Friday, February 08, 2019

Why being more digital makes us more human

The more digital your life, the more human you become. Sounds like a contradiction but I think we’re reaching a point where technology is becoming less visible, if not invisible. This means that we can concentrate on ourselves and others, while taking advantage of technology, without the physical and intrusive presence of technology. Unpopular view, I know, but it’s one I hold. I honestly believe that technology frees us from the tyranny of time, space and labour.
My daily life is made easier
From the moment I wake up to the moment I fall asleep, technology is an all pervasive part of my life. I get woken by an Alexa alarm playing the Radio and simply say ‘Stop’ when I’m ready. My robot cleaner does all our floor cleaning on a schedule, returning to base when finished. I don’t even have to be there when it happens. My heating is controlled by a system that learns my pattern of needs and adapts accordingly. I switch all of my lights off by a simple word command when I go to bed. But that’s just the start…
My work is made easier
My workspace is my laptop and I can, and do, work anywhere. I work all over the world and my workplace and markets are online. Even the physical dimension of my work is made easy by tech. I book parking, flights, hotels online. I sail through Gatwick with my electronic boarding pass on my mobile, fly in an aircraft that is almost invariably flies and lands on autopilot (safer), and return by almost walking through the gates due to face recognition. The only problems I have are when some ill-trained goon steps in, as in LAX airport, where my wife was thrown out of the US for having a Syrian stamp in her passport (he didn’t know the rules). It has never been easier and cheaper to experience other countries and cultures.
The majority of my work meetings are on Zoom or Skype, for free. I set alarms on Alexa for most of these (4 minutes before they’re due). I use Alexa for VAT calculations. I use Slack with my developers who work remotely. I build my product online and deliver it online, to anywhere in the world with an internet connection. I invoice electronically and get paid electronically. I work from home, and see commuting, packed trains, standing in tubes, office blocks and cubicle offices as profoundly inhuman activities.
My social circle is hugely human
As a long-time social media user, I don’t buy the echo-chamber theory,  that I live in a bubble. Believe me, my social media contacts are a feisty and varied bunch. The simple maths shows that almost by definition, the larger the number of people we are in contact with, the more varied they will be.
I have a group of friends on Facebook, who are mostly people I know face-to-face. Some I only know face-to-face because I met them on Facebook. Others are people I lost touch with but resurrected our friendship decades later. Another ripple is the 9,700 followers, and people I follow, on twitter – an invaluable source of professional and general information – mainly through the links it provides. Another ripple is YouTube, where my Ted talk got 55,000 views, and others at nearly 30,000. Then there’s the next, even wider ripple, my blog with 4.8 million pageviews, from countries all over the world. The majority outside of the UK. Social media has freed me from the tyranny of distance and connected me with an enormous amount of people around the world.
Social media has allowed me to meet many more real people than I would have, had it not existed, put me back in touch with people who have enriched my life by that second resurrected encounter and friendship. It’s enabled invitations from all over the world to speak to, over the years, hundreds of thousands of people. I travel much more because of technology. Even the real world of travel, whether it’s finding a location when I’m walking or driving has been revolutionised by access to GPs and online maps.
I spent my early childhood in small Scottish mining towns where the only social contact I had was a few school friends and a single pen-pal. No one will convince me that those were better days. My sons have friends all over the world, contact with their relatives, almost all of who live in another country, and have access to people, news, and sources beyond my imagination. 
My choices are greater
Almost any piece of music I want to play is available by asking Alexa, most books I can buy and get delivered within a day, most movies and TV programmes available on demand. I find anything I want on TV, as I have a Smart TV that responds to voice. I can get any major news source at the touch of a button, even paid for sources are cheap and accessible – real people writing real stuff. Academic articles, a few keystrokes or voice command away. These are not only choices of media. They carry over into real life. Attendance at live music events has gone through the roof. Online dating gives everyone a wider choice of options. Online is rarely just online – it leads to offline events and contact with other people.
My learning is easier
I want to know something I ask Google Assistant or Alexa. I haven’t been in a library for years. If I want to explore something in depth, I have the resources and MOOCs available for free. I count myself as a Lifelong Learner but I haven’t been on a ‘course’ for 35 years. We’re seeing people learn more independently, on the workflow. Jane Hart, who tracks what people actually use for learning, shows that they are not traditional training tools, they are YouTube and Twitter. Learner behaviour is driven more by the individual than trainers. What’s needed is support for this. Smart technology can get to know you, give you suggestions, oil the wheels of this access to timely and relevant learning.
My puzzlement is over those who see technology as something that destroys humanity. This is not to say that technology does not have a bad side – it usually does. I don’t drive, never been behind the wheel of a car in my life, and know that 1.3 million a year dies in car crashes. Yet most people continue to drive. The surest solution to this problem is self-driving vehicles. To those on social media, who spend so much time saying how evil it is, we all have our choices. If you don’t like social media, don’t use it, just as I don’t drive. On the whole, technology frees the self, frees us from the tyranny of time, space and numbers.
Technology is increasingly invisible. The interfaces are becoming more natural though touch and now voice. AI takes the heavy lifting away from all sorts of tasks. Technology is no more about devices but smart services. With voice and the IoT, we will find ourselves in a world where technology simply solves problems, behind the scenes. Some of it happens when I’m not there, behind the scenes, below the radar. I like that. Some is light touch, almost frictionless, like Alexa switching off my lights. Other technology saves me a ton of time – like online meetings and business processes. Above all, it’s the people side I like. The more technology I use, the more human my life becomes.

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