Better Living Through Software?

September 27, 2015

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The phrase “Better Living through Chemistry” encompasses much of the ideology of the 1950's, where material advances through a better understanding of chemistry provided huge economic and quality of life gains. Although many of the chemical advancements provided real benefit to users and the economy, much interest in chemistry was based around hype that chemistry could solve every problem known to mankind. In fact, many chemical advances (and their side effects) were actually detrimental to humans and the environment: toxins in cosmetics, dumping into public water sources, aggressive use of dangerous pesticides, and development of harmful drugs. Despite this, chemistry has undoubtedly changed the world for the better and enabled us to create better products for cheaper. Plastics alone have revolutionized the design of consumer products, and enabled many medical and industrial breakthroughs. Unfortunately, the detrimental side effects of hype in chemistry could only be seen in hindsight.

Today we see a similarly optimistic and hype-filled attitude towards software, especially apps. Many in Silicon Valley believe that software is the key to improving standard of living around the world, a belief so ingrained in the culture that it was parodied in the show “Silicon Valley.” Many software advances, such as spreadsheets, search engines, e-mail, and primitive AI have greatly improved productivity, but many other programs may have limited or no utility. After all, how will another photo sharing app like Snapchat improve productivity or quality of life? Most of these apps are relatively harmless, however some have the potential to make life worse, rather than better.

Arguably, services like Facebook are decreasing productivity and quality of life for users. In 2010, Nielsen estimated that the average Facebook user spends 7 hours a month on the service, and that usage is growing. Heavy use of some social networking services has even been linked to depression. Indeed, social networking services may be the negative side effects of hype and investment in software, just as synthetic drugs like crystal meth and LSD were side effects of chemical research. In fact, the term “detox” is often used to describe an extended break from social media services.

Software will remain an important field of study for many decades, and research in that field will undoubtedly create products that improve productivity and quality of life. It is important, however, for both programmers and consumers to ask themselves if these products are actually improving productivity or quality of life, or if they are just succumbing to hype.