Impact of New Technology on Lifestyle and Health Essay
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As a start I would like to give a short and simple definition of the concept “technology”. Technology will, in this case and this paper, refer to any physical object, product, environment, or symbol that has been created by human beings. Another frequently used concept with the same meaning is “artifact” (Simon, 1969). Technology has had a great impact upon the living conditions of people all over the world. Technology has helped us to perform many tasks safer, faster, and with higher precision than would be possible without its help.
Technology has also made us stronger, helped us to travel faster, and made it possible for us to perform tasks that otherwise would be impossible to perform.
With the help of technology we can perform many tasks that are dangerous for people to perform, like working in a hostile physical environment, for instance in a contaminated or radioactive environment. Technology has helped us to perform boring manual tasks day and night, every day in the week, even without a coffee brake.
Technology has made it possible for us to travel all over the world and reach new destinations, quicker than ever. Soon we might even travel to other planets in our Solar system. The invention of machines, computers and other technological artefacts has improved our mental abilities too. Technology can make us smart (Norman, 1993) by increasing our abilities to remember better, by storing information in different formats, and support our reasoning activities.
Thanks to computers we can perform complex calculations quickly, simulate processes of different kind, create art and music, and so on. Technology has also helped us to pick up information that earlier was impossible to pick up. Microscopes and telescopes, only to mention a few technological devices, have made it possible for us to look into worlds that we otherwise would not have any access to. New intelligent hearing aids have helped people with hearing deficits to pick up auditory information better and improved the possibilities to communicate with other people.
Technology can improve our abilities to control vehicles of different kind, for instance to improve the ability to steer, brake and shift gears in the car. New technology has been used to create systems that can help drivers to find new destinations, or find the quickest route to known destinations. New technology has also been developed for helping drivers to avoid collisions and other dangerous situations. Technology has made it possible to adapt cars to drivers with functional handicap so that they can drive (nearly?) as safely as drivers without these problems.
Technology can help mariners to navigate ships across the Atlantic with high precision, to assist pilots in their task of flying to selected destinations, avoid collisions in the air, control the aircraft, and so on.
Process industries, manufacturing industries, energy producing industries can today be controlled with the help of new advanced technology. Technology has had an impact on the way we live, work, enjoy ourselves, and communicate with each other.
Thanks to improved transportation systems we can now live at a distance from our working place, and commute to our job. Some of us can work from home thanks to the computer and the ability to send digital messages to different destinations. Thanks to the World Wide Web we can communicate with people at very distant places and arrange virtual meetings. We also have new ways of entertaining ourselves.
Technology in the Health sector has made important contributions to the treatment of diseases and with the help of advanced technology it is now possible to save lives in a way that was not possible only a few decades ago. In her key note, professor Axelsson has shown how technology can be used in health care. Soon it may be possible to replace missing limbs with artifacts that can perform the tasks the missing limb should have performed.
Changes in lifestyle?
I believe we can identify some important changes in our lifestyles that are, at least partly, caused by the technological development. With the focus on human work I believe we can identify the following, and many more changes.
A shift from physical to mental workload
One important trend in our working life is a shift from physically demanding tasks to mentally demanding tasks. Human work has for a long time been more or less dominated by tasks that were physically demanding. Some of these tasks are still with us, but in many cases new technology can help us to perform them with less physical effort. A farmer, say 150 years ago, performed many manual tasks. Today there exist machines that can help the farmer to perform many of the tasks. A miner used to perform many heavy manual tasks when my father was working as a miner. Today trucks are doing the job, quicker and faster.
Instead of performing the physically demanding tasks an operator of a machine has to control the machine and supervise its performance, indicating a shift to a mentally demanding task. A task is mentally demanding if it imposes a workload on our abilities to search for and pick up relevant information, store information, use information to make decisions, solve problems, develop action plans and supervise the performance of action plans. Many working tasks today have the character of being more mentally demanding than physically demanding.
A shift towards supervising processes
The condition for workers has, in many cases, changed from being in direct contact with the working task to using some kind of technological device to perform the task. This has quite often resulted in a new role for the worker. The new role is more of a supervisor of a process. Examples may be found among pilots who are interacting with a computer, the flight management system, which is performing part of the flying task. Another example can be found among workers in highly automated industrial processes, where an automated system is controlling a large part of the process.
The introduction of computers has increased the complexity of many tasks. The amount of information we are forced to process in working life has increased. As a result is it has become harder to understand the way different systems are working. The logic of many systems is hidden in the computer and not possible to inspect directly. Negative impact of technology
There are some psychological consequences of the changes that has occurred as a result of new technology. In some cases technology can make us stupid, confused and disoriented. Please let me illustrate this statement by giving a few examples on how technology can confuse us and make us look stupid.
Technology that may make us stupid
Doors are equipped with some kind of device to open and close them. In some cases it is perfectly obvious how the device works by looking at it. In other cases it might be confusing. There exist doors where the device to open and close the doors are identical in shape, but works completely different. A good design should make it obvious how a door should be opened and the principle of consistency should be used. In some cases it may be extremely important to be able to open doors quickly and without involving higher mental processes.
Another example of a violation of the principle of consistency is when you have a door with two locks, and to open the door you must turn the key in different directions in each lock. Still another example can be taken from the medical sector. A number of studies have shown that errors are made in this sector, and that errors tend to occur when patients are given their medicine. One possible explanation to this is that different medicines may be stored in bottles that look very much like each other. An interesting question is how the container for different medicines should be physically designed so that it is easy to distinguish different drugs.
An example from the automobile industry has to do with the relationship between controls and, in this case, windows. A good principle, stemming from Gestalt psychology, is that you should place a control of a certain device close to that device. This is called the “proximity principle”. In some cases this is not done, and controls for the windows in a car might be located far away from the windows.
The design of the physical environment is also of interest. When a new living area is created and houses and paths are designed, it is common to find that people living there are not walking on the paths that have been so nicely designed. Instead they quite often are using the shortest route across some sensitive area(s). A simple solution here would be to wait and see where people are walking, and after that decide the paths should be located. In some hotel rooms you must use most of your brain power to figure out how the shower works. The problem in many cases is that the function is hidden, and it is not possible to directly see how the shower must be operated.
Technology can be used to supervise people – Big Brother can see you In some cases technology is used to supervise worker’s performance at workplaces. This may increase the stress level of the involved workers, and in some cases increase their stress level, and make them sick. On example comes from call centres. The number of call centres has increased rapidly in Sweden. A common definition of a call centre is a working place where people are engaged in telephone communication with customers and are doing that with the help of computer support.
In a call centre the operator’s performance can be effectively supervised with the help of computers. It is possible to measure the number of telephone calls each employee is performing during the working day, and also measure the number of breaks that occur during a working day. A psychological effect of this registration is, sometimes, an increased stress level among the workers. Big Brother can see you!
Technology can be used to supervise traffic streams, control traffic streams, and identify speeding drivers. Cameras on the road side are being more and more common in Sweden. Some drivers don’t like being supervised by “Big Brother” and one solution seems to be the destruction of cameras.
Technology can also be used to prevent drunken drivers from using their car. Before the car can be started the driver must exhale (breathe) into a measuring device. If the device detects alcohol in the air then the car will not be possible to start. Some drivers which have been found guilty of driving when intoxicated by alcohol have, as a part of their treatment, accepted to install this kind of device in their car. A follow up study has shown that many of these convicted drivers have stopped using this device.
Technology can give an invitation to “Human Error”
Besides making us feel stupid, improper design of technology can cause incidents, accidents, and in the worst case kill people. Please let me illustrate this by using some well known accidents as examples.
Three Mile Island, USA. This accident happened in the USA 1971. A problem occurred in the Nuclear Power Plant and the situation gradually developed into something problematic. One, out of many, aspects of this accident is that the alarm systems in the Power Plant were activated, and very soon a large number of alarms and warnings were sounding.
This probably increased the stress level of the operators who were trying to understand the problem and what to do with it. A high level of stress is not an optimal condition for solving a complex problem. One problem here was that instead of helping the operators to solve the problem the alarm systems made the situation worse.
The crash in Gottröra, Sweden. A certain similarity can be found in an accident with a passenger plane in Sweden, 1991. A plane (MD 81) started from Arlanda airport (Stockholm) and soon after the start it lost the power of one engine and shortly thereafter the power of the other engine. The captain’s plan was to fly the plane without the help of the engines (basic flying) and perform an emergency landing on an empty field at a distance from the airport. During the four minutes, from the moment the engines had stopped until the aircraft landed safely (!), the plane was shaking and the instrument panel were blinking. Auditory warnings were activated and a female warning voice was talking continuously. The information from the plane to the captain was chaotic and did not offer any useful help to him.
In one interview after the accident the captain stated that on the wish list was a warning system that can offer help in situations of this kind. Not a system that distracts and increases the pilots stress level. In Linköping, Sweden, a number of patients were treated with the help of a machine that should purify their blood. A nurse misjudged the information from the machine and by mistake turned the machine off. A number of patients died as a result. The machine was built by some technicians and when it was working correctly a number of indicators (lamps) showed the colour red. Normally red is a colour that is used for warnings of different kind.
There are also a number of accidents that have occurred as a result of automation. Automation of some tasks may solve some problems, but can also create new possibilities for errors (Bainbridge, 1987). It has been found that people may have an over trust in automation and believe that an automated system takes care of more that it actually can take care of. Automation can also have the effect that an operator becomes less involved in the control of a system and has a problem to take the control back when so needed. What can we do to avoid the negative sides of technology?
In the cases where technology is used to supervise people and this is not totally accepted by people this may be regarded as a political question and should be treated as such. This case will not be discussed further in this paper.
In cases where the design of technology has caused problems it is possible to provide some guidelines. Improper design of technology is common when technology is designed without consideration of the user’s needs, abilities and limitations. The following advices can be given:
Start the development process of new technology by investigating the needs of the intended users! Perform a task analysis (see for instance Kirwan and Ainsworth, 1993) and try to understand what the users need are in order to perform the task efficiently and safely. Involve the intended users early in the design process! Remember that they have a lot of valuable knowledge concerning the task and how it may be performed. Respect individual differences! There are sometimes large individual variations among users of a technological device and the design should be flexible enough to take care of this variation.
Make it possible for users to understand the technical device. If users can understand the way a technical device works (if I push this button, then that will happen) the risk for so called “human error” will most likely decrease.
Use the scientific method – test and test again, until you have eliminated the worst problems. The empirical testing of a technical device should have a high priority. Design for human error! People will, in the long run, get tired, distracted or anything else and make an error. This is sometimes called Murphy’s law – if anything can go wrong then it will, sooner or later. Human beings are not like machines and we have to design with that in mind. A technical device should be designed to make it possible to escape the error that sooner or later will be made.
Provide feedback (this happened) and feedforward (that will happen). Feedback and feedforward from a technical device should be clear and easy to understand. This will give the user a possibility to understand the system.
If possible introduce an undo function! As mentioned earlier people will make errors and this is an error correcting possibility. Use a system perspective! Any kind of technological equipment will be used in a certain context. Analyse the context and see whether the new artefact can successfully be mixed into the context. These are general rules to follow, and by following them I strongly believe that we can influence the design of technology in such a way that our lifestyles and health will be improved.
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