There’s a tendency to downplay the negative aspects of the digital transition that’s happening at pace. Perhaps it’s the acceptance of the inevitability of change and only hushed voices of objection.
A couple of simple changes struck me this week. One was my bank automatically moving me to an on-line statement and the other was a news story about local authorities removing pay machines from car parks on the assumption everyone has a mobile phone.
With these changes there’s a high likelihood that difficulties are going to be caused for a few people. Clearly, the calculation of the banks and local authorities is that the majority rules. Exclusion isn’t their greatest concern but saving money is high on their list of priorities.
The above aside, my intention was to write about more general toxic impacts of the fast-moving digital transition. Now, please don’t get me wrong. In most situations such a transition has widespread benefits. What’s of concern is the few mitigations for any downsides.
Let’s list a few negatives that may need more attention.
Addiction. With social media this is unquestionable. Afterall digital algorithms are developed to get people engaged and keep them engaged for as long as possible. It’s the business model that brings in advertising revenues. There’s FOMO too. That’s a fear of missing out on something new or novel that others might see but you might miss out on.
Attention. Rapidly stroking a touch screen to move from image to image, or video to video encourages less attention to be given to any one piece of information. What research there is shows a general decline in the attention span as a characteristic of being subject to increasing amounts of information, easily made available.
Adoration. Given that so many digital functions are provided with astonishing accuracy, availability, and speed there’s a natural inclination to trust their output. When that trust is justifiable for a high percentage of the time, the few times information is in error can easily be ignored or missed. This can lead to people defending or supporting information that is wrong or misleading.
It’s reasonable to say there are downsides with any use of technology. That said, it’s as well to try to mitigate those that are known about and understood. The big problem is the cumulative effect of the downsides. This can increase fragility and vulnerability of the systems that we all depend upon.
If digital algorithms were medicines or drugs, there would be a whole array of tests conducted before their public release. Some would be strongly regulated. I’m not saying that’s the way to go but it’s a sobering thought.