The Current

Tech made our lives easier. Now it's taking more than it gives, says researcher

Shannon Vallor says technology has lost its magic. While innovations used to spark excitement or joy, she says technology is now taking much more than it gives. 

Shannon Vallor says technology is no longer something that sparks joy like it once did

Meta staff wear Oculus VR headsets at the Toronto office of Meta, Facebook's parent company, on March 29, 2022. Researcher Shannon Vallor says technological innovations, like Meta's push into the metaverse, are providing less value to users. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

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Shannon Vallor believes technology has lost its magic. 

"There's lots of different human needs that, frankly, are languishing in an era which is supposed to be the height of human creativity and innovation. And we need to look at the structural and institutional and economic reasons for that," the technology philosopher told Matt Galloway on The Current

While innovations used to spark excitement or joy, technology is now taking much more than it gives, she said. Vallor is the Baillie Gifford Chair in the Ethics of Data and Artificial Intelligence at the University of Edinburgh and director of the Centre for Technomoral Futures in the Edinburgh Futures Institute.

She penned an article for MIT Technology Review in October about her realization that technology no longer got her excited. Instead, new advancements made her feel something else entirely. 

"The feeling I was getting was oppressive, was one of resignation. And the experience wasn't what I grew up with," said Vallor. 

A portrait of a woman with glasses.
Professor and author Shannon Vallor says it's important for us to get excited about new advancements, but tech companies need to do their part. (Submitted by Shannon Vallor)

So Vallor took to Twitter, ranting about her frustrations. And within minutes, she found she wasn't alone. Thousands of people were interacting with her post, saying they felt the same way. 

Who is technology for?

Vallor remembers being wowed by space travel in the 1970s and, decades later, being amazed by the internet, Apple computers, and the original iPods. 

Technology was new and thrilling. It was solving simple problems — like the invention of robot vacuums that clean floors, or a fridge that can make ice cubes. Vallor says it felt like all this technology was for the consumer. 

"That technology still seemed to be for us. It still seemed to be for everybody," she said. 

But Vallor says that has changed, and people who responded to her post on Twitter agreed. Danilo Campos is software developer in the northeast U.S., who volunteers weekly to help seniors with technology and responded to Vallor's Twitter thread. 

He had a recent experience where a woman came to him with a new laptop that she felt was running slower than it should. Campos gave it a look and, sure enough, he found a program on the laptop, installed by the manufacturer, that was using much of computer's processing power. 

"These programs were just starting up when the computer booted. Nobody asked for them. They weren't doing anything particularly productive, but they were gobbling up all of the processing power that the computer had so that you couldn't do anything else productively," said Campos. 

"They sell it with the fairly benign premise of you're going to be able to get system updates. But what you're actually getting is the ability for the manufacturer to ... gather information about how you're using the machine and otherwise surveil you in some very aggregate way."

He says these kinds of tactics are confusing for people might not be as tech savvy. 

"There's always an incentive to encroach a little bit further. And it's really dispiriting to me," said Campos. "Most of the incentives for technology firms are to do mundane but nefarious things that don't serve the end user but make somebody's spreadsheet look good."

The late Steve Jobs holds the new iPhone in San Francisco, California January 9, 2007. Vallor says technology like the iPod and iPhone used to wow and excite people. (Kimberly White/Reuters)

For Vallor, the tipping point was seeing Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently promote virtual reality spaces that allow users to attend work meetings online.

It made Vallor wonder, who asked for this?

"Our devices around us serve to pull value from us. And the value they give back seems increasingly marginal, I think, and increasingly less a centre of joy and excitement in our lives," said Vallor. 

"Many of us don't feel anymore like technology is for us. It's for a company that's trying to extract some value from us. We're no longer the beneficiaries of technology, or at least not the primary ones. We're the product itself."

Falling back in love with tech

Vallor says the world needs technology — and for people to fall in love with it once again. But for that to happen, tech needs to change.

"If we fall out of love with technology, we fall out of love with a fundamental way that we need to flourish together. Technology doesn't solve all our problems, but we can't live well without technology either," said Vallor. 

To make it in that direction, Vallor says there needs to be a change in what corporations value. She says metrics and incentives need to be aligned with progress and creating technology that isn't just designed to extract data.

But advancements in biomedicine and climate-focused technology, such as nuclear fusion, give Vallor hope.

"I think the incentives currently are for technology to continue to take from us more than it gives. And we need to turn that around and we need to do it now," said Vallor.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Philip Drost is a journalist with the CBC. You can reach him on Twitter @phildrost or by email at philip.drost@cbc.ca.

Produced by Alison Masemann.

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