Unintended Consequences: 5 Social Issues Caused by Technology

June 16, 2020 • Zachary Amos


By and large, technology makes human life better, safer and more productive. However, it’s worth looking at some of the social issues caused by technology too. We need to address these unintended consequences right now, before technology and society develop together in ways that may prove resistant to change later on.

The scientific method is one of the most powerful tools at humanity’s disposal. Many generations have come and gone, providing incremental improvements as well as giant leaps forward in our understanding of science and mastery of technology.

We’re standing two decades from when people far and wide feared the “Y2K Bug” would wipe out all modern technology. Clearly, technology — as well as a lack of understanding of how it works — can be a disruptive thing.

1. Unemployment and Inequality

According to research, the positive economic impact of robots will rival that of previous industrial revolutions. Equally compelling research shows that robots could cost the global economy 20 million manufacturing jobs, even while millions of positions go unfilled through 2028.

What nobody questions is whether robots will improve industrial productivity. They definitely will. The question is, how many people will find their livelihoods displaced by the relentless pursuit of productivity?

And will everyday employees benefit from the additional economic value brought by robots, or will it be enjoyed by a very few? Longstanding economic trends suggest the latter — that technology will continue to enrich the already-wealthy while the middle class and its share of the economic spoils from all that productivity both shrink.

2. Cybercrime

The explosion of cybercrime is definitely one of the top social issues caused by technology. Many of us have learned to recognize signs of attempted cybercrimes or we use safeguards to keep the threat to a minimum as we conduct our digital life.

Nevertheless, millions of others aren’t as lucky or don’t know what to look for. Here are the World Economic Forum’s top cybercrime statistics for 2019:

  • Cybercriminals create four new malware tools every second.
  • Smartphones are a top attack vector, with mobile operating systems representing 60% of successful online fraud attempts.
  • Internet of Things (IoT) products are generally not secure by design. Of attacks on these devices, 46% are remote access attempts and 39% are intended to help the criminal learn about the target’s lifestyle and patterns.
  • In 2017, hackers stole 2 billion data records. In the first half of 2018, the number had risen to 4.5 billion records.

Cybercrime is a global problem that steadily grows worse. Something fundamental about the structure of the internet would have to change for us to put this problem to rest for good.

3. Echo Chambers and Social Engineering

Facebook and Cambridge Analytica are only the most public faces of social engineering. For those not familiar with the scandal, this is where Facebook got caught giving their users’ information to a third party — Cambridge Analytica — so they could more precisely direct far-right and pro-corporate propaganda at targets.

Facebook users’ identities, names, personality traits, website “likes,” and friend networks were all used to reinforce online echo chambers through targeted political advertising.

Echo chambers are where internet users only see or seek out information that confirms their biases. It’s where a dramatized or exaggerated version of reality takes the place of actual reality. When this happens, it’s usually because somebody wants to sell you something, including a political candidate’s agenda.

4. Online Bullying and Radicalization

According to Pew Research, a majority of young people still experience cyberbullying in some form online. About one-quarter of teens have received unsolicited nude photographs in a text message. Some 63% of surveyed teens say online harassment is a “major” problem affecting people their age.

The internet affords a certain degree of anonymity or social distance. Without proper instruction early and often in life about the decent treatment of others and the proper way to engage on the internet, bullies capitalize on that distance to say digitally what they wouldn’t dare say in person.

Radicalization is another very real public safety threat given life by the internet. People who are on the fringes of society and already feeling isolated may be susceptible to calls-to-action from extremist groups when they see them online.

5. Climate Change

Call it global warming or climate change, the Anthropocene age is marked by severe and worsening trends in the long-term suitability of Earth for human habitation. We’re here to talk about social issues caused by technology, and climate change fits that description by any definition.

The overwhelming consensus among scientists is that earth’s climate, while naturally cyclical, is showing definitive warming over time as a result of human activity. This means that every industry on earth has an urgent mandate to divest from fossil fuels and invest in sustainable processes and technologies. This most especially includes top carbon emitters like industrial agriculture, transportation and manufacturing.

Scientists are equally clear about the economic and social ramifications of a warming climate. More severe weather events, scarcity of water, food and other resources, vanishing coastlines, people migrating inwards, poor public health, and failing infrastructure are just a few of the ways scientists predict climate change will manifest in tangible disruption and social unrest. Fast action will mitigate some of the damage, but not all of it.

Science and Technology: Progress at a Cost

These are just a few of the social issues caused by technology. There’s no question that technology and science provide significant benefits for humanity, but the pace of change means we need stronger education about the opportunities and the responsibilities.

Going forward, we’ll also need more cautious regulations and oversight for emerging industries and technologies — especially those with the potential to impact public safety, stability or wellbeing.