Technology is fascinating because it has become so advanced that it often feels nearly indistinguishable from magic. Modern technologies have helped humans cure diseases, fly across the planet, provide instant access to nearly infinite information online, and allows us to study in university during a global pandemic. While technology is often described synonymously with human development, it has also brought a lot of new problems that should not be overlooked or free from criticism. Modern technologies (from urban landscapes to social media) have been overwhelmingly destructive for the environment, problematic for people’s mental health, has increased inequality, and produced more waste than the earth can handle. Humans should continue to research, build, and explore, but it should be done with increased empathy, caution, and mindfulness. Every new technology has the potential to bring new, unintended negative consequences. If we fail to recognize that new technologies and developments come with unforeseen consequences, and we fail to take these problems into serious consideration, then we risk creating a destructive future that we cannot return from.
Amidst a global pandemic that has affected nearly every person in every region of the earth, we have been forced to stay indoors, education has moved online, and oftentimes, connecting with friends and family has only become possible through social media. Social media has allowed us to stay connected through video calls, text messages, photos, and other mediums. This can be done regardless of whether a person lives thousands of miles away. While this is a great benefit of social media, it has also brought a lot of new, unanticipated consequences. Over the past decade, as social media use has increased, reports of mental health problems have also increased dramatically. Addiction to social media, depression, and feelings of low self-esteem have all become heavily correlated with the increased use of social media (Sharma, John, Sahu, 2020). As humans continue to value the ability to connect with friends and family digitally, we should remain equally aware of the new problems that social media brings.
San Francisco is an intriguing place for anyone who has visited. The Civic Center is located in downtown San Francisco next to several large technology companies (including Twitter headquarters, and Dolby Laboratories). Within a few blocks of the Civic Center, we can find some of the largest and most apparent wealth inequalities in the US. While people inside the Twitter building enjoy free food, dual-monitors, heating, 100k+ salaries, and fancy clothes, right outside of the building there are dozens of homeless people living on the streets and in tents, often begging for change. Over the past several years, Twitter has started to pay private security to demand that homeless people leave the sidewalk. It is mind-blowing that such transparent inequality can exist today with such little action or conversation on how to improve the situation. A single person working for Twitter to move pixels on a screen makes significantly more money and lives with many more luxuries than an entire group of people living right outside of their front door.
Technology has also been very destructive for the environment. Producing a single laptop requires mining for minerals and resources (such as cobalt) in foreign countries, which is often performed by children and child slaves. Mining for various resources requires the earth to be destroyed, causes serious pollution, and destruction of the natural ecosystem. Pollution from mining in different regions of Africa has caused severe health problems and population decline both in humans, fish, plants, and other animals (Fayiga, Ipinmoroti, Chirenje, 2018). When we look at a brand new Macbook, we often admire its beauty and consider it a piece of functional art. However, missing from the image, is the destruction of the natural environment, displacement of humans, severe pollution, and sometimes even child slaves. There is a story behind every piece of technology, and oftentimes, these sad and lost stories belong to people far away and far removed from the people enjoying the comforts of a new laptop.
In addition to mining for resources required to build new technologies, packaging also has negative impacts on the environment. With every new piece of technology sold, more trees are being cut down, more wood being processed, more plastic being produced, and more waste being piled up and entering the oceans. For nearly every product purchased in Walmart, or order conveniently placed on Amazon, there is more unnecessary waste and destruction of the environment to serve consumption. Single-use plastics are common with most purchases, and the only alternatives in many ‘developed’ countries are often paper alternatives. Rather than appreciating the conveniences of plastic packaging and cardboard boxes full of new products arriving with convenient shipping times, we should focus more on building new sustainable packaging alternatives.
Lack of green space and population density is also a problem in many cities and urban environments. Not only has green space and nature been removed from many urban settings to support increased population growth, but the nature that has been left faces its own problems including pollution and loss of biodiversity. Humans are not immune to the problems that arise from population density either. Andrade and colleagues found that people living in the highly populated city of Sau Paulo had a significant risk to develop a mental disorder at some point in the last twelve months. These mental disorders were highly correlated with increased exposure to crime, which is often much higher in cities. In addition, living in an urban environment was correlated with increased social withdrawal and substance abuse (Andrade, Wang, Andreoni, Silveira, Alexandrino-Silva, Siu, Nishimura, Anthony, Gattaz, Kessler, Viana, 2012).
Video game addiction is very prevalent, especially among male youth. As technology has continued to advance, video games have also become even more addicting. Enormous amounts of research has been put into creating games that offer a specific amount of randomness, stimuli, and rewards to keep users active, addicted, and online. Unfortunately, video game addiction has led to mental health decline and increased risk of developing depression and anxiety. Additionally, video game addiction is highly correlated with anti-social behaviors, and social isolation. (Stockdale, Coyne, 2018)
While modern technology offers many conveniences and comforts, it has also brought a lot of new problems that humans have never experienced before. Widespread mental health problems, mass inequality, environmental destruction, and excessive waste affect people from every part of the world. It’s easy to look at different technologies in isolation, and to negate their negative impacts because of their tremendous benefits, however, when these problems become irreversible, then we will have permanently changed our planet and our human culture in ways that we may not desire.
Sharma, Manoj Kumar, John, Nisha and Sahu, Maya. (2020). “Influence of social media on mental health: a systematic review”. Current opinion in psychiatry. 33(5): 467-475.
Fayiga, Abioye, Ipinmoroti, Mabel and Chirenje, Tait. (2018). “Environmental pollution in Africa”. Environment, development and sustainability. 33(1): 41-73.
Andrade, Laura Helena, Wang, Yuan-Pang, Andreoni, Solange, Magalhães Silveira, Camila, Alexandrino-Silva, Clovis, Rosanna Siu, Erica, Nishimura, Raphael, Anthony, James C, Gattaz, Wagner Farid, Kessler, Ronald C, Viana, Maria Carmen. (2012). “Mental disorders in megacities: findings from the São Paulo megacity mental health survey, Brazil.” PLoS one. 7(2): 1-11
Stockdale, Laura and Coyne, Sarah M. (2018). “Video game addiction in emerging adulthood: Cross-sectional evidence of pathology in video game addicts as compared to matched healthy controls”. Journal of affective disorders, 225: 265-272.
For my photo essay, I explore how new technologies and developments have unintended negative consequences. While technology is often thought of synonymously with human development, it is rarely questioned as a large source of problems. I chose social media in my abstract to illustrate this problem because it is easy to relate to, and becoming increasingly criticized in the mainstream. Social media is just one of many technologies that provides enormous benefits, but also brings a lot new problems that are beginning to appear larger and more serious than we ever conceived. Another example that I included in my paper is how laptops are created. In order to build an elegant Macbook that many people appreciate and view as art, it requires the mining and destruction of the natural environment overseas (specifically in Africa in this case). Sadly, the people who live in these destroyed environments are also rarely the people who also get to enjoy these new technologies.