Digital overload

People no longer welcome every new technology with open arms. Their sense of digital overload has consequences for businesses.

Lately, I’ve dug out and started listening to our analogue turntable again. We’ve got a small collection of vinyl records that I enjoy playing occasionally. The whole experience is remarkably different from Spotify, which I use most of the time. I even got a few new records for my birthday and Christmas. Is this perhaps a small antidote to digital overload in everyday life?

Granted, it doesn’t change much in my life. But the onslaught of new technology entering our lives is a real problem, and it has been for a while. The fear that technology could enslave us as mere human beings isn’t new. In the OpenAI saga, it’s looming in the background of everything that happens. OpenAI’s mission – ensuring that safe artificial general intelligence is developed and benefits all of humanity – itself reflects this fear.

Aside from doomsday scenarios of AI getting out of human control, digital overload manifests itself in more subtle ways. Technology simply overwhelms our human capacity to adopt and adapt. People get tired of new tools demanding their time and attention, sitting between them and their tasks or goals, as Life Trends 2024 (by Accenture, our mothership) puts it:

Amid extensive public debate around generative AI, there’s a growing unease that technology is becoming something that happens to people, rather than for them. Changes feel too fast to manage—or even to understand—and the future seems daunting. Ipsos Global Trends 2023 found that in the UK, people are increasingly agreeing with the statement “I fear technological progress is ruining our lives”.

Has technology turned from a blessing into a curse? This sentiment, at least, has been growing for a while. People fear for their jobs, and the sequence of hype cycles seems only to gain in speed, making “people feel like passengers“. The loss of human agency, of control, is a common thread (and threat).

People don’t control tech

In part, this also explains why we see a relatively swift effort in getting on with AI regulation. The policymakers in charge don’t want to repeat what they perceive as a historic mistake: a lightweight approach to regulation concerning the early internet and social media. This has allowed Big Tech to grow into the hard-to-control and still lightly regulated behemoths we see today.

Ordinary people don’t control tech. Indeed, they feel the opposite: that tech controls them. This changes their lives, but not only in a favourable way. It also has political repercussions. On the eve of the 2024 super-election year, the impact of digital technology (overload) on democracy looks bleak. It’s the opposite of what the internet and Web 2.0 had promised.

Digital technology with its fast feedback loops has enabled companies to build software that’s captivating in unseen ways. This isn’t new, but the insight into the consequences has now reached the mainstream, as Life Trends indicates.

In reality, it’s impossible to judge whether people have reached their limit with technology. They have, on average, 16 waking hours in the day. Both psychological and practical factors are at play, be it complexity in tasks that were once simpler, the rapid pace of change, or feature overloads. They’re mentally and physically strained sitting in front of screens, and the cognitive load of managing multiple devices, apps, and platforms to get through the day feels the opposite of life-centered.

What to do about it?

This is where my record player spins into life again. The Life Trends authors expect (and already see) people returning to old, non-digital tech, or rebalancing their behaviour to avoid overload. But they don’t see this going mainstream. They cite big questions asked by the likes of David Mattin and Ben Thompson:

How does humanity find more harmony than harm in the relationship with technology, and (re)discover the right balance of benefits and costs? Where are people’s limits now? Can they be extended through technology, or have people had enough? And most importantly, are individuals going to continue letting technology happen to them, or are they going to take back control?

There is a power struggle going on between Big Tech on the one hand and society on the other. How this will end is an open question. The OpenAI saga tells us many things. It is also a story of bad corporate governance, in combination with powerful technology. And it shows the power of tech giants like Microsoft – to absorb entire companies, even without buying them.

The governance of Big Tech is now at least as important as the governance of most countries. With a market cap of around $2.8 trillion, Microsoft alone is worth 44% of the US federal budget (2022). The company’s revenues put it on par with countries like Switzerland and Austria. Sure, we are comparing apples to oranges here. It’s just to illustrate the sheer size of the largest companies.

Innovation for its own sake

When it comes to regulation and corporate governance, there’s an inherent contradiction that Ben Evans captured in a recent newsletter:

OpenAI is trying to build a thing, and to build it as fast as possible, while also saying very loudly and often that this thing is extremely dangerous and governments should get involved to control any attempts to build it and make sure that no-one else can build it except them. Pick one. 

We can have regulation and governments involved or we can have speed, but it’s hard to get both. So there is one answer to the digital overload problem: societies, people and governments weighing in, slowing down innovation and deciding what kind of technology we want to have.

But wait, isn’t innovation already slow enough? Maybe, but this only adds to the challenge. We need the right kind of innovation, not innovation for its own sake. This has consequences for companies. In the words of the Life Trends report:

Businesses cannot hide from the oncoming tide of people seeking control of their relationship with technology, so their best approach is to become part of the solution. Those who facilitate the much-needed conversation on how technology should support rather than dominate a shared future will likely become people’s trusted partner. It will mean offering people a greater choice in how they use technology to interact with a brand, so they can have a more intentional experience that makes them feel a sense of agency.

This article is one of five linked pieces exploring the ideas in the 2024 Life Trends report: