Alexa, How Can We Stop Becoming Dehumanized?
We've all benefited from the wonders of smartphones, algorithms, and a gig economy that puts people at our disposal on an app's notice. But we seem to have stopped noticing the people.
Executive director, Ed Kaplan Family Institute for Innovation and Tech Entrepreneurship, Illinois Institute of Technology
It seems to me that we hear more tales all the time about the accelerating changes in social behavior and business etiquette brought about by the many ways that new disruptive technologies saturate our lives. Tech today is realistically unavoidable, critical to our livelihoods, shamefully extractive and obviously manipulative. And, of course, utterly addictive. We're all suckers for the stuff and all we ask in return is that it work smoothly most of the time. But we need to ask a lot more of these new tools and of ourselves because the long-term impact of the incremental, and seductive, changes they're making in our daily activities is beginning to undermine our mental and physical health and how we relate to each other. Vaping is killing kids, social is screwing up their psyches, product and service quality yields every day to convenience and comfort. Most of the systems and solutions, such as the state and federal regulatory agencies, that theoretically protected us in the past are broken or corrupted. You'd think that, if they were doing their jobs at all, we wouldn't have gas stations selling CBD snake oil and every kind of vaping device imaginable to all comers.
For all that these new platforms and programs were intended to help connect us, improve our access to knowledge, and bring us all closer; what we're seeing instead is nothing of the sort. When Lady Gaga calls social media "the toilet of the Internet", she's not just talking trash; she's reflecting the realities of a tech-enabled medium that's largely out of our control. One whose unintended consequences are just now beginning to be understood.
But social media is just one simple and relatively obvious symptom of the much broader set of concerns and changes we are facing. While many of these enhancements are quite compelling and relatively easy to incorporate into our activities; they are also very hard to abandon, restrict, or limit to their ideal use cases once they are launched and sent into the wild.
We know that we're all captives today of a growing set of tools, networks and platforms (operated by a very few private entities) that are already largely beyond our power to fully control or regulate. The prospect and promise of tech augmentation - constantly enhanced and expanded capabilities in so many areas - is both exciting and frightening at the same time. Once you've seen the prospective freedoms of the future, your perspective and your attitudes are unalterably changed in many ways and there's no going back. In addition, competitive (and increasingly) global business considerations, changes in market conditions and financial circumstances, and constantly increasing user and consumer expectations of bi-directional speed, immediate access and cost-effective solutions are accelerating many of these changes. If you want to stay and play in the game, you have no choice, but to try to keep up.
It's also human nature to fall in love with the functions and features of any new shiny thing and overlook the flaws, trade-offs, and failures that are always present as well. In our entrepreneurial and naïve enthusiasm for constant change, we foolishly and too often believe that, over time, everything gets better and that trees actually grow to the sky. The fact is that some of these emergent issues can get better and be dealt with in straightforward ways, but only if we recognize that they need to be addressed.
A simple everyday example: in inter-generational business meetings, we have a new protocol to protect our eager young team members from running afoul of their elders, one which requires us to explain to the old folks that the newbies often take their meeting notes on their phones instead of on the old foolscap paper legal pads we all used in our youths. If we don't explain this at the outset, the uninitiated will quickly conclude that the kids are checking their email and texts or updating their social profiles and news feeds instead of paying attention to the business at hand. It doesn't matter how diligent you're trying to be if the geezer sitting across from you thinks you're shopping, socializing or checking out sports results. This is more about clear explanation and communication than anything else, but it's amazing how often these kinds of confusing situations lead to unfortunate outcomes because we don't take the time to get things squared away at the outset. As we always say about hacking, it's happened in your business; it's just that you may not have realized or discovered it yet.
Also, it's clear that you can't start too soon. The growing adoption of voice as the principal interface for the command/control systems of the smart home and smart car has us growing more and more accustomed to no longer talking through machines to other people, but instead talking simply to the machines themselves. A new generation of children take Alexa and Siri inquiries and the "living" interactive devices in their homes for granted. The only open question you might ask their parents is whether they are teaching their kids to say "please" and "thank you" when they make their demands for songs, stories or other social interactions with these systems. If they aren't taught some basic courtesy when they're toddlers; they'll be absolute tyrants to their teachers by the time they get into school. We already know that their slightly older and inordinately entitled siblings demonstrably have only the most fleeting acquaintance with the concept of gratitude, so that boat may have already sailed. And, if we're not at least a little bit attentive and responsive to the next group coming down the pipe, they may turn out to be even worse.
But, to me, the harshest and most dehumanizing risk we face from technology is the resultant interpersonal disconnection. We're starting to regard workers in the gig economy - ride-sharing drivers most of all - as mere extensions of our phones or, worse yet, as drone drivers to be summoned as and when we wish. It's frightening how little person-to-person interaction is actually required to take an Uber or Lyft from place to place and honestly, but for the very modest and tiny drivers' images that appear on screen (mostly for liability reasons), there could just as easily be a trained chimp sitting in the front seat taking directional instructions from their own mobile device or - to hear tell in the near AV future - no one driving at all. Somehow, I keep hearing Springsteen singing about evolution in "Part Man, Part Monkey" in the background.
So, here again, the choice is in our hands, but only if we extend ourselves and try to stem the powerful tech tide. It doesn't take much to make a difference and to help make a little daylight in someone's day - even for just a few moments - and to change a rote and robotic experience into a few shared minutes of connection. You don't have to decide to sit with the driver in the front seat or become his or her next best friend. You just need to invest a few minutes of conversation, make some eye contact, and offer a smile or two to change the nature of the whole experience.
As our world gets bigger, broader and more automated-- canned and clickable suggested responses to texts and emails are my latest favorite examples-- we have to be extra careful to understand the value and importance of individual connections and conversations and how quickly and easily these new technologies can wash away the warmth and even the perceived worth of others we encounter daily.
The way we treat the people we barely know and may never see again will have a lot to do with the world we'll see in the future and whether it's a place we really want to be a part of. Even if you're super busy, multi-tasking, and frazzled -- and who isn't -- you can still invest a few moments to be "present" and to pay attention to the people you meet. Your time and attention are much more important than the amount of your tip.