While users have embraced technology, there is a growing perception that it has become invasive to the exclusion of natural life – and users are even beginning to fear their technology.

Communications company Euro RSCG Worldwide recently undertook a major global study in order to better understand the new realities of modern-day life and how people are reacting to them.

The world has changed rapidly in the past couple of decades. The infusion of digital technology, new channels of communication, changes in household composition, the faster pace of living, and the radical transformation of social mores have left many users feeling unbalanced and unsure of what’s coming next. For all the good it has brought, the dizzying maelstrom of change has also pushed aside a number of things we value, including a meaningful connection to the natural world and a deep-seated sense of community.

“Working with research partner Market Probe International, we surveyed 7 213 adults in 19 countries around the world, including South Africa, representing a combined population of 3,6-billion,” says Gabrielle Rosario, head of digital strategy at 4D Euro RSCG South Africa. “Along with the Euro RSCG South Africa’s ‘This Digital Life’ presentation, the report aims to identify exactly what effects this new digital world is having on individuals and society, and how people are reacting to it.

“South Africa’s rapidly growing connectivity, specifically in the mobile sphere, means more and more people are feeling the effects of the discord created by the digital world,” she adds. “We know from Arthur Goldstuck’s recent Internet Matters Report that South Africa’s Internet user base grew by 25% between 2010 and 2011. Penetration is now approaching 20% of the population and is set to grow rapidly with services such as WiFi availability on flights and massive leaps in undersea cable capacity. According to the Experience Curve, it takes at least five years for the average individual’s Internet usage to develop from a physical Internet connection to online self-actualisation,” Rosario explains.

“By the end of 2008, 3.2-million South Africans had been online for five years. The number grew to 3,75-million in 2011. The online market is suddenly real, the online user is suddenly experienced, social media like blogging, which took off in 2008 is mainstream, social and business networking sites like Facebook and LinkedIn have taken South Africa by storm, and it all appears to have happened overnight. This has raised the need to understand the effect this connected world is having on South African society and where it is heading,” she says.

“Our study has uncovered a strong sense of ambivalence toward the future,” comments Marianne Hurstel, vice-president at BETC Euro RSCG and global chief strategy officer at Euro RSCG Worldwide. “While consumers are embracing all the new technologies and conveniences that are so much a part of the modern lifestyle, they are also wistful about those aspects of life – including simplicity, intellectuality, and strong ties to nature’s rhythms – that are slipping away.

“There is a growing sense that we need to take some time, individually and as a society, to think about the direction in which we’re moving and whether we’re going to be happy with where we end up. It’s too late to change course entirely, but we may be able to tinker with those aspects of the future that are most unsettling to us.”

Highlights of the study include:

* Modernity has long been synonymous with progress, but the idea of the future doesn’t make us dream anymore. Sixty percent of the global respondents believe society is moving in the wrong direction. More troubling, four in 10 sometimes feel they’re actually wasting their lives. Seventy-two percent worry about society’s moral decline.

* While just 10% believe digital technology will have a negative effect overall on the world, 42% believe it’s too soon to tell – suggesting a relatively strong level of distrust and unease about what is to come.

* Are people getting dumber? Half the sample worry that digital technology and multitasking are impairing humans’ ability to think deeply and to concentrate on one task at a time. Around two-thirds believe society has become too shallow, focusing too much on things that don’t really matter.

* Fifty-eight percent worry we’re losing the ability to engage in civil debate. Seven in 10 worry about the rise in political extremism, and 64% are concerned about the rise of paranoia and conspiracy theories.

* More than a quarter of the sample (and one-third of millennials) say social networking is making them less satisfied with their own lives.

* Our “culture of more” has proved unsatisfying: A majority say they are tired of over consuming and are looking to scale back and live more simply. Four in 10 say they would happier if they owned less stuff.

*  Attention, 1%: Nearly three-quarters of respondents around the world are moderately to extremely worried about the growing gap between rich and poor.

“Our probe into technology use revealed a number of emerging concerns,” says Tom Morton, chief strategic officer at Euro RSCG New York and co-chief strategy officer at Euro RSCG North America. “First is the fear that social media and online data collection are chiseling away at our right to privacy. A majority worry that technology is robbing us of our privacy, and six in 10 think that people are wrong to share so much of their personal thoughts and experiences online. This isn’t an outsider’s or laggard’s concern: Two-thirds of millennials believe that their generation has no sense of personal privacy.

“At the same time, people worry that hyperconnectivity is actually making us feel less connected. More than half the sample worry that digital communication is weakening human-to-human bonds. As marketers, we have a dual role to play—to assuage people’s concerns about privacy and to create more meaningful connections.”

Hurstel adds: “We have so many tools at our disposal today to shape our individual existences. Now people are seeking to apply that same level of control to society and the ways in which it is evolving. We’re going to see more of a push for a sort of ‘hybrid’ way of living that combines the best of the old and new – keeping current conveniences while holding fast to those traditions and values that are in danger of disappearing. Whether one is spending time digging in the dirt in the garden, immersing oneself in literary classics, or purchasing artisan-made products, people will seek to temper the new with the old, the artificial with the natural, the digital with the analogue. And in this way, we’ll create a way of living that offers more meaning, comfort, and, ultimately, satisfaction.”