The latest report in a series on the “future of the internet” conducted by Pew Research Center and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center has personal observations from technology experts, scholars and health specialists on their digital life. Many experts praise the benefits of connectivity and easy access to knowledge in their everyday experiences. However, some rue digital life’s health-threatening qualities, loss of privacy and diminishing trust. Sound familiar?
The anecdotes are drawn from an early-2018 non-scientific surveying of 1,150 experts on the future of “digital life and well-being. Participants were asked to “share a brief personal anecdote about how digital life has changed your daily life, your family’s life or your friends’ lives regarding well-being – some brief observation about life for self, family or friends. Tell us how this observation or anecdote captures how hyper-connected life changes people’s well-being compared to the way life was before digital connectivity existed.”
Report co-author Janna Anderson, director of the Imagining the Internet Center at Elon says,
“Among the many wonders they note are nearly instant and easy connection to family, to friends, to career, life, shopping and entertainment options, and the ability for anyone to share information globally, including tapping into amazing global-navigation resources.”
This should sound familiar says Lee Rainie, director of internet and technology research at Pew Research Center. “Their experiences and their fears are almost globally representative. Even as these experts enjoy the benefits of connectivity… they see problems that are very familiar and urgent. They note that digital life can be distracting, diverting, easily manipulated by powerful actors and deeply distrusting of the essential things that make life meaningful.”
Digital Life Positives
- Connectiveness: Many said the internet’s greatest boon to individuals is the ability to reach out and connect directly with friends, family, colleagues, knowledge, education, entertainment and more, anywhere, at any time, in a nearly free and frictionless manner.
- Invent, reinvent, innovate: Digital tools let people invent or reinvent their lives and careers and innovate through wide networking with people and information that allows them to develop businesses, find the perfect job, and meet soulmates, colleagues, new friends and fellow interest-sharers.
- Life-saving advice and assistance: People can tap into and share medical, safety and health resources and support at a moment’s notice – the internet is crucial to personal health and a significant change for people engaged in child and elder care.
- Efficient transactions: These experts also hailed the way the internet revolutionizes other logistics and experiences. They cited benefits including accessing online education, researching purchases, finding the best options for anything, making quick-hit social connections, planning trips, or coordinating activities – which allow people to be more mobile, savvy and globally enriched.
Digital Life Negatives
- Overload: Low-friction instant access to nearly everything, anytime, anywhere, is causing stress, anxiety, sleeplessness and loss of patience. Some noted that they witness people diminishing or missing important face-to-face social interactions and experiences. Some also noted that work demands, and entertainment lures tug away at users 24/7/365 and that there is a loss of attention to “real life.”
- Trust: The business model of internet platforms is mostly built on an attention economy that rewards addictive products that heighten users’ emotions and perpetuate polarization. In addition, there are concerns among experts about issues of security, surveillance and privacy.
- Personal identity issues: Self-promotion, narcissism, clickbait, trolling, propaganda and pressures to conform have become dominant in social networks, causing some individuals to experience a loss of self-confidence and self-esteem. This encourages some to lose faith in others and adopt a negative world view.
- Focus failures: Digital life fosters shallow engagement with information as people glide through multiple information streams daily, taking little time for reflection. People have a diminishing capacity to concentrate well enough to stay on task and do long-term, deep-dive thinking.