Four Ways Technology Hurts, Not Helps Us

Posted by · January 6, 2012 3:53 pm

It’s ironic that this post is coming right before we leave for the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, but yesterday’s news of trouble at Barnes and Noble was the tipping point for feelings we’ve been harboring for quite some time.  We’ll be the first to extol the virtues of technology and talk about the amazing ways that the Internet connects people who never would have met otherwise.

Lately, however, we’ve become acutely aware of the problems that technology has caused, is causing and will continue to cause in regards to our personal and professional lives.  The most obvious of those problems is the loss of jobs (specifically retail jobs) followed closely by how impersonal computer mediated communication can be, the abbreviated way that social media has taught us to consume and produce information and the toll that technology has taken on interpersonal relationships.  Yes, we know. Technology has and will continue to do much good in all of those areas as well, but before you completely shut us off, hear me out:

Loss of (Retail) Jobs

Years ago, big businesses threatened to make mom and pop shops extinct due largely to economies of scale.  Now, it’s big business’s turn to take the hit, with retail stores like Borders and Blockbuster “leading” the way with 633 and 405 store closings respectively in 2011. Barnes and Noble’s announcement that the company may spin off its Nook division in an attempt to rescue its most profitable asset from its dying brick and mortar stores and the follow-on debate over the future of Best Buy only served to confirm that in the era of ebooks, video streaming and online shopping, companies simply can’t justify having a large physical presence.

If that’s not enough to convince you that the Internet is killing retail, perhaps the 2011 Year-End Job Cut Report & Economic Outlook by Challenger, Gray & Christmas will. The report found that 2011 layoffs exceeded 2010 layoffs by 31% to total 606,082 (some of which, like the layoffs my father’s paper company had to do were definitely caused by technology—ehem, eReaders) and retail sales layoffs specifically were up 32% from 2010 to total 50,946.  Interestingly enough, these numbers were released at the same time that comScore reported US consumers spent $35.8 billion dollars online in just 56 days of the November-December 2011 holiday season.  Coincidence? Maybe. Correlation? Most likely.

It’s Not Personal, it’s the Internet

While we can’t deny the convenience of online shopping, it’s often the interactions we have at brick and mortar stores and with the sales associates who work there that make the shopping experience enjoyable and develop our allegiance to one store over another.

Over the past few years, brands have made a shift towards enhancing their customer-service and being more concerned with the customer’s overall experience with their company. Unfortunately, an aesthetically pleasing website or an instant message chat with a customer service representative can’t replace a friendly smile; and chances are the folks at Amazon will never know my name and purchasing habits the way the employees at the local Trader Joe’s do. Ok. Maybe they will. Those algorithms are getting pretty sophisticated, but you get the point. It’s like the folks on Cheers said, sometimes you really do want to go where everybody knows your name.

Furthermore, while sending a text, email or Facebook message to wish someone Happy Birthday is indeed better than doing nothing, there’s something so warm and thoughtful about receiving a birthday card in the mail or hearing a voice at the other end of the phone.  Plus, a card can’t autotext and we all know what can happen when a text message goes wrong.

140 Character Thinking

There’s nothing more frustrating than a Twitter user who does not have a website containing personal writings, musings or information listed in her profile.  We want to know more about a person than they could ever tell us in 140 characters, but sadly, we might be the exception not the rule.  Unfortunately, social media has taught us to think and consume information in bite-sized pieces like tweets, status updates, check-ins or even pictures. Why create thoughts of our own when we can retweet, reblog and regurgitate someone else’s?

Even bloggers suffer from this type of thinking—or lack thereof—from time to time.  The immediate nature of online news reporting means that all too often, we see a story come through the wire and write about it (along with 870 other bloggers) without adding any additional analysis or commentary to the original press release.  If we slap a catchy title on the post, it will probably rank well in search engines and get a lot of page views; but the reader will surely be disappointed that she clicked on the same story she’d already read three other places.

Interpersonal Breakdown

How many times have you been out to dinner with your significant other and started judging the couple next to you because they were both on their smartphones, only to realize that you and yours had just simultaneously tweeted an Instagram of your food and had moved on to browse the news on your Twitter stream? Or, have you ever gone to lunch with a friend and felt as though you had nothing to catch up on? After all, you saw all the pictures from her trip to Cabo on Facebook and you read her tweet about the new job she landed last week.

Yes, technology offers us vast amounts of information to consume and share with anyone who will listen, but it also offers us distraction after distraction after distraction.  And while Facebook and other social sites are a great way to keep in touch with people you don’t see much, they often leaves us little to discuss with our close friends in person, making us turn to our smartphones out of boredom.  (It’s a vicious cycle.) Suddenly, you’ve left a date or an outing only to realize that you didn’t say more than a few sentences to the person you were with.

So What’s the Solution?

We’re sure that as you’ve been reading this article, you’ve also been forming many counter-arguments to its thesis—and there are many to be made.  Our hope is that this article serves as a reminder that while technology has brought many good things our way, it also has its drawbacks.  Drawbacks that those of us who work so closely with technology often forget.

Here are a few recommendations to combat the negative influence of technology:

  • When you are shopping online, try to choose companies that put customer service first. Zappos  is the best example, but there are plenty of other companies like them out there.
  • Send a card or pick up the phone to talk to a long-distance friend or family member.
  • Perhaps the end of some big retail chains will open up an opportunity for the resurgence of mom and pop stores.  In the meantime and especially thereafter—shop local.
  • If you tweet, blog or engage in other forms of writing online, make sure it adds value to the reader—or at least makes them laugh.
  • When you’ve made non-technology related plans with a friend, family member or significant other: PUT THE SMARTPHONE DOWN. If you have a difficult time doing that, leave the phone at home or in the car. We’re am 99% sure you won’t miss anything.
  • Zack

    Right on, great post!