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In Search of the ‘Happy’ Button on the Remote

Smiley Today, MIT Technology Review linked to an article it ran last year by New Yorker writer James Surowiecki, "Technology and Happiness: Why Getting More Gadgets Won’t Necessarily Increase Our Well-Being." He posits early on:

By most standards, then, you’d have to say that Americans are better off now than they were in the middle of the last century. Oddly, though, if you ask Americans how happy they are, you find that they’re no happier than they were in 1946

Surowiecki then branches into technology’s role via a segue invoking the "imperturbably sunny" Amish. Meanwhile, everyone else is shelling out for gadget after gadget, upgrade after upgrade, with no benefit to their well-being:

…No matter how dramatic a new innovation is, no matter how much easier it makes our lives, it is very easy to take it for granted. You can see this principle at work in the world of technology every day, as things that once seemed miraculous soon become mundane and, worse, frustrating when they don’t work perfectly.

As much as I’ve devoted my career to evangelizing the internet and various related technologies and companies connected to it, I’m skeptical of technology’s value as an end in and of itself. However, the internet can increase happiness when you’re able to exchange photos with relatives halfway around the world, when you can share your thoughts with anyone who cares to read them as a form of personal expression or discover new music that moves your soul, and when you can help find a cure for AIDS while you step away from your computer.

In short, technology can facilitate connections, release your artistic drives and be inspired by the works of others, and help remedy some of the world’s most prevalent ills. It can also be used for more mundane purposes such as grocery shopping. (Though, even there, the stay-at-home parent juggling a child in each arm while working on a freelance project may well be happier for being able to reorder diapers and apple juice in the time it would take to get her kids’ shoes on.) This multifaceted nature of technology is nothing new; the telephone is a tool for connecting loved ones and for telemarketing.

It’s not the tools you have; it’s how you use them. Wield wisely.

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Comments to: In Search of the ‘Happy’ Button on the Remote
  • Avatar
    January 12, 2006

    OK. This is fine. I can handle the concept of online ordering of food.
    But at OMMA West, Cory Treffiletti of Carat Fusion told us all that soon we will refridgerators that will order our food for us. That’s right. Refridgerators. Somehow it will know that your low on milk, juice, and eggs – but not butter or bacon. I find amazing, horrifying, and likely, a prediction that will take a hundred years to evolve on a mass scale. Have you heard more of this?

  • Avatar
    January 13, 2006

    I have heard of this and related predictions. I also don’t get how this works in practice. And, outside of a few staples, how many items do you reorder every single time you go to the supermarket? It seems to be one of those cases where the technology has the potential to fill a need that doesn’t exist. We saw quite a bit of that in the late 90s, and there’s more to come.


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