19 September 2017
What a strange practice it is… that a man should sit down to his breakfast table and, instead of conversing with his wife, and children, hold before his face a sort of screen on which is inscribed a world-wide gossip.
Sociologist Charles Cooley on the rise of newspapers, 1909
From the wheel-and-axle to the iPhone X, technology transforms what it means to be human. It empowers us to travel faster, live longer, and be happier. It’s also traded paperbacks for PDFs; replaced workers with robots; and rewritten the definition of “friend.” This brutal pace has left behind those of us clinging to an if-it-ain’t-broke mindset. Why?
For starters, we’re hardwired to think worst-case scenario. Case in point, you’re probably not thinking about the first three benefits of technology listed before all that doomsday speak. The key to staying ahead of the latest trends is to accept that we don’t fear the technology. We fear the change it brings.
One myth in particular has stopped us from embracing its full potential: tech has made people forget how to talk to each other. Heads are buried in phones everywhere we turn. What happened to the good ol’ days of face-to-face interactions? It would be easy to write it off as civic disengagement. Painting this as humanity’s first struggle with distraction, however, is misleading.
New tech has been waging war for our attention for decades. People, in turn, have fought back. The world was simultaneously obsessed and paranoid about radio, television, and internet precisely because each broke new ground. This pattern is not relegated to antiquity. An HP-backed study revealed that email destroys your IQ more than pot, and the Institute of Biology suggested Facebook gives people cancer. The new order requires the destruction of the old, and the old always goes out flailing.
So no, people haven’t figured out how to balance smartphones, video chat, and augmented reality with the rest of reality. Those who decry these revolutionary tools as shallow should remember that they have opened new channels of communication that didn’t exist period at the turn of the century. What’s deemed a real conversation today wouldn’t be accepted by people living ten years ago, just as what was deemed a real conversation ten years ago wouldn’t be accepted by people living a thousand years ago.
Eventually we’ll “forget how to talk to each other” with today’s tech, too. But one thing’s for certain: technology is making social skills more important than ever. As Harvard Business Review’s Nicole Torres notes, “Part of what being good at working on a team means is being able to adjust when your comparative advantage changes.” For all the progress of machines, they cannot yet match mankind’s ability to adapt. There is a tinge of irony in the digital age creating an ever-growing demand for people skills. While others focus on robots, you can focus on remembering the humans they serve—7.5 billion to be exact.
Worry about people, not robots.
Okay, new tech isn’t the end of the world. But it’s still too expensive. Wrong. Every tech product has plummeted in price over time (except one, and it’s going out of business). While it’s not a best practice to replace your company Macs with each Apple Keynote event, it is important to anticipate industry trends and maintain your tech infrastructure accordingly. Technology for your business is an investment, not just another budget line keeping you in the red. When you realize it’s as essential as your team members (employees need tools after all), you’ll start noticing the returns on that investment.
Technology has the power to make us more human, if we let it. Strangers on opposite sides of the globe become colleagues; static hierarchies become high-output democracies; and the impossible becomes the inevitable. Tech isn’t just changing the rules of socializing, it’s providing solutions to those changes.