating that things like social media and desk-bound jobs are not making us healthier, it is proving hard for scientists to identify a definitive causal link between technology and worsening health outcomes. Nonetheless, the correlations between social media use and mental health problems, for instance, cannot be ignored or easily explained away. Our experts sought to explore a breadth of observations from their research, both to highlight what we know and to generate questions for future research.

The four panellists each gave a key point to consider when thinking about our individual relationship with technology.

First, Tyler Shores explored our habits around technology and what they mean for our enrichment, specifically reading and engagement. Tyler is currently a PhD researcher at the Faculty of Education in the University of Cambridge and a writer on digital things, attention, distraction, and social media. Before starting his PhD, he worked at Google, in the education non-profit sector, and for Stanford's Online High School. He suggested: "Sometimes it’s hard to draw a clear either/or distinction between meaningful vs mindless ways that we engage with technology. But our habits and online behaviors are certainly not inevitable, and approaching these kinds of questions from multiple angles can hopefully point us in the right direction." 

Next, Dr Daria Kuss, a Chartered Psychologist and Chartered Scientist, the programme leader of MSc Cyberpsychology at Nottingham Trent University, and the author of Internet Addiction, explored how we engage with technology at a congitive and behavioural level. She observed: "In the present day and age, social media and mobile technology have become extensions of ourselves. My research at Nottingham Trent University suggests that excessive use of technology, including gaming and social media, is linked to experiencing symptoms of anxiety, depression, stress and addiction. For some, professional support in the form of specialist therapy may be the answer."

We then moved from how we use technology as individuals to consider its deployment in workplaces and by elites. Professor Raian Ali, a Professor in Computing in the Department of Computing and Informatics, Faculty of Science and Technology, Bournemouth University, explored how gamification is being used by businesses. He stated: “While gamification can enhance productivity and joyfulness in a workplace, it may also lead to adverse effects on staff wellbeing. Certain usages of gamification can be questioned both ethically and legally." Of his research, he commented: "We explore gamification risks and provide design principles and ways to mitigate them. Most of the risks stem from staff members feeling judged by how technology monitors their performance, and their conception of gamification as an exploitation tool making them do more than what their contract requires.”

Finally, in bringing together the issues raised, Dr Christopher Markou, a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow, Affiliated Lecturer at the Faculty of Law, and a Postdoctoral Associate at Jesus College, explored whether there is enough evidence to support regulation, and, if so, what shape that regulation might take. He summarised: "Perhaps technology as such isn't making us miserable, but rather its how technology and technological systems are designed, the business models, incentive structures and interests attached to them... The work of Shoshana Zuboff has made clear that Surveillance Capitalism is the basic economic model of the Internet. This involves relentlessly monetising data captured through online behaviours and those in the physical world. This means that ‘attention’ has become the most precious resource of surveillance economy. Tech companies are essentially weaponising neuroscience to devise ways to keep eyeballs on screens and exploit the brain’s reward system to keep people, scrolling, clicking, and liking." He therefore proposed a key roll for law and regulation in responding.

Of the evening, Dr Sarah Steele said: "Our panel raised many concerns about how technological advancements in the last 30 years have impacted on our well-being, and made interesting points about where we might go from here. But what was notable is what we don't know. Our experts suggested we don't know enough about if there is a definitive causual link between technology and negative psycho-social health outcomes, what gamification means for neuro-diverse populations (e.g. those with ADHD, Autism, etc), and what law and policy can do to mitigate the worst tech-centric harms when we do identify them. We hope to explore these remaining themes in conferences planned later this year."

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