The traveler walks into a diner and sits at the counter. She’s walked past this diner a few times but has never actually dined in it. She is weary; it is the end of the day and her feet have started to blister. She asks for a cup of coffee while she browses the menu, decides on a slice of apple pie, and then strikes up a casual conversation with the man behind the counter, who is a generation older than she is. They exchange small talk on work, families, politics. She takes a bite of the pie that the man has placed in front of her, and it is absolutely delicious; she relishes her refreshed spirits as she pays her check and walks out the door. These are the moments of human connection and the joy of discovery whose strands are weaved into our social fabric. And these are the strands increasingly being replaced by the synthetic fibers of digital technology. The relentless drive for automation, connections and personalization in the digital world are shaping everything from developing countries to the world’s greatest enterprises. But at what cost?
Nobody can debate the impact of automation on everything from jobs to how we dine and how we travel. The question is whether a dining or driving experience, fully researched in advance and devoid of human interaction, is the perfection of those experiences or a very efficient, but soulless manifestation of what once was an opportunity for two lives to briefly intersect in a meaningful manner. The point and counterpoint for how we connect via digital and social media are equally jarring. It’s incredible to think that a platform that can spark revolutions can be used just as easily to support some of the most vile behaviors people are capable of displaying. And what of personalization? The delightful mobile moments (hello location alerts!) extracted from a rich digital profile serve as an example of what is possible when technology serves the person behind the screen, but come with their own drawbacks, as illustrated in Eli Pariser’s engaging TED Talk on filter bubbles.
As the world continues its drive to digital transformation, it is incumbent upon technology practitioners to recognize the incredible power that they wield in shaping it, and to agonize over whether their use of technology is empowering or debilitating, to the individual, the enterprise, or even to our larger society. Sherry Turkle observed that we “expect more from technology and less from each other,” a by-product of our willingness to accept micro-interactions in digital channels as an acceptable surrogate for face to face conversation (a symptom that will only become more challenging with the advent of Artificial Intelligence and robotics). It would be wise for the technology practitioner and consumer alike to take this to heart, and to understand that technology is at its most powerful when it enhances, not replaces, our shared and uniquely human experience.