‘Everybody cheats on everybody,” my 22-year-old daughter complained recently.
“People are on Facebook and Snapchat and Tinder; they’re messaging people on private accounts their partners don’t know about. They cheat because it’s so easy.”
Her comments on tech and its impact on human behaviour came to mind during the next conversation I had on the topic — with Silicon Valley-based Shannon Vallor, an expert on emerging technologies.
Technology has great benefits for mankind, Prof Vallor acknowledges, but she sounds a note of caution.
It’s changing us, she warns, and not always in a good way.
It’s weakening our grip on some of humankind’s positive virtues — honesty, self-control, and compassion. And that’s because it’s changing our day-to-day habits.
Prof Vallor was at Trinity College Dublin recently to give a talk on some of the issues addressed in her book Technology and the Virtues: A Philosophical Guide to a Future Worth Wanting.
Take how social media has changed our attitude to the concept of fidelity, for example, says Prof Vallor, the William J Rewak SJ Professor of Philosophy at Santa Clara University, California.
“Loyalty and fidelity are things we might think of as virtues, as are also perseverance and the willingness to push through difficult periods in a relationship; to not give up when things get difficult,” she says.
Prof Vallor is not anti-tech, she says; merely concerned about how it’s impacting human nature.
Technology makes our lives easier but not necessarily better, she says, primarily because it lets us avoid the very challenges which traditionally helped shape our moral character.
“ New technologies are shaping and reshaping our habits very rapidly,” she says.
Technology, she believes, offers us an easy escape when, for example, a relationship gets into difficulties:
“Tech presents us with an escape hatch to hundreds of thousands of alternatives. Technologies such as Tinder give us the opportunity to escape into other relationships.”
Day-to-day habits too are changing — many of us check our email hundreds of times a day, and, yes, we’re also starting to talk to objects such as cars.
“Soon all of our objects and devices will talk to us,” she says.
“The question is, how will it transform the way we talk to each other?”
We don’t know how technology will change us, Prof Vallor admits, but we know that it will, because, she explains, the technology of the last 20 years has reshaped our habits profoundly.
Think about how texts and emails have taken the place of long phone conversations.
“We don’t have the same habits of paying attention to another person for 20 or 30 minutes at a time,” she observes.
Look at how technology has inserted itself into the family dinner.
“If we’re not talking to our children, it’s often because we’re on our devices, and because we allow the children, for example, to be on their devices at the dinner table.”
And, instead of sitting down and reading the newspaper for half an hour she observes, we skim through the headlines on our smartphone.
“Our habits of paying attention and what we pay attention to are changing,” says Prof Vallor, adding that our moral character “is partly based on what we pay attention to”. Virtues, she says, are excellent character traits we develop through habits and through practice.
The question is, whether our technologies make it easy to develop the kinds of virtues we want to develop?
It is possible, she believes, to design technology which will help us become better people.
Research is ongoing into the potential of Virtual Reality for teaching us empathy — research is ongoing into such programmes at Stanford University, while the VR Programme for Good developed by Oculus, provide real-life experience of what it’s like, for example, to live in a racist society or with a disability, thus increasing our sense of empathy.
Technology’s “global reach” allows stories of injustice, which might formerly have remained invisible, to reach a wide audience, she points out, thus highlighting an issue, or using crowd-funding techniques to give support to efforts to gain justice.
Yet concerns about its potentially negative effects are mounting — look at how many social technologies are designed to be addictive and to reward use, thus affecting how we exercise moderation or self-control.
Then there’s the issue of honesty versus fake news — there are currently, Prof Vallor says, entire companies that exist to manufacture internet stories that feed our worst fears or confirm our prejudices.
“It percolates down to what people do every day, because if the ordinary person is looking to the media or to social platforms to understand what is going on in the world, it becomes increasingly difficult to discern truth from falsehood.”
And then there’s the issue of compassion and care; the ability, she says, to be responsive to the needs of those close to us — will we allow technology to dilute that too?
Prof Vallor points to the development of companion robots; machines which care for humans such as children or elderly.
“They’re cheaper and possibly even more reliable, but if we get into the habit of leaving loved ones in the care of a robot, what will that do to our sense of compassion and our ability to care for others?” she asks.
At the end of the day, she warns, it’s down to us.
“It’s always been our responsibility to take care of our character,” says Prof Vallor. “This responsibility is still with us although we’re in a consumerist society that encourages us to simply consume and not to think too much about what makes us a moral individual.”
People are gradually becoming more aware of the effects their technology habits have on their characters she says but warns that ingrained habits are hard to break.
“We need to think about how we reshape the relationship between our technology and our habits,” says Prof Vallor.
We need to “reshape” those habits by building better-designed technology and we must be aware of the relationship between technology, our habits and our virtues.
“I don’t think anyone actually wants to become the sort of person who has no respect for truth, has no empathy with others and does not pay attention to the people around them. I don’t think tech designers want to turn us into people like this.
“It’s about realising what’s happening and modifying technology on one side, but also about consumers and users taking responsibility for building better habits and technology practices.”
Loyalty and fidelity are things we might think of as virtues