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How to bring humanity and tech together: Innovators and advocates on hope for the future

Image: Shutterstock / whiteMocca

The headlines are everywhere.

Social media makes us narcissists. Screen time atrophies the brain. Work is inescapable. We sleep less, weigh more, and report higher levels of depression … all thanks to the onslaught of tech.

On the other hand, many of technology’s benefits are undeniable: longer life spans, reduced poverty, and the democratization of both knowledge and opportunity.

The question is: Can we bring humanity and tech into harmony?

To find an answer, I connected with some of tech’s biggest names — executives at places like Dropbox, Deloitte, Canon, Polycom, and more — as well as a few of tech’s lesser-known stars. Their answers point toward hope in our work, commerce, and connections.

Humanizing the tech we work with

Workplace communication is often lamented as the very antithesis of humanity.

Memo-driven hierarchies, reply-all email chains, and “new cover sheets on your TPS reports” are partly to blame. But the real disease lies deeper: namely, control, our desire to solidify tools and processes from the top down.

Ironically, the antidote comes from a relationship to tech that unshackles tools and processes, instead, from the bottom up.

“Technology should work for people, not the other way around. It succeeds when it fits seamlessly into our lives and solves real problems. Too often, it forces us to change our behavior to fit its own limitations. Think about how painful it can be to file an expense report compared to how easy it is to pay a friend with Venmo.”

“Increasingly the question of whether technology helps us or hurts us is our decision — people will choose the products they love. The way to make tech more human is to listen.”

“The future of work will be driven by technology, but technology — at home and at work — is and always will be bound by the desires, wants, passions, and needs of human beings. In enterprises, it’s a trend known as the ‘consumerization of IT.’ More and more, the tools we use at work are being driven by consumers, instead of management. The professional rise of text and video, for instance, is a direct reflection of that same rise in our day to day lives.”

“The key, however, is to prioritize bandwidth for infrastructure and freedom for personal choice.”

“Technology should be viewed as a way to better connect, rather than divide, human interactions. For example, AV/VR technologies combined with ubiquitous, broadband capabilities could enhance the collaborations of workers in remote locations.”

“Regarding intelligent automation, we don’t foresee a quick, wholesale pivot to robotics but rather humans staying in the loop to perform the higher value work of making decisions and taking actions based on insights produced by machines.”

“So with the right mindset, technology can enrich work rather than impoverish it. It can accentuate our humanity and maximize our potential.”

“At its core, work is about communication. It’s about people sharing work, ideas, and opinions. Productivity suites were built to facilitate this — but that was a long time ago. The way we communicate has shifted dramatically since then, and we need not a better but an entirely new way to work together.”

“If we redesigned productivity software around the way people work today — connected, mobile, and social — how would it work? We’d elevate the fundamentals of human communication over esoteric features that most people don’t even use anymore and unify content and communication. It’s a next-generation way to work together.”

Making commerce relevant and inclusive

To say the Internet fundamentally changed commerce is an understatement. However, the gulf between physical and digital products — as well as the gulf between the haves and have-nots — has been a bane since its inception.

For consumers, more automation often means less individuality. Especially when it comes to irrelevant marketing and the disenfranchised. Can technology bridge these worlds?

“The lines between ecommerce and commerce are blurring as more and more brands look to experiment with traditional retail models. Pop-up shops for product drops and digital showrooms where people can co-create through VR, AR, and 3D are just two examples.”

“Whether in-person, online, or blended, these experiences should integrate with purchase history, browsing behavior, and geolocation. Bringing those pieces together creates the kind of deep personalization we naturally crave.”

“Paradoxically, I think machines are going to help us make our relationships with our customers more human.”

“With advances in machine learning, digital assistants will be able to understand customer history and context and handle repetitive tasks much better.”

“This will free humans to focus more on the relationship instead of rote tasks.”

“The key is to remember that technology — even AI and cognitive — serves at the pleasure of the people. It’s easy to be seduced by the multitude of magic wands at our disposal, but it’s always about the wizard.”

“The best way to bring humanity back to tech is to force yourself to be surrounded by people. Sitting in an office, spitting out reports, and using them to infer customer needs and desires is shortsighted. And that robs us of what is really lacking in much of technology today: empathy.”

“Start with requiring the makers of technology to spend two hours per week with real customers, observing how they use it.”

“There’s a misunderstanding that technology is somehow neutral or unbiased, which is simply not true: anything made by humans is going to be biased, so we need to have a bias for inclusion."

“It might seem counterintuitive, but we can make financial services more human by servicing the underserved via a smartphone app versus a traditional bank. Many of our customers call us family; they think of us as a friend or a partner.”

“We’re able to include people who are excluded from traditional finance. Women, for example, often encounter discrimination in a face-to-face interaction with a male lender; being able to access credit from the palm of their hand is liberating. Even men tell us they are afraid to face more formal lenders sometimes for fear of rejection and the shame that might bring them. Having a private, personal relationship with your financial services validates our customer’s humanity, and reminds them that someone out there believes in them.”

Fostering connections that don’t add to the noise

Perhaps the most daunting challenge is how tech affects relationships. Study after study not only documents the increasing time we spend behind screens but also their interpersonal dark side.

Of course, how we use technology is far more important than what and when. Setting aside its abuses — and, in some cases, combating them — means leveraging our new-found interconnectedness for “the good.”

“We need to remember why technology is evolving in the first place: it solves real problems and connects people.”

“One example includes using the latest imaging technology to help find missing children or prevent the exploitation of children. Canon has partnered for the last 20 years with The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children by providing the latest state-of-the-art technology which allows law enforcement to quickly disseminate photos across the U.S., not just to law-enforcement, but through social media as well.”

“We released a feature called Content Suggestions in 2014, and there was a substantial bump in platform use. Many users loved it. However, we noticed that some were sharing identical posts without reading them.”

“Essentially, we were contributing to spam, which was not great for content creators and also not great for Buffer as a product. We believe in creating authentic voices on social media, and this broke down that trust users had in us.”

“Even though this feature had lots of traction we ultimately decided to shut it down. At the time, we had our values of ‘Listen First’ and ‘Do the right thing’ top of mind.”

“With the rise of chatbots and voice assistants like Alexa and Google Home, talking to computers is becoming the norm. The challenge at this point is how to personalize interactions, and connect humans and computers on a more intimate level.”

“Brands are already taking the lead in engaging conversational experiences are tailoring their bot personas to directly reflect their target audience for the best chance of retention and engagement. In messaging platforms — planning a personality that informs the dialogue and entire interaction with consumers is critical. These authentic brand experiences won’t be led by engineers — but rather writers and designers, who can connect humans to technology through storytelling.”

“Technology has the ability to connect people across the artificial lines in the sand we call nation-state borders. At BITNATION we’re using the blockchain technology to help people create their own nations, based on their beliefs and desires, rather than on where they were arbitrarily born.”

“Using the blockchain we’ve helped refugees. People have used our technology to get married, to title their land, to write birth certificates and wills, and much more.”

Make “technology about people and not about technology”

Writing about the patron saint of innovation, columnist Jason Hiner explained, “Steve Jobs’s most important contribution will be that he made technology about people and not about technology.”

Is there hope for the future of humanity and tech? Certainly. This doesn’t mean the pitfalls are easy to avoid, but it does mean they’re far from inevitable.

Tangible buying experiences, serving the underserved, the “consumerization of IT,” and crossing traditional borders all point to the power of tech to reinforce our humanity rather than undercut it.

After all, humans aren’t merely dominated by tech. We are its creators and hope lies in the image of ourselves we stamp upon it.