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The Promise and Peril of Digital Technology

Since the dawn of recorded history (and likely before), pundits and pontificators have warned of the promise and peril of new technologies. I recently had occasion to reflect on the dualistic nature of technology firsthand when faced with the dilemma of how to spend a few hours of free time the other evening. My wife and kids having gone to bed earlier than usual, it was only 8pm, and I was confronted with possibility of using digital technology to either enrich my life or to entertain myself. Which do you think I chose? Before answering, let me provide a little background...

Digital as the Great Enabler of Human Achievement

Digital can help you learn.

Digital technologies like computers, the Internet, and mobile devices bring unprecedented levels of knowledge and information right to our fingertips. In a matter of seconds, we can access libraries of data and information on virtually any topic of interest. For those interested in structured learning, MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) like Coursera, Udacity, and edX offer the promise of nearly limitless learning for free – or at a fraction of the cost – of traditional bricks-and-mortar institutions of higher education.

I’ve personally taken MOOC courses on topics such as computer programming, web design, and micro economics on edX and Coursera to hone my skills as an entrepreneur and marketing technologist; I’ve enrolled in courses like evolutionary biology, cosmology, and classical music appreciation to edify my interests as a general learner. With MOOCs, a world of knowledge is, in a very literal sense, just a few clicks away.

Digital as the Great Disabler of Human Endeavor

Digital can also make you lazy. Distractions abound.

Today’s cable and Internet media providers like Xfinity, Netflix, and Amazon bring a seemingly unending stream of free or inexpensive digital content, much of it high-quality, right to our fingertips. Free from the spatial tether of the nearest TV, today’s digital content subscribers can binge view thousands of shows and movies from nearly anywhere, at any time, on virtually every device. 

Moreover, digital technologies like computers, the Internet, and mobile devices bring a world of cheap entertainment right to our fingertips. Cloud-based mobile gaming apps like Clash of Clans also can be accessed anywhere, anytime. For the developers of these games, engagement is the currency of success; success is determined by the extent they can create an addictive experience that gets users to keep playing and keep coming back (and back, and back).

Take my word for it, these games can be a time (and money) suck. For instance, in Clash of Clans, you can slowly build up your kingdom over time by amassing stores of gold and elixir and spending them accordingly. Or you can fast track the whole process and purchase some gems which, for the user’s convenience, can be easily accomplished by linking the gaming app directly to a credit card or iTunes/Google Wallet account.

Don’t ask me how I know this.

My Digital Dilemma

Needless to say, when faced my own digital dilemma, I chose the path of least resistance and opted for digital disablement: I tinkered with my village on Clash of Clans for a bit before opening up a bottle of vino and catching up on the latest season of The Walking Dead. Binge viewing, baby!

For those of you old enough to remember, this whole experience reminded me of an original series Star Trek episode from 1967 entitled “The Trouble with Tribbles,” in which the Enterprise crew is driven to mindless distraction by the introduction onto the ship of a number of cute, furry alien creatures that, to the best of my descriptive capabilities, sort of resemble uber-fluffy footies. Anyway, the Tribbles end up getting into the food supply and multiplying to the extent that they go from being an innocent distraction to a huge problem. {Here’s a great video clip from the episode.}

Tribbles – an apt metaphor for the peril of digital technology if there ever was one.

The Steady March of Digital

Whether or not you buy into the viability of Moore’s Law and its promise that computer processing power will continue to double every two years, it’s a fair bet that the steady march of digital is likely to move at a faster, non-linear pace moving forward. Somewhat ironically, this would suggest that the seamless integration of digital into the very fabric of our daily lives will only hasten with time, drawing an ever-starker contrast between the promise and peril of digital technology for those who bother to take note or care.

This begs an interesting question: in time, will anyone even bother to take note? Will the spread of new tech phenomena like the Internet of Things, augmented reality, virtual reality, and higher-order artificial intelligence into all aspects of society be causes for general concern, or be unconsciously or semi-consciously embraced by the masses? Will ordinary humans use technology to enrich their understanding and improve their efficacy, or instead to ease their daily burdens and escape from reality? Will digital prove to be a liberator or a crutch?

Digital: Boon or Bane?

As we grapple with these questions, it’s important to remember that digital technology itself is neither good nor bad; its human application is what defines it as boon or bane. As an autonomous individual endowed with free will, I can choose to spend my free time productively, honing new skills learning new things, or less so, distracting myself with tantalizing virtual environments, lifelike games, and endless streams of digital content media.

In the end, the promise and peril of digital technology lies in its capacity as the great enabler or disabler; in its power to make us weaker or stronger, to encourage us to strive for personal empowerment, or to settle for personal attenuation.

For many of us, the answer lies somewhere in between these two extremes: we use digital to enhance, and escape from, our daily lives. We embrace both the promise, and peril, of digital technology.

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