Technologists are telling us that technology is not working. A consensus is forming in the technology world that the computing revolution of the past 20 years has not been beneficial to human wellbeing.
Zach Klein, the co-founder of Vimeo, is minor Silicon Valley royalty. Yet when I spoke to him last year, he was downbeat about the social impact of technology. 'Facebook is total crap,' he said. 'It turns every single person into an entry in a phone book.' Klein objects in principle to making followers and following the basis of social media. Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram – none of them are what he calls 'nutritious'.
Entrepreneur Kate Unsworth makes a similar point about smartwatches and fitness bands. 'I don't want a smartphone device that enables my addiction,' she told me at our Tech Futures Forum. 'I want a device that helps me live my physical life and allows me to take a step away from my digital life.' When she took a digital detox, it was as if 'someone had popped a bubble round my head'. Her phone, she says, had been 'numbing my senses'.
If technologists are gloomier than they used to be that is partly because some of their best hopes have been disappointed. Panglossian predictions, such as those in Chris Anderson's Long Tail, have proved debatable at best. As Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal puts it: 'We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.'
A more profound disappointment has been the experience of living with technology. Technologists walk through life surrounded by some of the most ingenious products ever made, yet they find themselves no happier or healthier than any of their peers.
Linda Stone is a case in point. The former Apple and Microsoft executive was an early and enthusiastic self-quant, tracking many aspects of her life numerically in order to live the healthiest and most productive existence she could. But still she developed a significant illness.
‘I realised that for me, I knew all the numbers but I had stopped knowing how I felt,’ Stone tells LS:N.
In his TED talk, the author Matt Ridley illustrates the miraculous gains in prosperity since the 19th century by translating material wealth into time. In 1800, Ridley says, it took the average person six hours to earn enough money to pay for an hour of light. Today, it takes the average person half a second. Even since 1950 we have gained 7.5 seconds of prosperity. What do we do with that time? Send more emails, of course. Sometimes it can seem as if we save time only to find new and ever-more exhausting ways to fill it.
Of course, this being technology, no-one is standing idle. Klein has launched DIY.org, a social network for children that prioritises creation and adventure over social ranking. Unsworth has developed a range of wearable technology jewellery that looks like it is designed for humans. Stone has created a range of Essential Self Technologies, ‘passive, ambient, non-invasive technologies that use light, sound, vibration or music to support a sense of embodiment or states of flow'.
Yet even a product as brilliantly wholesome as DIY.org may not be enough to answer the larger question: what is the purpose of technology? When we create a new product, are we trying to increase the stock of happiness, or are we simply creating a new product? Does technology serve us or the other way round?
A recent survey of 16–24-year-olds suggested that young people feel 'trapped' and 'enslaved' by technology. 'They resent having to use their screens so much,' the report's author Luke Mitchell told me. If we are not going to see a new wave of Luddism, we need to look beyond new technological products, and ask what technology is for.