Course-correcting after the digital revolution

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Course-correcting after the digital revolution

Can we put the toothpaste back in the tube?

image by By Jiw Ingka for Shutterstock

We had a digital revolution. Sh*t got disrupted…it’s hard to overstate how our lives have changed in the last few decades. It’s actually the 3rd tech revolution after the electricity and radio communications revolution. Next up, biotechnology and AI revolution (can you say Skynet ;).

What is the digital revolution? Well, you’re probably reading this on a little computer that you keep in your back pocket.

And why course correct when, presumably, the driving force for this evolution is in the name of progress?

Well, it depends on how you define progress. How are we defining it? From a humanness perspective, are we really making life better? And if not…can we go back? Can we put the toothpaste back in the tube?

As Amy Nordrum notes in MIT Technology Review, “Our notions of individual or collective progress reflect our values and our hopes for the future. Knowing what we’re trying to achieve can also help us see what role technology could or should play.”

Looking at some examples of modern “progress” in the digital age, are we moving humanity forward, or creating more problems than we know how to solve?

For example, social media has connected billions. What a great moment, right? Or so we thought until we started feeling alone with more virtual connections than human ones. Anxiety and depression among teenagers have skyrocketed. A recent article in The Atlantic offers compelling evidence that the devices we’ve placed in young people’s hands “are having profound effects on their lives.”

Then came the pandemic of misinformation. Spreading faster than covid with damaging effects on everything from our elections to the social fabric of communities.

That doesn’t feel like progress. And what about our devices? Are we making progress there? On the positive side, almost every industry in every sector from commercial to developmental, engineering, educational etc. has benefited greatly from technology.

In our personal lives, where would we be without our tablets, personal computers, phones, smartwatches, smart homes, and all the apps that we run on all of our devices? Except we now know that part of the reason why we love and depend on these apps is their purposefully addictive nature.

In full disclosure, as a digital experience designer and strategist, I may be part of the problem. Yeah, I said it. My goal is normally to increase digital engagement. Sometimes that involves tapping into our monkey minds :). Or more professionally, psychological techniques like social proof.

What is social proof? Humans are wired to mimic others. When we see someone we know doing something, we are much more likely to do it ourselves.

Scarcity is another big one. E-commerce sites often artificially emphasize that an item is almost out-of-stock to make our monkey brains want it more. Advertisers use these psychological strategies to persuade without regard for what this engagement means for real-life people.

The other mechanism that is honestly pretty cool and creepy is machine learning, which actually observes your online behavior, analyzes it and uses it to persuade or predict future behavior.

Would I say I work for the dark side? No. It’s all part of “progress,” — advancing our lives, connecting us all and making things work more efficiently.

But I have my wake-up moments. The biggest one came this year when I realized my 2.5-year-old seemed more interested in my phone than his dad because he observed daddy and mommy reaching for their phones constantly.

Phones and tablets are much more addictive than other forms of media like TV given how mobile and ever-present they are. They also add in a layer of interactivity. At our home, we advocate for very limited screen time, but it’s almost like giving your child a little bit of crack. Once they have a taste, they want more and more and more and more.

And once our kids have cell phones, watches, tablets, and computers, can we realistically take them all away and say: OK kids, we’re going to just read books and do crafts now! They would probably lock us in the basement and race to their rooms to fire up their devices. Insert toothpaste and tube analogy.

It’s true that our devices have empowered us with on-the-go access to infinite information and entertainment. But as phones get smarter, the only thing that seems to be losing intelligence is arguably us. I don’t say this in a disparaging way, but technology can breed a media-obsessed and distracted society.

Comic by Dan Piraro

As we grapple with these unintended downstream consequences of our tech obsessions, the question becomes: is there a better way where we operate more mindfully, rather than stumbling into a future where the snowball rolls down the hill, eventually creating an avalanche?

I would argue that before we head into another tech revolution, we need a human revolution.

What is a human revolution? It’s about putting people first. Bringing the human experience back and using technology as a supplement, not a replacement, for reality.

First of all, considering that in the last century, the average human life expectancy doubled, we might really think about “progress” less in terms of advancing devices and technology and more in terms of prioritizing our quality of this long life. How will we cope with our overcrowded cities and towns? How will we deal with the growing wealth disparity and global warming?

I would point to a few trends that are giving me hope for human-centered progress. For one thing, according to Forbes, consumers’ expectations of retailers are changing. Even up until a few years ago, retailers could still have laughed at and dismissed those who told them they needed a purpose.

That’s not the case anymore. Accenture Strategy’s Global Consumer Pulse Research revealed that consumers, across all generations, care about what retailers say and how they act.

“Consumers under 30 — those belonging to Gen Z and millennial generations — particularly feel a strong affiliation with retailers that subscribe to a larger purpose, according to the study of more than 2,000 U.K. consumers.”

And according to GreenBiz, it is a common assumption that younger generations — Gen Z and millennials — are more greatly concerned with global challenges. Born in the digital age, these generations are proving themselves to be more health-conscious, socially aware and environmentally responsible.

“This narrative is consistently reiterated by the media who frequently highlight the willingness of these younger generations to stand up for what they care about. In our Radically Better Future: The Next Gen Reckoning Report with BBMG, 73 percent of young people support public protests to raise awareness of issues, with the Black Lives Matter movement cited as an example of the next generation raising their voices on the issues that matter. This is in comparison to their older counterparts, who are perceived to be less vocal and less optimistic about the future.

The next generation is looking for brands to lead the way and wants brands to create change with them, not just for them.”

Companies like Warby Parker and TOMS have made ethics and philanthropy the driving force in their mission. Not only are these companies doing good, they are also doing very well! People love their products as much as the company ethos.

SO, what about tech? Can engineers, designers and developers walk in TOMS shoes? And given how addictive so many of these products are, can we really go back to a simpler time? Can you put the toothpaste back in the tube?

Speaking from my professional point of view, I would argue that no, you cannot put the toothpaste back in the tube. What you can do is mindfully design products and tech so that human needs and human benefits are central.

And if indeed the digital revolution was disruptive, the coming AI age which we have already stepped into will make all the other disruptions pale in comparison.

Today, AI is essential across a vast array of industries, including health care, banking, retail, and manufacturing. But according to the Harvard Gazette, its game-changing promise to do things like “improve efficiency, bring down costs, and accelerate research and development has been tempered of late with worries that these complex, opaque systems may do more societal harm than economic good.

With virtually no U.S. government oversight, private companies use AI software to make determinations about health and medicine, employment, creditworthiness, and even criminal justice without having to answer for how they’re ensuring that programs aren’t encoded, consciously or unconsciously, with structural biases.”

Talk about a snowball barrelling downhill and turning into an avalanche. Hopefully, we can learn from the unintended consequences of the digital revolution before we stumble into the AI revolution.

As political professor Michael Sandel notes, companies have to think seriously about the ethical implications of what they’re doing and we, as democratic citizens, have to educate ourselves about tech and its social and ethical implications — “not only to decide what the regulations should be but also to decide what role we want big tech and social media to play in our lives.”

Anyone who has seen The Social Dilemma knows what we are all facing when we place addiction and profits before considerations of the mental health of the next generation. When 50 designers are in a position to make decisions that will impact billions of people, it’s a scary scenario for sure.

So yeah, it’s time to course-correct. In part by being aware of our screen time with phone free-times and staying accountable.

As Jean M. Twenge points out in the above-referenced article in The Atlantic, “The average teen spends about two and a half hours a day on electronic devices. Some mild boundary-setting could keep kids from falling into harmful habits.”

And I would say the most important piece is having a raised awareness of how tech is designed so that we can take control of our tech consumption and balance it with our human limitations.

When humanity is lost in a technology blur sometimes the effect is a more uncertain future. Technology has great potential to give us a brighter future if designed and used with our humanness in mind.


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