“You know,” your friend at the bar says, sipping at a pint. “I heard Trump manipulated voters because some company in England told him what to say based on people’s Facebook likes.”
“Yeah, Cambridge Analytica — I heard about that, too.”
“So they use Facebook to sell us things we don’t need with ads, and then they use our data to control our politics…”
“Yeah, but check out this live-feed from SpaceX one of my Facebook friends just sent me. They’re about to land another rocket.”
You both gaze into your phones like crystal balls, watching gods like the Iron Man himself — Elon Musk — ushers in a new space age.
The give and take of technology exists everywhere we look today. At times we feel like victims, helpless pawns at the mercy of the titans in Silicon Valley. At other times we feel like superhumans, able to get the answer to any question and see anywhere in the world in the time it takes for our coffee to finish brewing.
The same app that baits us into endless swiping at the bar, our eyes glued to the screen and oblivious to all the possible connections around us, might also connect us to well-matched partners we normally wouldn’t have crossed paths with during our day-to-day grind.
So which is it: victims to the black-hole-like attraction of our devices, or apes empowered with a god-like variety of options? You may not realize it, but it’s up to you.
Choose your own adventure
Pamela Pavliscak, founder of the design research company Change Sciences, has built a career studying the way humans interact with technology. Last year, she summarized some of her takeaways in a TEDx talk on “How to live happily in the digital age.”
“The actions we take everyday shape technology,” she told the audience, “so that what we do and choose not to do teaches the algorithms. What we say and how we feel is recognized by the people who are developing technology.”
In other words: We imbue technology with our behavior.
Every choice we make helps to shape our culture, deeming which habits are considered acceptable and which are taboo. And every day we’re feeding “big data” algorithms with information on how we interact with the digital realm.
Combined, these two influences tell our engineers, designers, and business owners what we want and what we don’t want, what they should steer towards or avoid if they want their tech adopted, if they want our money. And because the goal of most businesses is to make money, they’ll usually do whatever the culture and data suggest.
The question then becomes, what do we want to suggest to them with our actions?
What is it about the tech that sometimes makes us feel like victims, and how can we avoid that so that we feel more empowered, so that we feel like we — the people using the technology — are the priority?
Not surprisingly, media theorist Douglas Rushkoff offers perhaps the most accessible and succinct answer to these questions in the description for his Team Human podcast:
“The simplest way to understand and change our predicament is to recognize that being human is a team sport. We cannot be fully human, alone. Anything that brings us together fosters our humanity. Likewise, anything that separates us makes us less human, and less able to exercise our will.”
So perhaps technology that empowers us and “puts people first” simply means technology that helps us connect and share – which may sometimes mean not using our devices at all. When you’re sitting in a deserted lobby waiting for a dentist appointment, it makes sense that staring into your phone and texting a friend provides you the best option for connecting with others.
But when you’re waiting in line at a concert with a bunch of people who obviously share your taste in music, addictively flicking through memes is likely sabotaging your greatest potential to build meaningful connections with fellow humans you’re already elbow to elbow with.
Unfortunately, the decision isn’t always as clear cut as an uninspiring waiting room or an exciting group of peers at a concert. But maybe there’s an app that can help us?
It’s on you to decide
OK, so I’ve got bad news. I checked, and there’s definitely not an app for that. While emotion-detection is certainly shaping up to be a big market in the coming years, right now it’s still in its infancy. Even our most talented A.I. — IBM’s Watson — is incapable of picking up on your thoughts and desires.
All this means is that we can’t expect someone else to save us from ourselves. It’s simply not possible for tech creators to design products capable of surveying our surroundings and reading our emotions to let us know when it’s a good time to self-reflect, when it’s a good time to chat with a nearby stranger, or when you’re in a prime spot to scroll, scroll, scroll through the infinite possibilities of the digital realm. Not yet at least.
So for the time being — and for better or worse — this is still a judgement call we have to learn how to make. It’s a skill we each have to practice and put into practice, especially if we want to see our continued relationship with technology tilt in the favor of Team Human.
The good news is, as Pavliscak taught us with her words of wisdom, it will indeed tilt based on our choices and actions. We just have to take ownership of those choices, acknowledging that technology isn’t there to steer our willpower, but that our willpower steers technology. The purpose of our gadgets is to be there when we need them; our duty is to know when that is.
And as we get better at this – as we show a preference to use our devices as little as possible – the companies that make them will begin to tailor their technology to prioritize human interaction and non-invasive empowerment, in the same way they’ve currently tailored it to provide nonstop amusement. No need to petition Mark Zuckerberg so that he’ll stop hogging your time with all those push-notifications; instead, show him it’s annoying and a bad business model by turning them off.
Show the tech titans that you’d prefer to have time for the other things in your life by simply taking time for the other things in your life. They’ll inevitably adjust to accommodate, shifting their focus from getting you to stare at ads for as long as possible in favor of providing value by giving you more time.
No, it won’t be easy. Putting people first is undoubtedly an uphill battle in a world where big data is being used in manipulative ways against us all the time. But we do have a way to fight back. And luckily it’s as simple as teaching technology to put people first by doing it ourselves, every day.