New technology isn’t making us any happier. What would?

Fifteen years ago, I bought a shower radio. I thought it would be nice to listen to music in the shower. It got terrible reception, and I was forever adjusting the antenna and trying to tune it better to the station I wanted. The suction cups that were supposed to hold it to the wall didn’t work well, so it was always falling down. And the final insult: it grew black mildew on the back. It wasn’t long before I threw it out.

If you had asked me what I wanted to replace that radio, I don’t think I could have imagined the miracle that is my smart speaker. It doesn’t need to be in the shower with me, because it’s got a reliable voice interface. Calling to it from the shower, I can ask it to play pretty much any song I can think of. I can ask it to raise the volume, or surprise me with songs in a particular genre. If a song comes on that I don’t like, I just say “next song.” I can’t imagine what 2005 Amy would have thought of this marvel. But if the capabilities of the technology are surprising, even more surprising is the fact that possessing this wondrous device does not make my life meaningfully better. It’s nice — for sure. But it’s not what the world really needed.

A surprising effect of the streaming music that makes my smart speaker possible is that it makes it harder for musicians to make a living. I wonder what it would take to re-imagine a socio-technical system in which people are better rewarded for their creativity. And while I’m dreaming, what about one with less economic inequality, and better working hours for everyone? Why haven’t all our gains in productivity led to more leisure time?

What will technology and society be like in another 15 years? What social, technical, and legal changes are possible that will help us all to be happier, healthier, and more fulfilled? I’m sure the successors of my smart speaker will be impressive, but I don’t think the internet of things and AI-powered, automated everything is going to make us any happier in a real sense any more than my smart speaker does. Where’s the innovation that matters? Maybe if we can imagine it, we can make it happen.

What does your better 2035 look like? Leave me a comment.

I do research on social media, including online collaboration, social movements, and online moderation and harassment.

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