The Case for Psychologically Sustainable Technology

It’s the best of times, the worst of times, the age of anxiety, the season of technological disruption, the spring of Xanax.

We have problems we “literally cannot even deal” with and struggles that are, apparently, very real. Welcome to the most on edge epoch in history.

So why are rates of anxiety, depression, and neuroses skyrocketing like an Uber surcharge in a downpour?

Thousands of recent studies found three universal psychological needs that influence happiness: autonomy, relatedness, and competenceAnd these needs are slipping out of our grasp faster than the sweaty handles of our SoulCycle bike.

Despite popularly cited reasons for an increase in mental illness, like helicopter parents, binge drinking, and millennial egocentrism, I believe we will become increasingly unsettled as technology outsources our autonomy, relatedness, and competence.

As technological innovation outpaces the speed with which we left-swipe on Tinder, I caution the outsourcing of self. Technologists shouldn’t underestimate the psychological imperative of leaving our smudgy fingerprints on the world.

I propose psychologically sustainable technology.

The Angst of Autonomy

Never in the history of humanity have we been less relevant in our decision making. To my control freaks, deep breaths.

Autonomy means “one who gives oneself one’s own law.” Which sounds like a lot of work when your Amazon Prime knows you better than you know you. Creating your own law seems excessive when Facebook advertisements are so on point.

The lack of autonomy produces anxiety because we feel “out of control.” Imagine yourself as an inmate on Orange is the New Black, or when your opinionated friend orders for the whole table at dinner. It’s a lot, I know.

Humans thrive on individual agency and intrinsic motivation. We like to feel real or perceived power over our environments. Self-determination psychologists believe autonomy-supportive contexts are necessary for healthy development and peak functioning.

Which is why many people freak out and drink a lot when they’re home for Thanksgiving.

But our brave new world is becoming autonomy-unsupportive. With the rise of artificial intelligence, machine learning, and autonomous technology, it’s a luxury to not be autonomous.

There are over-caffeinated technologists coding around the clock to ensure you don’t get in the way of your own decision making. These autonomous devices, from cars to virtual assistants to cognitive APIs (like Watson AI-as-a-Service), are aware of their environment and can make decisions on their own.

So while you’re getting drunk at happy hour, your technology is at home getting really good at ordering your toilet paper and recognizing your mood and making tweaks to your environment.

Imagine the stress you feel when your family visits and moves all your things and makes all your decisions. Now multiply that by the rest of your life.

Elon Musk warned that rapid progress in artificial intelligence might turn humans into pets for their technology, saying, “I don’t love the idea of being a house cat.”

One of the most publicized and imminent examples of anxiety-inducing autonomous technology is self-driving vehicles. These cars will likely be governed by utilitarian ethics, which means they will kill you if it minimizes the total number of deaths in an accident.

This is a nervous breakdown waiting to happen. I mean, your future car is literally willing to kill you. What a time to be alive.

How do we embrace technological innovation while respecting human autonomy and avoiding this growing epidemic of psychological angst? Similar to LEED certified buildings or USDA certified organic avocados, I believe we should assess technology for emotional, psychological, and behavioral consequences.

To develop psychologically sustainable autonomous technology, we should ask questions like:

  • To what extent can our psyches embrace a more impotent and submissive relationship with our environment?
  • Will significant human meaning be lost by outsourcing a particular function to technology?
  • What are the short and long term psychological implications of devices that reduce or remove autonomy?
  • Should certain devices be used with moderation and others more liberally?

Let’s keep the technology that improves our experience with the world – and check the ones that unnecessarily strip humans of their self importance.

These questions will a require League of Extraordinary technologists, psychologists, futurists, and philosophers to band together and create psychologically sustainable tech.

Because we can’t let Elon Musk become a house cat.


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