Unintended Consequences of Technology

unintended consequences of technology

I love my tech, but sometimes it is too much of a good thing. As a graduate student and young professor in the 70s and 80s I spent much of my life in the computer lab and library. In the early days of computer data analysis, we worked on mainframes and had to come to the lab to do our work. Literature reviews meant trips to the library hunting for books and journals. Today all of that is literally at my fingertips as I use the keyboard and mouse of my computer. Many tasks have been made easier, but there have also been unintended consequences of technology that just might have made life a little more difficult.

Early Days

Before cell phones and the internet, if you needed information, you had to go to the library. This meant a trip to campus and manual searching for what you needed. I spent much of my time in the library, sometimes entire weeks. For example, in the middle 80s I did a meta-analysis on workplace autonomy/control, and because electronic databases were not available, I had to use the paper version of Psychological Abstracts. This involved pulling each issue off the shelf, going to the index to look up my keywords, making note of the location (volume and page) of the printed abstracts for each promising lead, and then scanning the abstract to see if it fit my needs. I would then write down the journal information for papers I wanted to include, and when I had a list, I would go to the stacks to pull the physical journals to code each article. I spent a few weeks in the library, eventually coding more than 100 articles without any electronic aids.

Advantages of Technology

Of course today all of the tools we used in the computer lab and library are available on our personal computers and other devices. For example, the information that used to be in Psychological Abstracts can be found in online databases like PsycInfo. You enter a keyword and all of the information that might have taken many days of hard work to compile magically appears in a few moments. You have access to the abstracts, and with a click, pdfs of the full articles. You still have to scan abstracts to see if they fit your inclusion criteria for further consideration, and you still have to code the papers, but the drudgery of a manual search is automated. Unfortunately, this convenience comes at a cost.

Unintended Consequences of Technology

Despite the advantages, there are also some unintended consequences of technology that can affect our health and well-being. Much of it has to do with technology use leading to social isolation and sedentary lifestyle. Other issues have to do with increased workloads as a by-product of technology.

  1. Lack of physical activity. Going to the computer center and library involved physical activity. There was a lot of walking, and a lot of staircases, particularly in the library. There was bending and reaching for journals on high and low shelves, and bound journals were not exactly light, especially when you were moving stacks of them from shelf to work table. Contrast that with spending the day sitting in front of a screen.
  2. Musculoskeletal disorders: Working at a computer in a fixed position for long periods of time can lead to musculoskeletal pain in the back, neck, shoulders, and wrists. This is a problem with computer devices, with the latest “disorder” now referred to as I-Pad neck—injury in the neck due to the use of tablets.
  3. Social Isolation: I used to spend most days on campus, so I would run into colleagues and students. Today I spend most days at home working by myself. Although I do interact with people virtually, it is not the same as sharing the physical space with people.
  4. Constant distractions and interruptions: When in the computer lab or library, you were away from most distractions and the telephone. People recognized that you were working and tended to respect that boundary. Today we have a constant flood of e-mail, text, and social media to interrupt our concentration. Yes, we can turn those things off while we are working, but how many of us do?
  5. Increased workload: It is wonderful how technology allows you to connect with people through e-mail and social media. Networking has never been easier. But it also means that it is very easy for people to contact you to ask questions or make requests. Prior to e-mail, if you took a vacation for a week, you left mail behind in the office to be handled when you returned. Today, it is difficult to get away from e-mail, meaning work is always there. And the volume of e-mail far exceeds the volume of physical mail, in large part because sending a letter took more effort and you had to pay for stationary and postage. So people were far more judicious in sending mail than e-mail which you can fire off on impulse.

Were We Better Off without Technology?

In some ways we were better off without tech, but overall technology has made doing our work easier. The problem isn’t with the technology, but rather in how we use it. We all need to do a better job of reducing the unintended consequences of technology. Some tips:

  1. Increase physical activity. Technology can be a time saver, which means we should have more time to exercise and engage in physical activity. Instead of spending that saved time on more work, use some of it to go for a walk, or better still do a workout.
  2. Take frequent breaks. Do not sit (or stand) in one position working for extended periods of time. Mix things up, perhaps by rotating tasks that do not all require sitting at the computer. There are days that I use my desktop while sitting, laptop while standing, and read printed material while slowly walking around the room.
  3. Turn off notifications so you don’t get beeped every time you receive an e-mail or message. I know I need to do better.
  4. Set boundaries so you are not connected 24/7, and so you are able to take much needed recovery breaks on weekends or vacations. Once people you work with know, for example, that you do not answer e-mails after 7pm, they will not expect to get an answer until the next morning. Disconnecting is important for us to de-stress after a day of work.

Computers and other devices have become an important part of our lives that has made many tasks easier. With a little effort we can reduce the unintended consequences of technology.

Photo by Alex Qian from Pexels

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