Thinking about the social cost of technology

The frustration and stress caused by complex technologies that can seem unknowable — not to mention the time and mindshare that gets wasted trying to make systems work as people want them to work — doesn’t tend to get talked about in the slick presentations of tech firms with their laser pointers fixed on the future and their intent locked on winning the game of the next big thing, writes Natasha Lomas in TechCrunch.

All too often the fact that human lives are increasingly enmeshed with and dependent on ever more complex, and ever more inscrutable, technologies is considered a good thing. Negatives don’t generally get dwelled on. And for the most part people are expected to move along, or be moved along by the tech.

That’s the price of progress, goes the short sharp shrug. Users are expected to use the tool — and take responsibility for not being confused by the tool.

But what if the user can’t properly use the system because they don’t know how to? Are they at fault? Or is it the designers failing to properly articulate what they’ve built and pushed out at such scale? And failing to layer complexity in a way that does not alienate and exclude?

And what happens when the tool becomes so all consuming of people’s attention and so capable of pushing individual buttons it becomes a mainstream source of public opinion? And does so without showing its workings. Without making it clear it’s actually presenting a filtered, algorithmically controlled view. […]

The problem is the power to understand the full implications and impact of consumer technologies that are now being applied at such vast scale — across societies, civic institutions and billions of consumers — is largely withheld from the public, behind commercially tinted glass.