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August 01, 2005

Does technology make us happy?

As designers and social innovators, should we take any notice of technology policy? Wouldn't it be best to ignore the think-tanks and telcos, and concentrate on doing great projects in the real world? A 90% focus on projects would probably be healthy. But we also need to keep half an eye on policy making because that's where priorities for research spending - and hence the projects we are able to do - are made.
Tech policy is not a pretty picture right now. After a few years in which social issues were visible on the agenda, tech-push is fighting back. In the European Union, for example, the Information Society Technologies (IST) programme contains a lot of tech but not much soc. The IST's aim is to 'master technology and its applications, and help strengthen industrial competitiveness'. Documents mention the need to 'address the main European societal challenges' - but the advisory group that interprets that statement, ISTAG, consists wholly of Big Tech and Big Research interests. (To compound the imbalance, ISTAG comprises 29 men and just four women). There once existed a panel of High-Level Socio-Economic Experts but they quietly disappeared in 2003, supplanted by an entity called eEurope. The main job of eEurope is to 'develop modern public services and a dynamic environment for e-business through widespread availability of broadband access at competitive prices and a secure information infrastructure'. Once again: a lot about tech and not much about soc. All Doors' friends report a similar pattern: proposals that don't put tech at their centre have little chance of success.
In the UK last week, a paper called Modernising With Purpose: A Manifesto for a Digital Britain by William Davies was published by the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR). The manifesto begins promisingly with a complaint that ‘the strong focus on investing in technology, and measuring Britain’s most easily quantifiable assets, has left social resources, and less quantifiable assets, underdeveloped’. The manifesto demands that enduring cultural norms be protected, and insists on social and constitutional rules to guard against the constant possibility of harmful unintended consequences. Disappointingly, the manifesto is otherwise resolutely orthodox in the way that it casually equates modernisation with technological intensification. The ways we live and think now, for example, are described casually as 'obstacles to modernisation', and the manifesto finds it self-evident that future policy ‘anchors people to technological change’. 'We may have reached the toughest stage in the transition to a digitally enabled economy and government” writes Davies, “where the obstacles facing us are hardest to pin down or tackle, being psychological, cultural and local”.
Obstacles, or assets? A more inspiring manifesto would have located technology within a range of new ways to organise our daily lives - not made tech the starting point. It would have laid out a broader range of success indicators, and challenged us to find new ways to improve them. The good news is that a global boom in new indicators is providing us with new success criteria against which to make decisions about what we innovate, and how. An International Conference on Gross National Happiness took place in Canada in June, and even in the UK new ways to measure well-being and life satisfaction are also being discussed in UK policy circles. And I have to mention that my book, In The Bubble describes a range of daily life situations in which redesign is appropriate - sometimes using tech, but just as often, not.

Posted by John Thackara at August 1, 2005 01:14 AM


Hi John,
I really appreciated this comment. You are very right. So I blogged about it on my own site:
All the best,

Posted by: Mark Vanderbeeken at August 2, 2005 10:36 AM

I think you're being a little unfair. I chose the word 'modernising' in the title, precisely because it does carry connotations beyond simply speeding everything up. What I was trying to convey to the reader (and remember, the target audience for this sort of thing contains policy-makers, politicians, industry figures - not philosophers) was precisely that it's not enough to get more, faster cables in the ground. Modernity is a multi-faceted project.
However, I did set out in one chapter to look at the technological aspect of modernisation, which I linked directly to economic benefits. It is undeniably the case that the UK economy needs to ensure that its skills base adapts to its technological infrastructure, and the skills of its oversease competitors. This is the language our society and politicians speak. I didn't vote for it.
There are plenty of institutions and individuals better placed to map out richer, more amiguous versions of the future than me and the ippr. If you want your bureaucrats and wonks to start acting like poets, go to California and hang out with some management gurus. But I think most people would rather we stuck to our more dreary function.

Posted by: Will Davies at August 2, 2005 11:18 AM

Will, You write: "This is the language our society and politicians speak. I didn't vote for it". In what way, then, is the IPPR a 'progressive' think tank? Surely the craven way politicians do what tech companies tell them to do - in the NHS, for example - is something policy advisors should contest, not go along with? If the purpose of the digital manifesto is to enhance national competitveness, then a more radical focus on social and cultural capital - enabled by tech - would be one way to achieve that. By the way, I share your distate for the way California management gurus link science fantasy futures with confident proclamations about the impossibility of government: their fixation on Tech is more dreary than our continued confidence in people.

Posted by: John Thackara at August 2, 2005 02:43 PM

Coming from Finland and having contributed to the Sixth Framework Program myself, I totally agree with your gripe "a lot about tech and not much about soc." I can see two reasons for it.

First, (risking a blatant generalisation) it seems to me that Europeans often start their problem solving from the wrong end. Too many projects proposed in FP6 are brilliant technical solutions to woefully narrow problems. The solution may be great but if it only helps a handful of people then who cares. Instead, projects should be driven by a social demand. I grudingly admit that the Americans with their market-driven approach are often smarter. They start by analysing a problem, then develop a solution to it. The solution may be a technical one but it doesn't have to be. As long as it makes life easier for enough people it will sell.

Secondly, technology-driven jobs are going to disappear. Daniel Pink made the elementary observation about "Asia, abundance and automation" in his book A Whole New Mind. Any job that can be done for less money somewere else or that can be automated is going to disappear from Europe and USA. What remains are the "right-brained", big picture jobs. We need to learn how to analyze the social context, synthesize abstract requirements, and arrive at a solution. Then specify that solution for somebody else to build.

Posted by: Antti Hietala at August 5, 2005 01:40 AM

John, your book seems very interesting.

On the blog discussion I would say: let's ask ourselves the question again: Does technology make us happy?

Not sure Europeans, Americans or Asians have the right or wrong approach to problems; but certainly if we continue developing technology based on "market niches" instead of social needs, technology will not make us happy.

We should probably look at children around the world and ask them if technology makes them happier, or fatter and lazier, or more intelligent.

Hopefully we (designers and tech-developers) focus our efforts on delivering the right cultural message using technology to the extent where it is necessary. I have the feeling that many high-tech products create more problems than solutions, because they're based on market trends not on social needs.

Posted by: Alberto Villarreal at August 15, 2005 10:20 AM

John has a very good point here, and I thank you for sort of reaching outside the choking conspiracy of silence and incompetence that much of ‘organised’ Euro research is about. If this kind of funding were dished out in a country like Cambodia, it would be seen almost as a travesty, but where its Europe, its OK, its still raising our competitiveness vs. Japan and US. Remember the europrocessor and OMI, it had limited success but did adavnce the ARM chip, and made for experiments with embedded systems and other things.

I have worked on several EU 5th and 6th framework projects on the human/social/cultural side since about 1995. Since that time it has been my experience that both in the proposal stage and throughout the development of the projects the human side is paid lip service at best. Used to be evaluators wanted some human factors work in projects, then it was business viability. They seem to have stuck there. The last big project that I worked on did away with even pretending to be interested in the ‘human’ side, I was more or less coerced to work in developing ‘business modelling’ for the MPEG-21 standard. Read for this building some sort of business case for DRM.

You know there were rich veins that were emerging in the 1990s when you chopped the chaff of the bandwagon effects. It takes events like Doors to perpetuate these tangential ideas. I remember one Euro meeting where Nick Negoponte was invited. After the very generous lunch, we had an Italian guy present his ‘human factors’ spiel. It was ‘users this’ and ‘users’ that . . . until . . . Negroponte burped and interjected: . . . ‘SHIT’ . . . "that’s shit" he said. I hadn't heard many gurus swear at that point of life, and not in sleepy after lunch 5th Framework meetings. . .

I was mortified, as I had myself bought into the idea of ‘user’ and seeing it challenged in this way dishevelled. His argument we all know and that was that new technologies are too far beyond the ken of users so their input would only confuse. No data there. This is contentious of course. But maybe this is how it is, enshried in policy, and in projects, and it is now seen this way.

Posted by: Derek Nicoll at October 12, 2005 02:10 AM

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