Humanity has always feared technology. In the 21st century, are we right to be afraid?

Susan Greenfield, Aleks Krotoski, Nicholas Carr and more dissect what the digital world means for humanity...

Susan Greenfield, Aleks Krotoski, Nicholas Carr and more dissect what the digital world means for humanity...

As long as humans have been inventing new tools and technologies, we've been worrying about what our creations might do to us.

For Greek philosopher Socrates, who lived in what was primarily an oral culture, writing was the threat to society - he argued it would "introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it".

The invention of the printing press in the 1440s kindled fears that religious teachings would be undermined by the false prophets of fake bibles.

In the 18th century, the invention of the telephone caused concerns that the eerie disembodied voices it spawned would tear apart the fabric of society by removing the need for people to meet face-to-face. Telephones would make people lazy or deaf or simply send them mad, contemporary commentators feared.

And when commercial radio and TV broadcasting came along in the 20th century, people hadn't learnt to stop worrying - now they feared this new technology would brainwash everyone.

Fast-forward a few decades and technology is built into every facet of our lives, from internet-connected cars and TVs, to laptops and tablets, to smartphones and smart meters. Yet despite its abundance, we can't stop fearing it.

Concerns remain that we are too entangled with all our high-tech toys and so are losing the ability to concentrate, or meditate, or read a greater-than-average-length novel.

Books such as Susan Maushart's The Winter of Our Disconnect: How One Family Pulled the Plug on Their Technology and Lived to Tell/Text/Tweet the Tale tap into such sentiments - harking back to an apparently simpler, less technology-focused time when families sat together in living rooms playing board games and talking rather than being individually plugged into TVs, mobile phones, game consoles and Facebook.

But if moral panics are as old as humanity, what then - if anything - is genuinely different about modern technologies that should, just possibly, give us pause? Or are we just witnessing another bout of Frankenstein-fever?

Susan Greenfield

Professor Susan Greenfield believes digital technology offers a "toxic combination of excitement and safety"Photo: Andy Miah

Professor and baroness Susan Greenfield has been voicing public concerns about the use of the internet and digital technology for around a decade. What does she see that's new about digital technology, which can set it apart from other technological developments in human history?

Greenfield gives the example of the undo button - a concept novel to human experience that has been introduced by technology and which can create, in her words, "a very toxic combination of excitement and safety".

"In real life, because actions have consequences, normally there's a pay-off. If you want to go bungie jumping, which might be very exciting, there's an element of danger there, and risk. Alternatively, if you want to sit with your friends and play poker or bridge where there's zero danger it might get a bit boring, but here you have the perfect world of something that's very exciting for you but at the same time completely safe," she says.

"I think this is very different from television, it's very different from the printing press, it's very different from cars because all those things are in the real world... they're involved in actions where actions have consequences."

Another difference between today's digital technologies and previous human inventions, in Greenfield's view, is their ability to...

Are we too hooked on technology?

Plugged in, switched on: Are we too hooked on our gadgets?Creative Commons: shlala

...absorb hours of our time and attention - leaving less of this stuff for non-digital activities.

"It's very rare that you would do any of the other things to the exclusion of everything else," she claims. "Whereas now some people will come home in the evening, ignore their wives... and just go onto the internet and play games from 6pm in the evening till 2am in the morning. It's unprecedented that people do just one thing - and if you're just doing one thing it means you're not doing other things."

If some media reports are to be believed, doing that one thing - social networking, playing online games, for example - can become a genuine addiction, breaking societal bonds and ruining lives in much the same way as other addictions such as drugs and alcohol.

But is it really possible to become addicted to technologies or social networks?

There's an extra complication of definition here: addiction is a pejorative term - but for all the headlines about technology-addicted 'screenagers' there is no single medical definition of any form of technology addiction. The mental health professional's bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition - DSM IV for short - does not cover technology-related disorders.

"If you want to find out whether anybody is alcohol dependent, or drug dependent or has a gambling problem they're all in [the DSM IV]. But at the moment there is nothing in there for internet addiction disorder, video game addiction, iPod addiction, mobile phone addiction - all of these things do not exist in the medical world," says Mark Griffiths, psychologist and professor of gambling studies at Nottingham Trent University.

"There are some people out there who say you can't become addicted to something unless it involves the ingestion of a drug. So it means that gambling, computer game playing, sex addiction, eating, video games - these can never be addictions because it doesn't involve the drug," he adds.

Griffths has developed his own scale to determine whether a person is addicted to activities such as gambling or playing computer games. Using this scale he does believe it is possible to become genuinely addicted to some forms of technology. However, he says the number of genuine tech addicts is miniscule - noting also that there is no evidence of a real-terms rise in levels of tech addiction despite more and more people using technology.

"People talk about online gaming addiction or texting addiction or iPod addiction or whatever. Well, yes, all of these have had reportings in the academic literature of people who seem to be genuinely addicted to this but it's clearly not on any kind of major societal level," he says. "For instance, there was a study out earlier this year saying that nine per cent of children were addicted to video games. Well, if nine per cent of children are genuinely addicted to video games there would be a video game addiction clinic in every single major town in the UK and that clearly is not happening."

"Doing something a lot and doing something excessively is nothing like doing something in an addictive sense," he adds. "The question I've always asked is, what's the difference between healthy enthusiasm and addiction? Healthy enthusiasm...

...adds to life, addiction takes away from it. And when we apply this to a lot of the technology-based addictions then in fact I'd actually argue that most of these new technological things are something that's life-enhancing, life-affirming, makes people feel better about themselves and in fact isn't negatively detrimental in their life."

Why then is there a tendency for society to view technology addiction as something negative? Part of the answer surely lies in the pejorative nature of the word 'addiction' - replace addiction with 'enthusiasm' and the emphasis is immediately very different. But Griffiths suggests there's something else at work too: the age-old generation gap.

Technology is exacerbating the psychological disconnect between the generations, he argues. Digital natives - those born since the late 80s - have grown up digital so are typically more comfortable with technology than their parents. And as the rate of technology change increases, the discrepancy between old and young becomes ever more apparent.

"There's this technological generation gap between some parents and children and so some parents tend to pathologise this behaviour which is perfectly normal in today's life," he tells "Every week I get email from parents saying, 'Well my little Jonny's addicted to video games', and I write back and say, 'Why do you think that?'. And they say, 'Because he plays four hours a day'. And I have to remind parents that if there's no negative detrimental effect as a result of playing four hours of computer games a day then it's clearly not addictive.

"Parents have to realise that technology is now part and parcel of the culture and that technology's involved with education, socialisation, leisure. These new technological ways of doing things have displaced old ways of doing things. [Children] texting each other or being on Facebook - it's a different way of socialising, yet there is this technological generation gap that parents or adults who do not engage in those behaviours themselves, they tend to pathologise those behaviours and call them abnormal."

Tanya Goldhaber, PhD student at Cambridge University's Engineering Design Centre and one of three editors of a BT-sponsored report exploring the impact of technology on society, has conducted a literature review of published research in this area - which led her to identify a recurring pattern to technology use.

"The thing I found in the literature review that was really, really interesting is you see these peaks and troughs of use, so when a new piece of technology comes out people overuse it and their well-being tends to decline, and their happiness tends to decline overall. And then, as society adjusts and as social norms come into use, and as more people are using it and it becomes more normal, then everyone's well-being goes back up, everyone's happiness goes back up, people are using it more optimally."

The trend, says Goldhaber, is for early adopters to overuse new communications technology, disrupting existing social norms and potentially impacting well-being. But as the technology becomes a more pervasive medium of communication...

...usage stabilises, social norms adjust to accommodate it and well-being goes back up - even as another new technology arrives to set the cycle off again. These fluctuating peaks and troughs of use suggest any social change is likely to be difficult to identify in the short term.

There was also no direct correlation between the number of hours of technology use and individual well-being, according to Goldhaber. "It's how you're using [technology]. It's your level of control. It's your awareness of how you're using it, and reaching your own optimal level of use - that's something that rang loud and clear as part of our study," she says.

Some study participants also described themselves as feeling overwhelmed by communications technology - a finding that would fit in with the notion of peaks and troughs of use.

Printing press

As soon as Gutenberg invented the printing press, people worried about information overloadCreative Commons: Christina Xu

Such feelings of overload are not a new phenomenon, however.

"If you look through the history of information technologies... particularly as soon as Gutenberg invents the printing press, people worry about information overload - and you can imagine when somebody first walked into a library with lots of books it must have felt overwhelming," says writer Nicholas Carr.

"But I do think that if you look at the information that's coming at us today, particularly because people carry networked computers with them all day long, it does seem to be something unprecedented. People always felt this sense of information overload - I think what we deal with today in terms of scale is far in excess of what we've seen before."

Digital media brings not just access to information, as the printing press did, and speed of communication, as the telegraph did, but also the ability to tap into an information archive and to connect pieces of information together in ways that can create interesting new relationships between the data, according to academic and journalist Aleks Krotoski.

"Whereas before, if you had a printing press, that was fine but you had to go to a library [to get access to a range of data]. The internet is a library that's accessible all the time and open all the time.

"Secondly, [the internet offers the] opportunity to explicitly connect - this hyperlinking idea - not only between individuals but between information and that allows for a really holistic and interesting way of expressing the self, expressing knowledge, expressing identity, expressing information, expressing society, in ways that allow us to make meta connections that we've never been able to make before."

For Krotoski, the hyperlinking may deepen our expressiveness and understanding.

But Oxford's Greenfield holds the opposite view. She argues that screen-based communications have to work harder to attract our attention and therefore tend towards being flashy, exaggerated and superficial. "Screen technology only plays to two of your senses so in order to attract you it has to be super fast, super bright, super everything," she says.

Greenfield adds: "[Previous technologies were] three-dimensional. This is two-dimensional and only plays to two of your senses.

"One of the things that is truly concerning me... is that if you have most of your social relations via a two-dimensional screen, you're not looking somebody in the eye, you're not giving them a hug, you're not interpreting voice tone or body language - so how can you develop empathy for someone?"

Not all experts see a total lack of empathy in online communications. David Good, a fellow in social psychology at King's College, Cambridge University, believes it is...

...possible for a sense of mutuality to be fostered through digital networks.

Online communications can act as an accelerant when it comes to social change - by creating an environment where large groups of people are mobilised by the knowledge that others share their opinions too, according to Good.

And, thanks to the speed with which information can travel via digital networks, this sense of greater mutuality can develop between individuals and communities faster than ever before.

"There's a very big difference in the world between situations where everybody knows something, and everybody knows that everybody knows something.

"So if I know that you know that I know that you know that... X is a vile dictator then we also realise, 'Oh we're all living under this repression and we all think the same', it can mobilise engagement in all sorts of interesting ways," he said earlier this year at the launch of a research report entitled Culture, Communication and Change: Reflections on the use and impact of modern media and technology in our lives.

It's this social experience that makes digital technologies transformative in a way that differs to the communications and media technologies of previous eras, author and teacher Clay Shirky argues.

Clay Shirky

Author Clay Shirky says the internet is the first media to support many-to-many communicationsCreative Commons: Joi Ito

The always-on internet accessed via laptops and mobile phones furnishes the many with tools that allow both consumption and production of media and give people the ability to network with each other en masse - not just, as past technologies did, through one-on-one conversations or by broadcasting a message to many.

"The internet is the first medium in history that has native support for groups and conversations at the same time," Shirky argues in a 2009 TED talk. "Whereas the phone gave us the one-to-one pattern; and television, radios, magazines, books gave us the one-to-many pattern; the internet gives us the many-to-many pattern.

"For the first time, media is natively good at supporting these kinds of conversations," he says. "Media is increasingly less just a source of information and it's increasingly more a site of co-ordination - because groups that see or hear or watch or listen to something can now gather around and talk to each other as well."

"The moment our historical generation is living through is the largest increase in expressive capability in human history," he adds. "It's as if when you bought a book they threw in the printing press for free. It's like you had a phone that could turn into a radio if you pressed the right buttons. That is a huge change."

So it's the digital world's offspring - the expressiveness of global social media - that adds something new to the human experience, as Shirky sees it.

After conducting a literature review of research in this area, Cambridge University's Goldhaber says that while she identified "huge concern" over kids interacting via Facebook and IM, with the worry being they would not learn how to interact face-to-face or would shun the challenge of interpersonal interaction in favour of screens, she did not...

... find "any convincing evidence" of a shift to favour screen-based social interactions.

She adds that anthropological research into online communities conducted in the last decade has been exploring the culture of online interaction. Findings from this research indicate the people who are best at socialising online are also the people best at in-person socialising, and that people who have a richer online social life also have a richer in-person social life. "It seems as if social people are social and technology's not going to change that," she says.

Nevertheless, technology is enabling human social interaction on a scale that previously was just not possible - lowering the barrier to entry and making it harder for any one authority to exert control over the message. With multiple technologies all plugging into the network, the network is decentralised. The technologies aren't what's important any more: it's the people using them.

And the sooner technology designers realise the importance of the human component the better, argues Nick Tyler, Chadwick professor of civil engineering at UCL.

Speaking during the British Library panel debate earlier this year, Tyler suggested the future for tech designers is likely to be one well-grounded in social sciences, reflecting how it's not the technology that's important - it's the user, stupid.

"My belief is that engineering and science needs to pay a lot more attention to its interrelations with people whom it is allegedly trying to serve. There's been a bit of a history of, 'Let's develop a technology because it's an exciting, fun thing to do', and if it happens to help people that might be a good excuse, it might help the funding, but in the end it's not necessarily directed in that direction. I think we have to address that issue very strongly indeed," he said.

"Increasingly, certainly in the more enlightened institutions, I think you will begin to see engineering departments that include social psychologists and anthropologists... because it's fundamental to how engineering is done. We have to understand a lot more about those interactions between people and the environments and technologies they're interacting with."

It's only human to wonder whether we're too entangled with technology. But as any good agony aunt would tell you, there's no one answer to that question.

"It's a very personal experience," says Krotoski. "I definitely was too entangled for a while and I took a step back and now my relationship with technology is very different. It may go back to being more entangled, it may evolve into something that's less entangled. I can only speak from my personal experience - I don't know if the youth of today are being corrupted by the fact they're so entangled in technology. The fact of the matter is we're entangled in technology as it is, we're entangled in the fact we use Hoovers or blenders or pens and paper.

Aleks Krotoski

"We can't necessarily say technology's good or bad - it just simply is," says Aleks KrotoskiCreative Commons: Joi Ito

"Technology has a way of integrating itself into our lives. At the moment we're in a really interesting period - almost like 50 years in which we're trying to figure out how we fit and how it fits.

"We need to define the boundaries. It's a very sort of squishy period of time. Our entanglement is very hype-driven at the minute, we're very excitable about all new amazing things - 'Oh my goodness this is going to completely change everything'. We've got extraordinary hubris, thinking that the technologies or... what's happening right now is going to change everything forever."

"If you look back, if you take the long view, you recognise there's always a period of time in which people... get completely overwhelmed with technology and got so excited - people did it with the telegraph. And then it evolves into something that's different," adds Krotoski. "I have faith in humanity that we won't build Skynet... I have faith that we will assert our rules and our norms - they may be different forms from what was before but that is progress - ultimately.

"We can't necessarily say technology's good or bad - it just simply is."