The Unseen Consequences of Digital Technologies
Scientists Worry About Vulnerable People
In a series of global Expert Round Tables (ERTs), multi-disciplinary scientists conducting research on digital transformation gathered to discuss the impact of digital transformation on humanity. Scientists convened in Japan, Europe, South America, India, North America, and Africa to discuss the key digital transformation categories (e.g., economic change, environmental systems, cybercrime), the intended impact, and the potential unintended negative consequences (Scholz, et al., 2018).
The scientists took a balanced approach. They acknowledged the advantages and opportunities for digital technologies while also expressing very real concerns about the potential negative impacts. They referred to these negative impacts the “unseens.” In the book Doing Well and Doing Good: Human Centered Digital Transformation Leadership (Spring 2023) we grouped the “unseens” into three categories: Environment, Societal, and Governance. In this article, we’ll introduce you to the societal “unseens.” As you read, think about one key question:
How do we avoid exploiting vulnerable people?
As you reflect on that question, think about it in the context of your organization: What is the organization attempting to accomplish with digital technologies? What discussions have been held to truly vet the unseen consequences—and who has been a part of those discussions? Questions like these will form the basis for how an organization decides to invest in and implement digital technologies.
1. The Digital Economy: The Right to Participate
Digital transformation is widening the gulf between the have and the have nots. That’s clearly not the intent, but three issues make it hard for everyone to benefit from digital technologies: Access, digital literacy, and irrelevancy.
- Access. About one-third of the world’s human beings do not have access to the Internet—and are generally found in the poorest, most populated countries. Without access, these humans cannot participate in the digital economy. And, simply having access is only the beginning of crossing the digital economic divide: Physical components, smart components, and connectivity components are required as well. These are expensive and may be out of reach for many people.
- Digital literacy. Access is only one barrier to participating in technologies intended to benefit people, like tele-health, electronic banking, and delivery of governmental services. Public entities and governments increasingly rely on digital delivery of programs, information and services. However, the very people who could most benefit from these services may not have the digital savvy to use the very programs designed to serve them.
- Irrelevancy: The scientists had particular concerns about how robotics and artificial intelligence will replace workers. Good paying jobs may disappear, creating more economic hardship. Without a commitment to upskilling current workers, organizations may inadvertently create an even wider socio-economic divide.
2. Being Human: Emotion and Well-Being
The second area scientists focused on was emotion and well-being. Although digital transformation is intended to connect us to other humans, it can distance us by pulling individuals away from satisfying and deep relationships with others. The virtual world can create the illusion of connection without the emotional satisfaction required for well-being. Three digital trends seem to be threatening our emotional connections and well-being: Fragmentation of life and cyberaddiction, seeking connection with robots, and digital etiquette.
- Fragmentation of Life and Cyberaddiction. Technology demands that we pay attention. It is designed to be immersive. But the unseen consequences of designing for immersion are fragmentation of life and cyberaddiction. The constant pull to engage and interact with social media, gaming technologies, advertising, and even online learning inadvertently means that humans attempt to multi-task . . . the email ping that distracts us from a conversation with a friend, the text advertisement that pulls us away from work.
- Seeking Connection with Robots. Artificial intelligence aspires to automate the mundane, freeing humans up for greater creativity, deeper relationships, and satisfaction in our lives. But in some cases, social robots take the place of humans. Some take the roles of conversation partner, others are caregivers. Recently a Japanese citizen went so far as to marry a gaming character. Is it sufficient to replace our need for human connection with connection to a robot?
- Digital Etiquette. Forums for discussion have moved from the in-person town hall to online sound bites on Twitter, What’s App, Tik-Tok and other social media. Cancel culture creates fear that saying the wrong thing will make one irrelevant. The patchy, inhuman communications create less empathy and relationship trust. Cyber-bullying has led to increased suicide, particularly among teenagers
Inspiration and Action
These unseen consequences may seem very familiar to you—because you personally experience them or because you and your colleagues are wrestling with the issues right now. That dialogue and discussion, within a psychologically safe environment, is extremely important. But remember that discussion must include the stakeholders who will be impacted by your technology. Those stakeholders must be part of the dialogue and the solution!
Your work in this area matters—and you are not alone. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have the support of hundreds of global organizations, and many of the goals relate to the equitable use of technology. If you are looking to be inspired and think about how the work you do connects to the SDG goals, if you are looking to mitigate the unseen consequences of digital technology, then take a look at the goals. Technology connects to nearly all 17 goals, including eliminating poverty, quality education, gender equality, and decent work and economic growth.
Digital technologies have such enormous promise to truly benefit humanity. If we think ahead of time about how we promote access, digital literacy, upskilling, and appropriate use and engagement, we can mitigate the unseen consequences and create real social value.
Scholz, R. W., Bartlesman, E. J., Diefenbach, S., Franke, L., Grunwold, A., Helbing, D., . . . Pereiza, G. V. (2018). Unintended side effects of the digital transition: European scientists' messages from a proposition-based expert round table. Sustainability, 10, 2001, 1-48.