SXSW blog: human connection in the digital age

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The DDB team is blogging for strategy from SXSW Interactive in Austin, Texas. For more on the team’s experiences at the festival, visit DDBdoesAustin.com.

By Nikolas Badminton, director of digital strategy, Tribal DDB

SXSW Interactive is, funnily enough, about interactive experiences that allow people to communicate with each other. There are many panels, talks, films and meet-ups that muse on how technology is impacting our world. I could write an article about the newest tech trends out there or what is hot in social media but I feel that there is something far more important to talk about. How we are at risk of losing our humanity through the use of technology.

In this always-on, hyper-connected world we find less reason to have actual face-to-face conversations that lead us to real connection and new insights. We have become the real world Dr. Jekyll and the Digital Mr. Hyde where anonymity and technology can bring out the worst in us. To provide some context I want to draw on three amazing SXSW 2012 speakers that really resonated with many – Raymond Kurzweill, Jaron Lanier and Amber Case.

Raymond Kurzweill is a proven technology futurist, author and inventor. In the 1990s he foretold the explosive growth of the internet and is a believer in transhumanism. He believes that we can be extended in ability and resilience through the use of technology. We are still quite a way from that, and up until that point we are stumbling around using less than adequate technologies that we are assuming improve our lives. He made an interesting point during his keynote speech. As humans, we have our own operating system and code, 23,000 genes, and it is a system that never gets upgraded, it just learns. As humans we are not perfect but at the same time we do not have a reliance on technologies that are controlled by corporations to keep us current and make us better in our digital world. We independently self-improve through interaction with the real world, and technology can both advance us and create dissonance that hinders our progress and, in some cases, even reduce our innate abilities to communicate, remember and increase our awareness of the world.

Amber Case, another futurist and co-founder of geoloqi.com, also argues that we can apply technologies carefully and improve our already information-rich lives.  She purports that we are already cyborgs that use technology to extend our connection in the real world and with other people. Take a look at this great video where she talks about this:

“Technology is evolving us. As we become a screen-staring, button-clicking new version of homo sapiens, we now rely on ‘external brains’ (cell phones and computers) to communicate, remember, even live out secondary lives,” Case argues.

Here lies a danger. Every day, we are in danger of using technology to be a lot dumber. People no longer need to remember numbers, facts and personal details so carefully. They have quickly turned to the cloud and our devices for that and that is a real shame. To get the most benefit from technology, we need to work out when to use it and when to actually engage in human discourse that creates personal connections, memories and inspirations. Case argues that, when used correctly, technology can actually advance us and we need to be cognizant of how we use it to augment the operating system we already have.

So, talking about technology is great, but what about information? That is the lifeblood of our world. Jaron Lanier, a pioneer in the development of virtual reality and a Silicon Valley veteran, argues that we are vessels of open information and that we must take back ownership. Corporations, social networks and governments own hidden information that they use for profiling and “personalizing your experience.”

He is passionate about the idea of creating “a new digital humanism” before software engineers’ design decisions become “frozen into place by a process known as lock-in.” In his book, You Are Not a Gadget (2010), he talks about how software design now may result in “defining, unchangeable rules” for generations to come.

During his speech, he also spoke about anonymity and how that, information and connection through social networks, forums and other developer-driven online platforms have taken us into a dark, potentially soulless place. Attacks on individuals and institutions have increased, and he talks about a “culture of sadism” that has gone mainstream. We need to really be careful of this and be mindful of the interactions we undertake online. We have a responsibility to be aware of our actions even if we feel anonymous.

Technology is here to stay, developers are pushing the boundaries of what is possible, and digital futurists tell us about the future and dangers when connecting through information, interfaces and sharing. They also know that integrating and interacting with technology can make us better, that we have a responsibility when using it, and that sometimes we need to walk away from it.

To end this article I want to remind you that having time away from technology is good for you and humanity as a whole. Sherry Turkle from MIT has some food for thought about real, meaningful connection, and about how we need to put down our devices:

So, put down the device you are holding now and walk up to someone for a conversation. Make them turn off all devices, take a walk in the sun and just converse and learn from each other. I chose to do this several times at SXSW Interactive and it’s given me more insight than checking-in, consuming Twitter feeds and pouring over Facebook status updates of people that are not even here.

Illustration by Dean Lee, creative director, DDB Vancouver

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