Keeping the Future Human Against Technology’s Onslaught

Author: Barbara Palmer       

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“We have to start optimizing technology for the human future,” Douglas Rushkoff says in his book, Team Human. (Seth Kushner)

It’s not that media theorist Douglas Rushkoff is anti-technology. It’s that technology, Rushkoff asserts in his most recent book, Team Human, has become embedded with anti-human values, and is being used against us in ways that isolate and oppress us.

The internet began as a medium that acted as a force for human connection and expression, writes Rushkoff, a professor of media theory and digital economics at Queens College at the City University of New York. But over the years, the internet “went from being a social platform to an isolating one,” he says. Technology platforms “were no longer in the business of delivering people to one another; they were in the business of delivering people to marketers.” Humans are valued less for our creativity than for our data, writes Rushkoff. “Our most advanced technologies are not enhancing our connectivity, but thwarting it.”

And as artificial intelligence develops, the real threat is not that we will lose our jobs to robots, writes Rushkoff, who is also a research fellow at the Palo Alto–based Institute for the Future. “The real threat is that we will lose our humanity to the value system we embed in our robots, and that they in turn impose on us.”

The remedy, he suggests, can be found in recognizing, valuing, and prioritizing human connection. “Being human is a team sport,” he writes. “As much as we think we’re separate individuals, we’re wired from birth and before to share, bond, learn from, and even heal each other.”

“We have to stop using technology to optimize human beings for the market, and start optimizing technology for the human future,” Rushkoff said in a TED Salon talk. “It’s not a matter of rejecting the digital or rejecting the technological. It’s a matter of retrieving the values” — love, connection, justice, distributed prosperity — “that we’re in danger of leaving behind and then embedding them in the digital infrastructure for the future.”

Research and writing about the future of work have tended to focus on individuals and job functions, but in Team Human, you argue that we cannot be fully human without understanding how connected we are to one another. Could you talk a little bit about what that means for the future of work?

Right. The Industrial Age led us to think of workers purely in terms of their utility value. So we have an existing job, like assembling a circuit board, and then we value the worker in terms of “How many circuit boards can she assemble in a day?” We call this “Taylorism,” after the management consultant who used a stopwatch to measure the efficiency of factory floors. Each worker is a cog, capable of being replaced.

Digital technology further alienates workers from one another. They can’t even discuss things with each other, because there is no assembly line or factory floor. There’s just the task on the screen. So these two factors combine to reduce innovation. The worker is not valued for innovating, because this distracts her from the single task to which she has been assigned. She is not supposed to look at the larger picture, or how her work might fit into some greater goal.

By discouraging contact between employees, companies sacrifice their cultures. There is no culture of expertise, or shared goals and values. So the company is only as good as its efficiency at the current task. Someone on top may be solely responsible for changing systems or making changes. The collective intelligence of the employees is ignored or repressed (for fear of unions and labor itself).

If workers are allowed to communicate with one another, they can begin to collaborate. And collaboration leads to all sorts of great outcomes. We tend to look at work through a competitive lens, as if evolution were a competition. Yet anyone who reads Darwin quickly learns that evolution is the story of increasingly complex modes of collaboration. Companies that don’t foster collaboration end up dying.

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Technology is isolating humans, author Douglas Rushkoff writes in his book.

What are some important conversations that people need to be having with one another about technology and what it means to be human?

There are many. One of the most important ones I talk about in Team Human is to resist the effort to “auto-tune” human beings to be more like machines. I think human beings have certain abilities and value that machines don’t. This is an extremely controversial viewpoint in Silicon Valley, where human workers are understood as an impediment to technological solutions.

I think people can look instead at human creativity and strangeness as a feature, not a bug. When Al Green or James Brown come up from under a note [imperfectly], that’s not something we want to auto-tune away. It’s not a mistake. It’s not “noise” but signal.

Likewise, the intuition that human workers have is not something to stamp out of existence. It was the maids at the Ritz-Carlton hotels who figured out how to schedule deep cleaning of rooms and the changing of light bulbs, saving the company millions of dollars. And they figured this out because their autonomy and ideas were respected, not honed off them.

Do you think it is unequivocally impossible for a machine to ever function in the same way as a human being?

Yes. I think human beings are capable of emotions, love, and innovation. I don’t think machines are conscious. I don’t think they experience passion. I don’t think they are motivated to seek out novelty. I don’t think they dream, imagine, or worry. I don’t think they experience awe.

All of these abilities enable humans to develop novel solutions to things.

Plus, we shouldn’t forget that people can develop certain kinds of relationships with one another that they can’t develop with machines. So no matter how good the McDonald’s kiosk may be at taking my order, there are certain ways I engage with a human worker that I can’t with the computer. Human beings can establish rapport with one another in ways that we can’t establish with machines. We make eye contact and engage on levels that we don’t with our computers. We have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to make eye contact, develop rapport, and bond socially with other people. That’s part of any retail or work experience, and allows humans to experience solidarity and connection, and reach unique solutions.

What role do you think conferences and events can play in helping us connect with one another?

Events bring real people into real spaces with one another. I believe that social reality is not a superstition. I think if people existed alone in little boxes, their lives would have less meaning, purpose, and discovery than if we are allowed to talk to other people in the real world. Likewise, the members of a community of interest deserve the opportunity to meet and engage with one another in real life.

They can share skills and experience not just through text or video, but through what is known as “mimesis.” We imitate one another. We should be able to see what it is like to be an expert in our field. We should get to be with them, and model their approach and behavior. We should be rewarded by our peers, who understand what we are going through better than anyone else. We deserve not to be alone.

Your book advises, “Find the others.” Can you recommend institutes, organizations, thinkers, or gatherings where people are likely to find others who are looking to strengthen social connections and retrieve human values? Or is that the right approach?

A lot of “finding the others” happens locally. Especially today, when every plane flight contributes to environmental decline, we need to depend more on local chapters, cross-disciplinary engagement with locals, and regional meet-ups. The internet is great for finding others who are not local, but it never quite fills in for direct contact. In some ways, the internet makes people seem farther away, because doesn’t allow for rapport.

When I say “find the others,” I mean not only that we have to find those who we identify with, but we have to find the human being we can connect with in those who seem to be “other” from us.

But as far as gatherings, gosh. I like gatherings that attract the true nerds of an industry or specialty. Not generic ones, but really weird and specific ones. I once spoke at event populated mostly by the scientists working on environmentally friendly cement. Or teachers all working on bringing code literacy to their schools. Those events are always the best, because people share a common language and common experience. Coming to the event is really the only time these folks get to be truly understood by other human beings. Even their spouses don’t understand what they’re really about, in this sense. Gathering is the only way to get positive reinforcement that you can feel in your bones.

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