Monday, June 06, 2005

Does Technology Make Us Happy?

Thanks to the several people who commented on my first posting this year (I am still trying to retrieve my archive, sorry). I agree with mostly with 'ric' but I want to discuss this in a social context.

Technologists, businesspeople, and most politicians assume so, celebrating its ability to improve our persons, experiences, and material circumstances. And ordinary human behavior seems to answer the question: if technology doesn’t make us happy, why do we spend so much time, effort and money developing and buying all the stuff? I get a lot of this at work ...

But the answer is not so simple, as James Surowiecki explains in “Technology and Happiness.” People are irrational about what will promote their well-being, and they arena’t very good at anticipating their future preferences. Considering how many decisions about choosing new technologies are based on little (or even erroneous) information, perhaps we sometimes get stuck with technologies that don’t make us happy.

The social sciences have been nearly silent on the subject and more frequently economists have turned their attention to the question of the complex relationship between wealth and happiness. Some of their insights can also be usefully applied to technology.

Despite the fantastic increase in the prosperity since the 40's, most people are no happier today than they were in then (check Google for 'happiness surveys'). Indeed, according to social scientists, the numbers of Americans who say they are “very happy” has actually fallen since the 1970s, even while the average income of someone born in 1940 has increased 116 percent. I live in Basel, Switzerland, and it seems to be the same here.

It turns out that when everyone’s income swells, people’s subjective sense of what they minimally require to be happy inflates, too.

Cognitive psychologists call this “hedonic adaptation”, a term I picked up at CMU — and it works for technology as well. We become desensitized to our good fortune. When international telephone calls, jet travel, or wireless broadband while I'm sick at home first appeared, they were wonderful things that seem to clearly make our lives better, but as their price fell and they became commonly available, they quickly seemed quotidian. In no time at all, we were irritated when they did not work perfectly.

So are we happier for new technologies? In one sense, you betcha! In another sense, notta. Happiness economists have shown that there is a kind of decreasing return to increasing income. Except for the very wealthy (the Forbes 400 consistently report that they are very cheerful indeed), people who strive ardently to become richer don’t report any significant increase in well-being. Some happiness economists suggest that 'inconspicuous consumption — that is, investment in health, family, or your community — tends to have a better return in happiness than buying bigger cars or a chalet in the mountains.

It is the same with new technologies. Purchasing lots of the latest gadgets is unsatisfying: you know that in a few months there will be new, improved versions of the things. Ask my girlfriend, Nadine, about her 'maximizer' boyfriend.

But some technology consumption is less conspicuous. Internet technologies like search or social networking are informational and affective networks that expand our knowledge and relationships. They’re the better buy.


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