Are digital technologies making people across the world any happier? I recently posed this question on social media, commenting that I did not think they were, and was challenged by a colleague from Africa who implied that it was obvious that ICTs had increased human happiness in his part of the world. Whilst I have touched on this issue in my previous work (ICT4D, 2009, and Reclaiming ICT4D, 2017), I have never really teased out the difficult issues involved in answering such questions, preferring instead to focus mainly on the impact on inequality of economic growth supported by technological innovation , and the differences between development agendas based on absolute and relative definitions of poverty. It is timely to address this issue in a little more depth.
A large part of the challenge in exploring the relationships between digital technologies and happiness depends on the controversial issue of how happiness is defined. Philosophers, psychologists, medical doctors, theologians, and even economists have long debated what happiness really is, and each has their own definition. In psychology, one of the best-known approaches to happiness is Maslow‘s hierarchy of needs, but self-determination theory, free-choice approaches (see some of Inglehart‘s work, as well as Sen’s notions), and positive psycholoy (largely influenced by Seligman) all have much to say about happiness.
In very general terms, happiness is a collective word to describe positive feelings such as success, amusement, gratification and joy. Many of the difficulties with the word derive from the observation that although we may know when we feel happy or sad, we do not always know the cause of the emotion, and it is not easy to measure it consistently. Indeed, at the extremes, one person’s happiness might be another person’s sadness. It is thus perfectly possible that one person playing digital games for six hours on end could feel elated as a result, whilst another could feel suicidal. This illustrates the well-known view that digital technologies act primarily as an accelerator of things such as economic growth or human emotion.
Digital technologies, international development and happiness
Over the last two decades some work has explicitly explored the interface between digital technologies, international development and happiness. As noted above, my own work has briefly explored this, as for example has Heeks in his 2012 paper on ICTs and Gross National Happiness. Both of us, I think independently, were drawn to this important notion coined by the King of Bhutan in 1972, and have highlighted its role in leading Bhutan to measure Gross National Happiness as a key indicator of progress, emphasising that development should be holistic, combining both well-being and economic growth. This clearly runs counter to the global hegemony on development largely as economic growth, which is enshrined in the MDGs and SDGs, and sees digital technologies as one of the prime drivers of such growth.
There are also now various new initiatives that are explicitly exploring the interface between digital technologies and happiness. One of the most interesting of these is the University of Oslo TIK Centre for Technology, Innovation and Culture’s HAPPY project focusing on Responsible innovation and happiness: a new approach to the effects of ICTs, which is funded by the Norwegian Research Council. Its core objective is to explore how we can “assess the complex and multifaceted impacts of ICTs on individuals’ welfare, and shape ICTs research and innovation activities towards responsible trajectories”. One of its partners is NUPI, which has also published Maurseth’s (2017) useful overview on ICT, growth and happiness.
On the dehumanisation of labour
Until recently most digital technologies or ICTs have been largely seen as agents for good. The ITU’s “AI for Goood”, or the GSMA’s Mobile World Congress with its 2018 slogan “Creating a Better Future” are but two graphic examples of this. Underlying this positive image, though, have been the very significant advertising efforts of large global corporations eager to expand their markets by focusing exclusively on the positive benefits brought by ICTs; they truly make the world better, and people happy! Moreover, this is all too frequently represented through the logic of increasing economic growth, and reducing absolute poverty.
Back in the 19th century Marx wrote passionately about the ways through which the rise of the factory system under capitalism dehumanized labour. Very similar arguments have also been applied to the ways through which digital technologies are dehumanizing not only labour, but also many other aspects of human life as well in the 21st century (see my, 2016, Dehumanization: cyborgs and the Internet of Things, and more fully in Reclaiming ICT4D). Almost by definition, dehumanization seems opposed to happiness. Two simple digital examples can be used to illustratge this. E-mails and online learning have dramatically extended the working day for office labourers who are now usually expected to be available online wherever they are for well beyond the traditional norm of 8 hours daily work – are they happyer as a result? Likewise, 3D-printing is now replacing the happiness of human craftsmanship involved in creating fine objects.
Much more worrying, though, is the dark side of digital technologies, which is all too often hidden from the innocent eye. To be sure, digital technologies do indeed have many positive benefits, but increasing research and attention are now at last shedding more light on their negative aspects. UNICEF’s (2017) excellent report on Children in a Digital World, for example, provides a well balanced account of both the positive aspects of digital technologies and the harm that they can do. Increasing evidence points to the link between smartphone use and depression amongst young people (see for example Twenge, 2017), addiction to digital technologies is becoming a growing concern (Brown, 2017) with clinics being set up across the world to treat it (see also Gregory, 2019), online gambling has been widely criticised for the harm it causes, and the role of social media in the rising tide of suicides is now being seen as an urgent prioirty that needs to be addressed by governments. All these provide clear evidence that digital technologies do not always lead to the blissful happiness promoted in the advertising campaigns of digital corporations.
On method – historical and comparative
There is a clear need for much further research on the conditions under which digital technologies can indeed lead to greater human happiness, and those where they lead to a downard spiral of misery. Methodologically, we need both historical and comparative studies to identify who is happier and why they are so when they use these technologies. We need to understand more about the longitudinal experiences of those who were alive before computers and mobile phones became readly available and affordable. We also need to understand much better what it is that enables some people to use digital technologies quite happily, whereas for others they can be the cause of misery so severe that people kill themselves.
The digitisation of human life
In conclusion, it is worth reflecting on what the future holds. It has traditionally been thought that human happiness comes in part from the use of all of our senses of feeling, touching, seeing, hearing and smelling. If this is so, happiness can be seen to derive in large part from fulfilment of this sentient being in the world. Sitting for hours in front of a computer or other digital device has already been widely condemned for the negative health impacts that it causes: obesity, muscle degeneration, eye damage, back pain, and organ damage. This is hardly happiness. However, with the increasing commingling of human and machine, it may be that our cyborg future will no longer require traditional sentient experiences for us to be happy. Our happiness may derive in the future from electrical impulses directed by neurally connected chips to stimulate feelings of happiness. The rise of Transhumanism (H+), and the increasing numbers of people who are choosing to have microchips inserted in their bodies, is but one more step on this journey.
I am privileged to have been born long before mobile phones existed, and vividly recall the first laptops, digital typewriters, and the pleasure of physically printing out cards to run my Fortran programmes. I have also had the pleasure of recovering from broken bones, and the exhilarating happiness of playing the sports that caused them! This has given me the sense that living life to the full as humans, being truly happy, does indeed require use to use all our senses. We need wide public debate on the future relationships that we want to have with machines, a debate not driven by the economic interests of global capital, but one in which the joys of human sentient happiness can also be applauded and priortised.