By now you’ve probably heard a lot about wearables, living services, the ‘Internet of Things‘, and smart materials. As designers working in these realms, we’ve begun to think about even weirder and wilder things, envisioning a future where evolved technology is embedded inside our digestive tracts, sense organs, blood vessels, and even our cells.
Let’s talk about a scourge of modern times. There is so much stuff to watch, read, listen to, buy, eat or learn about. The world is available at our fingertips at any moment. It feels glorious but also horribly, paralyzingly overwhelming.
Should I wade into Spotify’s sea of every song ever recorded or give up and listen to my downloaded copy of Beyonce’s “Crazy for Love” for the 47,000th time? Psychologist Barry Schwartz called this the “Paradox of choice” in his 2004 book of the same name. Like many ideas that come out of TED Talks, it is too simplistic to say more choices are counterproductive, but I think we’ve all experienced the feeling.
Naturally, technology companies have some ideas about how to help people discover things and select among the flood of options — and make money in the process. And even they are recognising the limits of technology in helping people stay informed and entertained.
To see the future, first we must understand the past. Humans have been interfacing with machines for thousands of years. We seem to be intrinsically built to desire this communion with the made world. This blending of the mechanical and biological has often been described as a “natural” evolutionary process by such great thinkers as Marshall McLuhan in the ’50s and more recently Kevin Kelly in his seminal book What Technology Wants. So by looking at the long timeline of computer design we can see waves of change and future ripples.
The effects of technological change on the global economic structure are creating immense transformations in the way companies and nations organise production, trade goods, invest capital, and develop new products and processes. Sophisticated information technologies permit instantaneous communication among the far-flung operations of global enterprises. New materials are revolutionising sectors as diverse as construction and communications. Advanced manufacturing technologies have altered long-standing patterns of productivity and employment. Improved air and sea transportation has greatly accelerated the worldwide flow of people and goods.
All this has both created and mandated greater interdependence among firms and nations. The rapid rate of innovation and the dynamics of technology flows mean that comparative advantage is short-lived. To maximise returns, arrangements such as transnational mergers and shared production agreements are sought to bring together partners with complementary interests and strengths. This permits both developed and developing countries to harness technology more efficiently, with the expectation of creating higher standards of living for all involved.
Rapid technological innovation and the proliferation of transnational organisations are driving the formation of a global economy that sometimes conflicts with nationalistic concerns about maintaining comparative advantage and competitiveness. It is indeed a time of transition for firms and governments alike.
In the markets of the United Kingdom and the United States, we are constantly seeing ‘flexibility’ and ‘change’ to our economies; this evidence is continuing with the ‘Gig Economy,’ the millennials and a new operating business economy. There are huge advantages to inflexibility and predictability, as continental Europeans appreciate. The evidence shows that continuous re-optimisation is not always the best route to building solid, sustainable foundations for business and relationships.
People also want to be trusted and respected themselves. This requires that they have some responsibility and autonomy. Most of us like to feel we are working well or helping others, because we could not expect to be respected otherwise. That is a key element in the motivation to work, the satisfaction of the professional norm. Yet in recent years employers have used more and more financial incentives to motivate people: Performance-related pay has been creeping in everywhere, including the public service.
With all of these considerations, are mainstream economists right or wrong in how they approach our social and economic problems? Partly right, partly wrong. Here is the good part: Each individual knows more about himself or herself than anyone else does. So, there are huge gains all round if we can freely exchange
goods and services with each other, including our labour. This is especially so where markets are large and well-informed and no one affects anyone else except through the process of voluntary exchange. Indeed, economists have correctly shown that if these conditions exist and contracts can be enforced and people can start sharing within a ‘shared economy,’ the outcome will be fully ‘efficient.’ In other words, everyone will be happy as is possible without someone else being less happy. This important claim helps to explain the extraordinary success of post-war capitalism in producing material advance.
Yet, why did this advance not guarantee a rise in personal happiness? The reason is that many of the most important things that touch us do not reach us through voluntary exchange. Nor have our tastes, expectations and norms remained unchanged, and these too affect our happiness.
Values in people can also change. In the last 50 years we have become increasingly independent and individualistic. We are ever more influenced by the Internet and versions of the ‘survival of the fittest;’ Charles Darwin said, ‘It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.’ Describing ‘the invisible hand,’ Adam Smith said: ‘The great source of both the misery and disorders of human life, seems to arise from over-rating the difference between one permanent situation and another. Avarice over-rates the difference between poverty and riches: ambition, that between a private and a public station: vain-glory, that between obscurity and extensive reputation.
The person under the influence of any of those extravagant passions, is not only miserable in his actual situation, but is often disposed to disturb the peace of society, in order to arrive at that which he so foolishly admires. The slightest observation, however, might satisfy him, that, in all the ordinary situations of human life, a well-disposed mind may be equally calm, equally cheerful, and equally contented. Some of those situations may, no doubt, deserve to be preferred to others: but none of them can deserve to be pursued with that passionate ardour which drives us to violate the rules either of prudence or of justice; or to corrupt the future tranquillity of our minds, either by shame from the remembrance of our own folly, or by remorse from the horror of our own injustice.’
My final thought in the matter is that the answer to technological overload is not less technology but more humanity.
Digital transformation, solving problems with technology, exponential growth through technology, the integration of humans/machines, Artificial Intelligence, Internet of Things etc. Like it or not, there is no way out, technology has taken over already: I lived without a Smartphone for a few weeks to find out that you soon get excluded from communities, groups, discussions and business.
The problem is not development of new technology, this is nothing new for humanity. The problem is the speed and the major impact it creates for us. It is paradoxical, but humans have the capacity to create innovation and technology with which, at the same time, they have problems keeping up with, technically, emotionally and as a society. We are used to slow, incremental change. Only few people can keep up with the speed and nature of change, most of us get anxious and try to row backwards.
The most important things for our survival are not digital: air, water, food, clothes, emotions, the warmth of a human body next to us. Spending time with people living in a strong connection with and in and from nature was eye opening: we do not live in and with the nature, we are a part of nature, fully integrated with it.
We should ask: “If technology was supposed to make our lives easier and better, why is everybody so exhausted?”. “How can we stay present and awake in a world of distraction and consumption?”
My belief is that a society cannot flourish without some sense of shared purpose. The current pursuit of self-realisation will not work. If your sole duty is to achieve the best for yourself, life becomes just too stressful and too isolated and lonely, and you will be set up to fail. Instead, you need to feel you exist for something larger, and that very thought takes off some of the pressure.
We desperately need a concept of a common purpose, a common vision and a sense of working together to achieve the one overall goal. Human happiness comes from the outside and from within. The two are not in contradiction. The secret is compassion towards oneself and others, and the principle of the greatest happiness is essentially the expression that can all share connections. Perhaps these are the cornerstones of our future culture.
I believe now is the moment to define our terms. Technology is fast, and fast is getting faster, fast is busy, controlling, aggressive, hurried, analytical, stressed, superficial, impatient, active, quantity-over-quality. Slow is the opposite: calm, careful, receptive, still, intuitive, unhurried, patient, reflective, quality-over-quantity. It is about making real and meaningful connections – with people not machines, culture, work, food, everything.
A great quote by Gwyneth Paltrow, she once said:
‘My life is good because I am not passive about it. I invest in what is real. Like real people, to do real things, for the real me.’