Search This Blog

Technology and Everyday Life

How has technology really changed your life? That's a question that's generally overlooked. We take for granted that technology is advancing at an ever increasing rate, that we're inventing new and fascinating things so quickly now that we are overwhelming ourselves with technology. We ask questions like how are we going to cope if this continues, or what unforeseen consequences will we inflict on humanity with technology that runs out of control? We rarely take a step back and assess what is changing about our everyday lives with this new technology, and if that change is truly profound or merely incremental, so let's do that now.

You can look at the effects of any given technology across any number of dimensions. We'll look at only a few. First, a technology could make a real difference in your life personally, or it could make a major difference in the world, or some section of the world where it is used. Sometimes these effects overlap, sometimes they don't, and sometimes they are in major conflict.

For example, the widespread adoption of indoor plumbing from the late 1800s to the early 1900s not only allowed you to go to the bathroom in the comfort of your own home, but it also led to significant improvements in public health and sanitation. On the other hand, many small household appliances are a great personal convenience in the home, but they have a much weaker effect on the population as a whole. Then there are inventions like the printing press that had incredible effects on our civilization, but if you were a scholar that did transcription for a living, you were suddenly out of a job. Not everyone benefits from every technological advancement.

Another way to look at technological change is how drastically it affects your life. Does it change your life the way marriage does, or the way having children does? Marriage is more or less a change in degree, whereas having children is most certainly a change in kind. I'm not talking at all about the values or emotional issues of marriage or parenting here. This is purely an examination of how these things affect your life on a practical level.

With marriage, you were already spending plenty of time with your spouse before getting married and presumably enjoying it. You were sharing more and more of your things, your finances, and your life with your spouse before marriage, and by getting married you're committing to doing that for the rest of your life. Things don't change appreciably between the day before the wedding and the day after, but the bond between you and your spouse is stronger and will likely continue to get stronger over time.

Having a baby is an entirely different animal. The day after the baby arrives is completely and utterly different than the day before, and your life will never be the same again. You'll be doing all kinds of things that you've never done before, and you'll have to give up some things that you always used to do. Things that you used to do without a second thought are no longer easy, like leaving the house, going to the bathroom, or, you know, sleeping. You are now responsible for another person that is totally dependent on you for everything. That changes your life in rather significant ways.

Similarly, there are technologies that will change your life, and then there are technologies that will change your life. Some technologies are evolutionary, like marriage, while others are revolutionary, like having kids. Moving from black and white to color television would be an example of the former, while the creation of the internet would be an example of the latter.

So getting back to the question at hand, what are some current examples of technologies that have significantly changed our lives, say, in the last decade? That is actually a more difficult question to answer than it would at first appear. Most technology writing focuses on general changes to our society in response to technology in the aggregate, but the more interesting issue is what those changes are on a personal, individual level.

How has technology changed your everyday life? What do you do differently now than you used to because of new technology? That is a question everyone needs to answer for themselves, and an important one, because the answers may prompt you to reevaluate the technologies you're using and why they really matter to you. You can't possibly make use of every new technology out there. There's not enough time in the day to use a smart phone, a tablet, an ultrabook, a half dozen cloud storage services, facebook, Twitter, Evernote, Snapchat, Instagram, Pinterest, and who knows how many other social media and productivity apps that are out there, and still be an effective, productive, balanced human being.

Everyone is making choices from this smorgasbord of technology, so different technologies are going to affect different people to different degrees. In my case, I have both an iPod Touch and a Kindle. The iPod hasn't changed my daily life much at all. I plug it into my car to listen to my music library, but I could have just as easily used a flash drive for that. I occasionally use it to read for a bit if I'm waiting somewhere, but if I didn't have the iPod, I probably would have taken my Kindle. I've played a couple games on it, but that's hardly been life-changing.

On the other hand, the Kindle has completely changed the way I read, and I read a lot. I now have an incomprehensibly large library of books constantly at my fingertips. I can download technical books and read them on a device that's a fraction of the size, weight, and price of the dead-tree alternative. And that's comparing the Kindle to a single book, when an entire library is available. I can bookmark, highlight, and take notes directly on what I'm reading and save it all to the cloud so that it's available wherever and whenever I need to reference it. Even if I don't have the Kindle with me, I can access everything through Amazon's cloud reader. The Kindle has dramatically changed a significant part of my life.

Let's look at another major technology - smart phones. I don't even own one. I share an old clam-shell phone with my wife, and I use it for actual phone calls, mostly with my wife. (It lasts for more than a week on a charge, and it's the original battery!) The iPod touch covers the other functionality of a smart phone, but as I said, I don't use it much. I don't travel a lot, so I'm almost always near an internet connected computer, and I can work so much faster with a keyboard and mouse than a touch interface, so I have no real need for a smart phone. I've yet to find a killer app that would dramatically improve some aspect of my life if I had one. I can only see it being degraded by constant interruptions for my attention when it would be better spent on the people I'm with.

Expanding out from hand-held devices, the Nissan Leaf has radically changed my driving experience. Driving an electric car is so much more comfortable and fun than a gas-powered car, I can't see myself ever going back. The fuel is radically cheaper, and the convenience of not having to go to the gas station for a fill-up ever is a real game-changer. I can only imagine what things will be like when affordable EVs have a 300+ mile range and a widespread charging infrastructure, but the Leaf has already had a major positive impact on my daily life.

These are all recently available technologies that have had either a large or a small effect on my life. Other people's experiences will certainly be different. Obviously, smart phones have changed many people's lives in countless ways, and a lot of people can't imagine life without them anymore. Conversely, many people couldn't care less about the Kindle or the Leaf because they have different needs and priorities than I do.

We each have a set of priorities in our lives that we spend our time, money, and effort on. For some priorities we'd like to devote more of these things; for others we'd like to devote less. And of course, we'd like to make each of them more enjoyable. Here's one way to break down that list of priorities, in no particular order:
  • Basic needs like eating, sleeping, shelter, and clothing
  • Health and exercise
  • Transportation
  • Communication
  • Work
  • Leisure, including entertainment, recreation, and socializing
I wanted to also add energy consumption, but it's really separate from this list and underlies every one of these items. Energy drives advances in technology, and every time we've had significant advances in energy production, resulting in cheaper and more widely available forms of energy, we've made tremendous strides in technologies that affect all of the aspects of our lives on this list. If solar and wind power and battery storage technology advance enough to become the next cheaper form of energy, we can expect that to propel us forward yet again.

The internet is another technology that has and will continue to affect all aspects of our lives, some more noticeable than others. You could say that smart phones have a similar reach, but they're really a subset of the larger internet of all devices. The internet wasn't a single, distinct technology, but a vast platform that is continuously evolving and enables all kinds of other technologies to be developed on top of it. Different people can use different parts of that platform and derive benefits from it that are tailored to their own priorities.

If I look at the technologies that have changed my life the most, they affect areas that had the most potential for improvement. My basic needs, health, exercise, and communication are pretty well taken care of, and I don't see much need to improve them with new technology. Transportation is another story, though. I hate commuting, and the Leaf dramatically improved my daily commute. As for work and leisure, as far as I'm concerned, there's always room for improvement in both of these areas, and the Kindle proved to be one technology that made some major improvements there.

I used to buy into the whole technology overload hype, but more and more I'm realizing that the every increasing pace of technological advancement isn't that important at a personal level. What matters is which areas of your life you want to improve the most, and which technologies will have the biggest positive effect on those areas. Look for the technologies that are going to revolutionize your major problem areas, and skip the rest. The pace of technology will seem much less overwhelming, and you'll have more time to enjoy your life.