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Is Web Technology Making Your Life Better?

Written by Josh Catone / February 28, 2008 10:15 AM / 5 Comments
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Technology, broadly, is a tool or set of tools aimed at making some aspect of life better, easier, or more efficient. On the web, that could mean scripting languages that make it easier for developers to create applications, or it could mean applications that make it easier for us to accomplish a task. Let’s not debate the definition of the word technology, but rather, is web technology working for you? Are so-called web 2.0 applications making your life easier or overloading you with too much information?
“It is no secret that we live in an information overload age,” is how Alex Iskold began his must-read Attention Economy overview that was published on ReadWriteWeb about one year ago. We’re constantly bombarded with information these days — news, blogs, photos, videos, Twitter, emails, text messages, phone calls, etc. All of these things are vying for and tugging at our attention.

So the question becomes: is the technology that is supposed to make our lives easier, actually overwhelming us and making our lives more difficult? And if so, how do we escape the negative effect of technology overload?

The latest in the compelling series of Oxford 2.0 debates over at the Economist web site (which we covered in December) deals with the proposition: If the promise of technology is to simplify our lives, it is failing.

Arguing on the pro side (that technology is complicating our lives) is Richard Szafranski, Partner, Toffler Associates. On the con side (that technology is simplifying our lives) is John Maeda, President Elect of the Rhode Island School of Design. The debate runs until March 6 and spectators are right now split 64%-34% in favor of the con side.

The Economist debate is speaking broadly to technology as a whole (which might include everything from the hammer and nail to the Large Hadron Collider), but the relevance to our problem of information overload is undeniable.

From Szafranski’s opening statement:

“We–hundreds of millions of us and growing–embrace the very technologies that make our lives and our relationships more difficult and fill many of our waking moments with activity. We love–to the point of gluttony–to communicate, play, invent, learn, imagine and acquire. Information technology has given us tools to do all of those anywhere and round the clock. We are awash in the benefits that high-bandwidth fixed and mobile wireless communications, email, text messages, pictures, games, data and information give us, including instant access to thousands of products. The seductive ease with which we can engage in any and all of those activities, or quests or endeavours makes it difficult and stressful to not be overwhelmed by choices. Choosing takes time and our time is not unlimited. Devices and applications that save us labour in one area may merely allow us, and sometimes seem to compel us, to invest labour in other areas.

We say or hear, “I must do my email tonight, or by tomorrow I’ll have over 600 to read.” We want to buy a pot. Search on “pottery” and get 254,000,000 results. We want to find the John Li we met at a conference. Search on “John Li” and get 8,600,000 results. Do I do email, narrow the searches, eat dinner, pick up my laundry or call a friend? Because technology has spawned numerous complex variations I must repeatedly go through the act of evaluating and choosing — a labour of deciding. Technology has imposed the encumbrance of over-choice on us.”

And from Maeda’s first parry:

“Recognize simplicity as being about two goals realized simultaneously: the saving of time to realize efficiencies, and later wasting the time that you have gained on some humanly pursuit. Thus true simplicity in life is one part technology, and the other part away from technology.

We voluntarily let technology enter our lives in the infantile state that it currently exists, and the challenge is to wait for it to mature to something we can all be proud of. Patience is a virtue I am told, and I await the many improvements that lie ahead. To say that technology is failing to simplify our lives misses the point that in the past decade we have lived in an era of breakneck innovation. This pace is fortunately slowing and industries are retrenching so that design-led approaches can take command to give root to more meaningful technology experiences.”

Szafranski is arguing that the benefit of technology has been overwhelmed by the sheer complexity and enormity of it. Technology may have solved some problems, but it has created others that are just as negative, or perhaps worse. Or, for example, Google gives us access to so much information that finding what we’re looking for is such a complex task that our lives are worse off for it. On the other hand, Maeda’s argument is that information technology is so new that we’re only now beginning to refine it in ways that make it more simple. It can be a tad overwhelming when a Google search return 4 million results, but give it a few years and it is bound to get better.

This is an intensely interesting debate, and we thought it would be fun to try to continue it here with a focus on web technologies. Is the information overload that we’re all acutely experiencing worth the utility we’re getting out of it? Has technology on the web failed us or has it made our lives easier? What do you think? The floor is open for debate, let us know your thoughts in the comments.

Image via a Geico ad.

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