Cross Country Checkup

'The basic human conundrum': Why we have a love-hate relationship with technology

The rise of smart technology — everything from self-driving cars to video streaming might be exciting to some. But experts say constant change can also create anxiety.

While the rise of smart technology is exciting to some, experts say constant change can also create anxiety

Streaming services and other cloud-based apps are placing growing demands on data centres in Canada and abroad. (Craig Chivers/CBC)

When the Family Video store in Windsor, Ont., announced in December that it was shutting its doors forever, people turned up in tears, asking manager Machele Shearer where they would rent physical movies now.

"[The] last two weeks, all I've had is people coming in crying, giving us hugs, asking us like, 'What do I do now? Where do I go? I don't want to stream,'" she said.

"And I'm like, very sad to tell them, you're not going to rent a video. Not unless you're moving to another city where there may still be a video store."

As the rise of smart technology continues in 2020 — where self-driving cars and AI assistants make even video streaming services seem old hat — things like brick-and-mortar video stores are quickly becoming obsolete.

And while those changes excite some, experts say they can also make us anxious about what lies ahead, and what we're letting go of.

"I think that's the basic human conundrum: the love-hate relationship we have with all of our tools and technologies that we've developed, you know, forever," says Daniel H. Wilson, a robotics engineer and New York Times bestselling author.

"It's a leap of faith," he told Cross Country Checkup. "Every time we get a new technology, we have to trust that we're going to do more good with it than we'll do harm."

Wilson compares today's era to the 1960s, when he says there was more optimism around technology than there is today.

Wilson calls today's era 'the age of candy,' where we've created addictive tools and technology — like social media — that allow us to get exactly what we want. (Dado Ruvic/REUTERS)

"There was always … a technological solution to everything. Why eat food that comes out of the ground [and] is covered with dirt? We're going to eat pills from corporations," he said, giving an example.

"Now it's swung all the way back to, I'll just take my food with dirt on it, thanks. I prefer not to eat your chemicals. Maybe you don't have my best interest in mind actually."

Sanjay Khanna, director and futurist at Whitespace Legal Collab in Toronto, says that deepening anxiety about technology that we're feeling as a society could be rooted in the kinds of instability we're experiencing — from accelerating environment change to how our data and privacy is protected. 

"Constant novelty creates anxiety. If everything is new all the time, you don't know what you can count on to be stable," Khanna said. 

"While we talk about disruption and embracing change and all that kind of thing, what we're starting to see is that human beings and human psychology doesn't work well with this much change across as many dimensions of change as we're seeing."

'The age of candy'

Although we've designed amazing technologies like speech recognition, Wilson says we've also created addictive tools like social media, which encourage us to commodify and "like" things online, and turn our lives into "bite-sized snippets" people want to look at.

That's why he calls our current era "the age of candy."

"Right now, [technology has] been used to give people sort of exactly what they want, which is like candy," he said.

"I think you just can't do that forever. That's just not what human interaction is. Even though it feels great in the moment, it doesn't pan out year after year."

Family Video manager Machale Shearer says the store's closing is about more than just losing access to physical movie rentals. (Amy Dodge/CBC)

As her Family Video store closes down, that's exactly what Shearer worries about. 

"It's that sense of community, it's the social aspect that is just dying out with sitting at home and flicking a button on your remote control and surfing through those [streaming] channels," she said.

Besides renting physical movies at her store, people also came in for the staff movie recommendations, or just to talk to them about other things they'd seen, she said.

As technology continues to evolve, Wilson says he hopes that the types of technology that have changed the way we interact with each other will change for the better.

"I'm really excited to see what the next generation of people will do with that," he said. "I feel like the mindset of the new generation is much more in line with reality and with solving real problems …. that have been ignored for far too long."

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