If digital technologies bring us closer, do they conversely run the risk of forcing us further apart?
Employing a Social Determinants of Health and Wellbeing lens, our group has explored this question in interviews with academics, NGO’s and government officials. Though new technology and profound socioeconomic changes occurring in parallel may be cause for concern, the news isn’t all bad.
A salient point for me is the notion of belonging. As an immigrant to Canada and a person with a disability, I’ve thought a lot about questions of rootedness and connection. Technology can build bridges in one sense – for me, using a screen reader and voice enabled smartphone have become vital modes of interaction. Virtual work platforms and social media are lessening the distance between us and are engendering agile workforces and linking people as never before. And yet, a recent CBC article discussing virtual reality noted the conflated idea of presence with the creation of empathy, and it is this latter human sentiment which our over-reliance on technology may threaten. For all their tech knowhow, many of today’s young people are prone to depression and anxiety and lack emotional intelligence to effectively interact with the human dimension of the world around them
Exclusion can trigger serious mental health outcomes and disenfranchise entire segments of our population. Paradoxically, others who feel resentment may turn to social media channels used to recruit for extremist groups – the recent rise in hate crimes in Canada may be a telling signal. But technology is not all bad. Telehealth is an example of technology which can help treat mental illness. Driverless cars may help to decrease social isolation and promote autonomy among Canada’s aging population. There is undeniably greater openness today to accommodating employees through new tech, and arguably less stigma around mental illness. To me these developments are remarkable.
Another poignant alarm: inequitable access remains a major problem among many minority groups, and may be leaving out those who are not fully considered when developing a product designed to facilitate communication and reduce isolation. For example, a real-time collaboration tool like Google Docs is designed with an easy interface for most users, but remains a challenge for me, as I need numerous workarounds and additional support from colleagues to make it work. Though accessible technology has opened numerous doors for me as a blind user, many computer applications are not intuitive to screen reader software.
We don’t live in a perfect world – if we did, technology could be leveraged to make the lives of all Canadians immeasurably better. Irrespective of who we are, I think all of us are in some way trying to develop our own workarounds to navigate a world which is spinning ever faster. Technology allows my parents to connect with our relatives in Northern Ireland, and it enables me to pursue a career in the Public Service. Yet to the extent that technology creates unprecedented opportunities for personal connection and professional growth, I think it’s crucial to remember that it is a tool of our time. In as much as it may open doors, it can conversely accentuate exclusion. It may get us talking across cyberspace, but can it get us speaking? I like to think optimistically that time and experience can teach us to not let technology hijack the humanity we so desperately need to make our world a better place.