Humanity, Not Technology: The Idea Worth Spreading

Published in Online Spin, April 28th, 2017

The red circle. The big letters. The earnestness. Once a year, the good and the great converge on Vancouver, Canada for the TED conference: Technology, Entertainment, Design. Nearly 2,000 people gathered for a week to consider our past, present and future.
There was something interesting about the talks this week. While there were a few technological marvels -- swarms of tiny, self-organizing robots, for example, or a personal cargo-carrying robot that follows you around with your shopping -- many of the talks dealt not with technology, but humanity.

Devita Davison, for example, on transforming devastated Detroit through urban agriculture. Guy Winch spoke about heartbreak and how to recover. (Hint: Make a list of every one of your ex’s bad qualities, every pet peeve, every petty argument, and keep it on your phone. Every time you’re tempted to idealize him or her, read the list.) And Emily Esfahani Smith spoke about our universal need for meaning, and how its lack is potentially fatal.

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These talks weren’t about technology, entertainment, or design. The were about people. About humanity. About the idea that what we’re searching for might not actually be the next app -- that, in fact, the next app might hurt us more than it helps us, simply by encouraging us to further reject the real world in favor of the virtual.

TED audiences are intimately aware of the exponential nature of technological progression – the idea that, once a technology becomes powered by information, its price-performance doubles at regular intervals. This phenomenon, which Ray Kurzweil dubbed the Law of Accelerating Returns, explains many of the incredible advances we see every day in artificial intelligence, robotics, self-driving cars, and more. Just two weeks ago, the winner was announced in the Qualcomm Tricorder X-Prize competition, for the first hand-held diagnostic device that can beat the diagnosis of seven out of ten board-certified physicians across a range of 12 ailments.

These exciting advances are what drive many in the tech world to see the future as one of abundance: a world in which technology has solved for food, water, energy, education, where we are free to pursue meaning instead of a paycheck.

It’s a techno-utopian view, and it’s one that places technology firmly at the heart of the picture: Life will be great when you have access to infinite education via your phone, wearable or implantable, when your genome is sequenced every time you go to the bathroom and when we’ve perfected the apposite algorithms to deliver the perfect world, mass-customized to your unique needs. But the messages at TED, over and over, have been the opposite. To be happy, eat with your neighbors, says a lady talking about co-housing. Form strong connections with family and friends, says another, talking about Blue Zones -- those areas where people regularly live to be 100+. Have face-to-face interactions rather than virtual ones, argues another speaker. Even Steve Jobs, says another, wouldn’t let his child use an iPad.

Over and over, the message is reiterated: More tech is not the answer, and tech without mindfulness is likely to make things worse.

There was a surprise guest speaker: via (video from the Vatican, the Pope addressed the crowd: “How wonderful would it be if the growth of scientific and technological innovation would come along with more equality and social inclusion. How wonderful would it be, while we discover faraway planets, to rediscover the needs of the brothers and sisters orbiting around us. How wonderful would it be if solidarity, this beautiful and, at times, inconvenient word, were not simply reduced to social work, and became, instead, the default attitude in political, economic and scientific choices, as well as in the relationships among individuals, peoples and countries.”

How wonderful indeed. Human beings -- each other -- at the center of our focus. Sounds to me like an idea worth spreading.

Kaila Colbin