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Does Technology Improve Quality of Our Lives?

“Quality of life” is an elusive idea. Many equate it with having money, but it does not address everything we want in our lives such as our physical and mental health. By providing us with ways to control the uncertainties of Mother Nature, technology has certainly allowed us to increase the quality of our lives in terms of survival in the practical sense of the term (subsistence). But, beyond that, what has technology done for us? I would argue that it has not done much. One of the few exceptions, I would further argue, is online dating, which I will address later.

Technology increases efficiency. By itself, this sounds positive, but upon further investigation, we realize that efficiency does not necessarily lead to higher quality of life. Take the business of graphic design, for instance. Though I did not personally experience the days before computers, the industry is far more efficient now than it used to be. For the sake of the argument, say, the same job 20 years ago took 10 times longer to execute (which is probably not far from the truth), and one designer used to take on 5 jobs a year. This means that, with the increase in efficiency, today’s designer can take on 50 jobs a year. Has the quality of life for graphic designers increased because of technology? The answer is obviously no. Taking into consideration the rate of inflation, they are not getting paid anymore than they did 20 years ago, but are now required to produce 10 times more a year.

The critics of capitalism might jump to the conclusion that it is the fault of the capitalists that graphic designers are not getting paid 10 times as much, but this is not true. The design firms who employ those designers are not making any more money than they used to either. The businesses who hire those graphic design firms aren’t making any more money because of it either. So, who is benefiting from this increase in efficiency? No one really. It’s efficiency for the sake of efficiency.

The reason why no one benefits from it is because the market always adjusts itself to whatever level of efficiency we achieve. That is, the value of efficiency is going down because what matters is not the absolute level of efficiency, but the relative one. If you are the only person to achieve a higher level of efficiency, then you could enjoy the increase in the quality of life. For instance, if you are the only graphic designer armed with a computer, you could handle ten times more work than your competitors could, or you could do 1/10 of the work your competitors do and still make the same amount of money. Unfortunately or fortunately, this type of scenario rarely happens. Sooner or later your competitors will get hold of the same computer you have. Your level of efficiency then is only worth as much as that of others. Ironically, technology also increases the efficiency of the market to adjust itself.

In more general terms, the value of the average person’s one hour always remains the same no matter how efficient we become. Suppose, 10 years ago, in order to earn enough money to buy a dinner at a diner, an average person had to work for an hour and handle 10 tasks in that hour. Now, the average person, using new technologies, can handle 100 tasks an hour, that is, 10 times more. Well, sadly he still has to work for an hour to buy a dinner at the same diner.

The only way to increase the quality of life, at least monetarily, is to be more productive than the average person. The quality of your life is relative to the average person, not relative to the absolute level of productivity. Technology, in this sense, can give you an advantage if you use it before others do, but as soon as everyone else catches up to you, your advantage is gone. Technology, therefore, can increase the quality of life for those who can master it faster than others, but on the other hand, if you are not a technologically-oriented person, technology can decrease the quality of your life for the same reason. For instance, the older generations of graphic designers who were skilled with their hands, but not with computers, are now suffering as a result of the proliferation of computers.

So far, we have looked at only one side of the equation. Economy is based on supply and demand. We cannot just produce if there is no demand. Then who is consuming all these products we produce so efficiently? We are. The efficiency applies not only to production, but also to consumption. Since technology makes our lives efficient, we can consume more efficiently. Does increased consumption lead to increased quality of life? Beyond the level of subsistence, the answer is no, mainly because it is not by choice that we consume more. In order to stay a functional member of our society, we have to consume (both material and informational products) as much as others do. It is not a matter of choice that we buy computers and cell phones, or acquire more skills and knowledge; we have to. In terms of satisfying our basic needs like food, shelter, and some entertainment, there are limits to how much we can consume. Even though Americans are pushing those limits, we can only eat so much. We have only so much time to watch movies and play video games. The vast majority of our consumptions are for the sake of increased productions. Our massive consumptions are not increasing the quality of our lives.

From another angle, you might think, with the increase in efficiency, the costs of goods and services must go down, and this should allow us to spend the saved money on something else, right? Not really. As the cost of living goes down, your pay goes down too. The market is quite smart that way. It always adjusts. You can’t work in the middle of nowhere USA, and get paid like a New Yorker. The market knows that your cost of living is much lower, so it pays you less.

Here is another example of the accuracy of the market. Say, you work behind the counter at a take-out restaurant. As it has now become customary in New York City, you ask for tips. You think you are making more money by doing so, but you are wrong. Sooner or later, the market will adjust itself, and you will see a decrease in the average pay of counter clerks, just like the way most waiters work for a minimum wage or less. By asking for tips, you have only made your life more difficult. Now, you have to work harder to please your customers, and the amount of money you make fluctuates from day to day, which means that you are now taking financial risks with no benefit.

You might also think that technology is making our lives more convenient, and that must increase the quality of our lives. Not really. Online services like FreshDirect which allow you to do your grocery shopping online and deliver the products to your door, save you a lot of time and hassle. Now you can enjoy the time you saved from it, right? Not really. Once everyone saves the same amount of time with such services, the market will again adjust itself. As you make more time available for yourself with the efficiency of technology, the market will quickly adjust itself to demand more from you. It’s a catch-22.

Is anyone benefiting from this massive increase in efficiency? It is tempting to say it’s the rich people, but technology has in fact made it more difficult for the rich people to stay rich. Before the age of information technology, the rich people had exclusive access to information that could be exploited to make a lot of money. Now they have much less of those advantages. Someone like Bill Gates could become the richest man on earth in a matter of a few decades. This is in fact one of the few examples I can think of where technology has actually improved the quality of our lives. It democratized the opportunities to be rich.

For those developing countries whose majority is still suffering from the lack of basic material, technology can certainly increase the quality of their lives. If I were to draw a graph of quality of life as we introduce technology to such countries, it would start to go up rapidly at first, but eventually would start to level off. On the other hand, if I were to draw another graph, concurrent in time with the other graph, which tracks the increase in efficiency and production, it will start out relatively flat (slow) and shoot up exponentially later as the effect of the technology kicks in. The developed countries like the US are at the point where efficiency is increasing dramatically, but the increase in the quality of life is hardly perceptible. What would happen to the world when all countries reach the point of the US? We would then be working very hard to dramatically increase efficiency every year, and see no difference in the quality of our lives.

Now to the positive aspect of technology. As I mentioned above, I believe that the greatest technological contribution to the quality of our lives in recent years was online dating, and to a lesser degree, networking websites like Friendster, Meetup.com, and Orkut.

Between a happy, meaningful relationship and a million dollars, if we could only have one or the other for the rest of our lives, most of us would choose the former. The quality of your love life is a big part of the overall quality of your life. What makes it difficult to increase this quality of life is the fact that, unlike money, love is not easily quantifiable, and it cannot be logically processed. Most attempts in the past to systematically increase the quality, such as personals ads and dating services, have only seen a small degree of success. Online dating is the first time in history the general populace has embraced such systematic attempt.

I have personally witnessed several people who were single for years successfully find their mates through online dating. Even those who did not have problems in the past are finding mates who are closer to their ideals. They are meeting people whom they could not have met if it weren’t for online dating. All this is obviously positive, but there is more to it than what is on the surface, or at least so I believe.

The following is only a hypothesis, and is not backed up by any actual research, but I think it makes an intuitive sense. Online dating is encouraging people to cross the demographic borders that were otherwise impossible to cross. For instance, a person who works on Wall Street has a hard time meeting anyone outside of his own industry like advertising or publishing. When you are in the business of graphic design, you rarely meet doctors or lawyers in social situations, but just because you are a graphic designer, does not mean that you get along best with graphic designers. Online dating allows you to explore other options.

The more important borders that online dating allows you to cross are racial borders. In the past few years, I have seen a dramatic increase in the number of couples with the racial combination of an Asian man and a White woman. Over 15 years ago, my first American girlfriend was White (I am Asian). Back then, in New York City, it appeared as though we were the only couple of that racial combination. We probably saw one other couple in a year. I am not exaggerating if I say that now I see at least 5 a day. A few years ago, I was convinced that the increase was due to the popularity of Chow Yun-Fat in Hollywood, but I have a new theory that does not replace but adds to my original theory.

When you fill out the questionnaire for online dating, you can specify the race of your ideal mate. You are allowed to check as many as you want. Most people cannot allow themselves to check only a few, for they do not want people to think they are racist. They thus check races they would not otherwise consider under ordinary circumstances. Computer and Web users are a specific demographic in itself, and it contains a larger percentage of Asians than normal. So, there is a good chance a White woman would be contacted by an Asian man. When this happens, they end up crossing the border that they normally would not. After seeing each other on a date, they realize that it’s not such a bad idea, so they go along with it.

This can be confirmed by simply going up to the couples of this particular combination and asking them if they met online. At least, it is true for one couple I personally know. (If anyone is interested enough to conduct this research, please let me know the result.)

If this is true, it must be true for many other racial combinations, and is a great step towards eliminating racism. Even today, racial segregation is still a big problem. When we segregate racially, we encourage cultural segregations on top of it, because each group will necessarily develop its own culture that suits its own environment and circumstances. It then becomes more than just racial, and further strengthens the segregation. Online dating, and other networking systems like Friendster, can help loosen up these segregations. If this is true, and I hope it is, technology has finally contributed something substantial to increasing the quality of our lives.