The impact of digitalisation (and the effect it’s having on us all) – words Lee Burton

It is well known and documented that pretty much every decade of modern history has its own icons and/or definitive events that shape it. They generally fall into the categories of politics, music, inventions and discoveries, things that come to mind to easily represent what is otherwise a rather incomprehensible amount of time.

Let’s take the last 40 years for example; the 80’s could be seen politically as the decade of promise and relief with the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin wall. That positivity can be reflected musically with colourful pop artists like Michael Jackson, Madonna and Duran-Duran which people all listened to through trendy boomboxes and walk-mans.

The 90’s may have introduced new conflict with the gulf war, but distractions are not amiss with the grunge and hip-hop scene. More prominently though, technology took the spotlight with the rise of the competitive PC market, the mobile phone and the introduction of our main subject, the world wide web.

The combination of the world wide web and the mobile phone’s commercial emergence became a swamping definition of the latter 90’s, as not only were the inventions revolutionary they were revolutionary mediums too. A comprehensiveness such as this will always have a greater impact than the musical talents of Madonna or even the political significance of the fall of the Berlin wall, despite world-wide waves of relief of such an event.

 

If the 80’s and 90’s can be seen as the introduction of consumable information technology, it’s hard to refute that the 2000’s onwards can be seen as the consolidation of it. The PC, mobile phone and internet (the physical embodiment of the World Wide Web) combined now affects most Western people’s lives on an everyday basis, and it is now true that it can affect most people in general; from December 2017, 54% of the world’s population (Ref: https://www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm) now have the means to access the internet. With the enormity of this spread you can’t help but have world events being connected to technology in some way, from the millennium bug to the data mining of Cambridge Analytica, these last 20 years seem to be principally definable by or through digitalisation.

The benefits of an interconnected world through technology are mostly obvious, but has digitalisation of everyday life become unwieldy and what are the effects of its over reliance?

This two-part question is quite encompassing, so it’s worth breaking it down. Firstly, digitalisation it can be agreed is not unwieldy because of its ease of access; even the most right-wing individual can support the proposition of “having a computer in every home”. Why? because it’s access to limitless knowledge and it connects us. It can however be described as unwieldy in terms of its security and policing.

It’s not a secret that the law has an incredibly tough time with keeping up with technology, at the time of writing the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) is the focus of many digital companies and this is the first major update of the Data Protection Act since it 1998. Since then we have had the coming and going of the Ipod and Blu-Ray, and then the introduction of Bluetooth, the smart speaker and social networking, the latter three often involves the use of personal data. We have felt the impact of this recently as Cambridge Analytica has been in the news for mining data. Cambridge Analytica specialises in data mining and used Facebook to syphon information on not just agreed users but their friends too, is this right or wrong? Well ethically probably not, however, any app that you choose to subscribe to through Facebook will often inform you that friends data will be used, so it’s not as uncommon as you think, but it is hard to keep track of.

Policing the world wide web is contentious too, even more so ethically. It has been said on several occasions that terrorists use encrypted mobile applications such as WhatsApp to communicate with one another, is it right for a government to potentially sacrifice a user’s anonymity to potentially thwart a terrorist threat? Digitalisation has convoluted this moral conundrum.

If we zoom in from this bird’s eye view of digitalisation and ponder the individual, we can see how technology affects us behaviourally. How common is it witnessed that a child is given a tablet computer instead of a colouring book for distraction? How often do you witness parents buried in their mobile phones instead of paying attention to their children? These are just personal observations and it’s hard to measure the commonality, but what is known is that we are most influenced at the ages of 6-14 (Ref: https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/6d23/31eed233d80c076305010522f9357a2cc114.pdf). So, at the most extreme, when stories crop up on people being stabbed over a videogame, and the milder but still serious stories of depression and isolation, you can’t help but connect the dots and find the over reliance of technology near the source of cause.

One notable and central part of technology is social networking, its offering is simple and altruistic; connecting us to others. Connecting others implies value, however, when pleasing and being noticeable to family and friends isn’t enough it becomes seeking the impossible. What’s the psychological impact of scrolling through an endless feed of seemingly happy couples, popular associates and unmissable parties? There is little evidence that social networking is a cause of depression, but it’s logical to think excessive social media will eventually have a negative effect on one’s mental health. (Ref: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/nurturing-self-compassion/201703/mental-health-and-the-effects-social-media)

Not all is doom and gloom though, none of the above issues are irreversible or are without a solution. It’s also unfair to banish digitalisation for its pitfalls, as it has also offered services that we now take for granted. Twitter, despite being another social networking tool, is socialising for the socialist. The amount of times I’ve been disappointed by a major company’s services and have responded with a direct and openly viewable complaint are innumerable.

If you’re looking to start an independent business it couldn’t be easier and more affordable than doing it online. It’s essentially £15 a month for a domain vs the exceedingly high costs of renting out a shop/office building, and if you don’t know how to build a website there are plenty of website building applications too.

Music has also had an accessibility overhaul thanks to technology, it can be found within a heartbeat now. A meagre £10 a month for all the music you can ever want compared to the £10 a CD we used to spend, that as a verbal statement would have been laughed at 20 years ago. There is an economical backlash to this, but for the music lover it’s convenient. And that’s the word that encompasses digitalisation’s benefit, it’s convenient. We can be informed, entertained and provided for from the convenience of our own home, but we need to realise that all these benefits don’t come without a price.

Starting with the psychological effects, changes can be made through educating at a young age. Moderating a child’s computer usage to a couple of hours a day, for example, would make a profound difference. Swapping the commonly long texting/messaging session with a friend for a phone call might be a breath of fresh air. If we make our communication personal when we can and convenient when we can’t then we’re using computing as a tool again.

The problems of security and policing aren’t as much of an individual responsibility. The government of choice has to pick up the slack and provide enough funding for our science and technology research departments, this will then naturally provide the worthy legislation to protect users’ data on the back of it. Policing on the other hand is enforced by the authorities, but the government need to find the balance between protection and privacy; the police aren’t allowed to search your house without a warrant and that’s a widely accepted model.

Fighting the negative impacts of digitalisation is a joint challenge, one that quite accurately reflects the gap between the private companies that provide us with these digital services and the government that regulates them. There’s not too much that can be done about the dominance of privatisation other than an electoral vote, but we can change our lifestyle choices.

Digitalisation can’t be reversed, instead we can embrace and be thankful for the benefits and adapt to this changed world through our power of responsibility. The responsibility through moderation of our own usage and our children’s usage, as like it or not the children of today will not know a world without digitalisation’s ruling presence.

The impact of digitalisation (and the effect it’s having on us all) – words Lee Burton

 

 

 

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