I mostly have modern computing and the internet in mind here: How have the technologies of the last 20 years made life better? How have they made life worse?

I ask these questions to try and come up with some answers about how I can improve my life, but I imagine these are issues most people deal with.

For the better:

1. Vast oceans of information about virtually anything you can imagine is out there for free. This is more than just “nice”; it has reduced the time we have to spend on various searches for information on a daily basis.

2. Building on the first point, educational start-ups are starting to take advantage of present bandwidth conditions and the free nature of the web to offer free education. Learning has never been as accessible or cheap as it is now.

3. Social networking websites have made it incredibly easy to keep in touch with friends and family, regardless of where you might be. Services like Skype and instant messaging have made it free to communicate.

4. Smart phones mean that we now have (1) and (3) with us everywhere we go. It is kind of awesome to think we have computers in our pockets more powerful than what was commonplace for the desktop less than 10 years ago. We can document important things around us with photographs and twitter, and we can find our way around more easily with navigational tools. Oh, and we can also call people.

5. Blogs have been incredible sources of analysis that did not previously exist. We now have critiques of traditional journalism as well as original perspectives on stories that may not have been heard otherwise. I know personally that just as much as from places like the New York Times, I have benefited from blogs in understanding the world around me. The analysis can be razor-sharp and it has made me a better thinker. Of course, my own blog, though not updated nearly enough, has made me sharper as I try to write down what I think.

6. Related to (1), the web has allowed people to hunt for bargains. Previously people would hunt through Sunday paper ads, and compare themselves. Now this can be done online, and furthermore, online companies can compete on price much of the time.

7. Entertainment is easier, faster and cheaper than it once was. Netflix, Pandora, Hulu, Steam, Amazon and Google have probably made it really easy to listen, watch and play on a whim’s notice.

8. There are countless productivity tools that have improved how we organize and do our work. Think of word processors, cloud backups, sharable documents and spreadsheets, instant messaging, and more specific tools depending on your industry (statistical analysis, film and photo editing tools, databases, electronic medical records).

For the worse:

Prior to starting on this list, it seemed to me that most of the flaws in these technologies are actually with the individual. In other words, put in the hands of an ideal human as measured by restraint, discipline, focus and will power, the flaws would not really exist. But none of us are this ideal person. And we can strive towards this image of ideal, but part of that self-improvement equation has to do with environment.

1. Too much choice in how we spend our time can be and often is a terrible thing. This is a strange critique, because the fault ultimately lies with the individual. Most of us have a tendency to be distracted, and when we are on our desktops, laptops or smartphones, we will inevitably be incredibly distracted for a significant fraction of the time. Too many options can induce a kind of paralysis. I find this is definitely the case with me. How many people have had days where you looked back and wondered what in the hell you just did over the last several hours? Browsing wikipedia, chatting with friends and reading articles out of a mixture of boredom, interest and immense distraction.

2. Focusing on a task at hand, whether that be reading, writing or something work-related is not something anyone is really innately born with. Like long-distance running, it’s something you have to practice consistently to be any good at. And in modern times, we probably don’t get very much practice. Most of our tasks are probably disjointed and broken up with countless activities available to us on our computers. Sometimes these detours are good, as they give us a break from the usual. But that takes for granted that we are very focused for significant periods of time. I’m guessing that’s not usually the case for most people.

3. I think people romanticize and beautify the idea of being on your own, in the woods with no phone or constant e-mail checking. But I think most people would admit there’s something nice about logging off for periods of time.

4. For all of the things that have expanded the information and educational tools and improved our productivity potential, I feel like depending on the day, the time-wasters could outweigh the life-improvers. This is related to (1) and (2). If I had better self-discipline and more focus, this would not be the case.

5. Even as the latest wave of technologies has attempted to make people more connected to each other, I wonder if the vast capabilities of the internet haven’t occasionally made me less social.

It’s clear that this new world of technology can be awesome, but it can also be terrible if we aren’t careful and vigilant.


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