3 days away from starting a new decade but the consciousness of change keeps on declining. If there is one thing that the current decade has bestowed upon us, it is our resilience or numbness to change. Who or what has been the driver of this resilience or numbness?
Without doubt it has been the evolution and applications of technology (not grading the positives and negatives). Our approach to how we lead our lives have changed, and equally how we make choices. Arguments and debates have raged about the negative impact of technology, the magnification of waste in various aspects, the lowering of morality / ethics / principles and the weakening of the definition of value.
We have focused less on how technology has transformed our lives for the better. All of us behaved like the average newspaper reader — whose attention is caught most by the murders reported on the front page.
I do hope that in 2020 and beyond, we dedicate more digital and physical media space to the positives of technological evolution and its potential. We debate, discuss, brainstorm and ideate more on the potential of doing good. I hope we become more optimistic, more practical, more judicious and more conscientious about technology. I hope that we start believing stronger but with reason and a clear cause.
The fact that we are more immune to change is driven by the fact that we have focused too much on the ill-effects of technology. In one way, we have been fascinated by it — consciously or unconsciously. Just like the allegory to the front page newspaper murder report, continuous bombardment with the same old vanilla messages of technology and its impact, makes us numb.
We didn’t care at all when Nokia demised. Our attitude towards the demise of Lehmann Brothers, the high street, pawn shops, toy stores, furniture and mattress retailers, quick service restaurants (QSRs), travel agents etc was equally dismissive. The emergence of “online” as the proverbial child of technological evolution was our saviour. We actually didn’t even blink an eyelid as thousands of jobs disappeared and swathes of our high streets were converted into run down spaces with shutters down and windows taped with notices like “Everything Must Go”, “Closed”, “Gone into Administration”, “The Nearest Store Now is …..” etc.
Along with “online” we got the proverbial “on-demand”, which looks like the perfect combination to accentuate our sense of numbness. We now have the potent combination of “speed” and a dizzying array of “choices” at our fingertips. We don’t even miss the appearance and disappearance of brands / products / services from our favourite online marketplaces. No one blinks an eyelid if their Amazon algorithm shows a different sets of sellers for the same item on different days. No one cares if a restaurant drops off Deliveroo or UberEats, because it is replaced by 5 other copycats / commoditised versions the very next day. No one cares if a seller is delisted on a premium fashion aggregator, because others make their way in. Our lack of attention spans different product segments and price tiers. It is all encompassing.
We have tried to justify our sloth like response to change by blaming technology for introducing laziness, gluttony, greed, immorality, frivolousness, inattention, fragmentation and superficiality in our lives. The truth is simple — throughout our evolutionary stages, we have always fallen prey to that one force that has shaped our destiny. In the earlier eras, it was nature. Then it transformed into our self-consuming need for power and control. Now in today’s times, we blame it on technology.
I am going to come to the defence of technology, even though rightfully it is the driving force behind a lot of current societal evils. My defence will start from our own weakness as a species to exert any form of self-control or discipline over our impulses and desires. Technology has merely provided us with multiple platforms to act or see them out. Many of these platforms were actually created because there were immense commercial opportunities when billions of us acted out our desires on these platforms. This is how it all started and continues to evolve at a breakneck speed.
We have not recognised, acknowledged or celebrated enough the defining and positive impact of technology. Our fragmented and disassociated selves don’t define us. We are defined by aspects that are longer, more meaningful, deeper and transformative. Going to school or college, first job, promotions, becoming an entrepreneur, falling in love, getting married, having children, becoming a mother or a father, raising confident children, becoming grandmother or a grandfather is what defines us. We have not celebrated the impact of technology in making these aspects better, smoother, memorable and more enjoyable.
This article is not meant to be a trend analysis or investment thesis on the startup ecosystem or global M&As. If I leave the numbers aside, the last decade bought about significant (positive) change in healthcare, education, employment, financial management and skill development. Technology played a significant (if not the only) role in driving these changes. Since our focus (or the lack of it) and attention (or the lack of it) has become micro, we repeatedly miss the bigger picture (or cannot comprehend it).
Just like I have the option to become a glutton using the keys on my Mac, I have the same keys at my disposal to enable my 7 year old child to learn coding on code.org. I have the option to buy some frivolous item on Amazon or I have the option to buy critical illness cover for my family. I can spend hours scrolling through mind numbing algorithm driven feeds on social media platforms or I can login into Coursera and spend 2 hours upskilling myself. I can spend my hard earned savings on the next holiday getaway (when I already have had 3 holidays) or can use a wealth management and investment app to invest the same money in stocks / shares or an ISA.
The examples above lie at different ends of a spectrum and there could be an array of choices in between. The fundamental difference between the current decade and its predecessor is the presence of a technology-driven choice array for each and every decision we need to take in our lives. I can understand the criticism of technology that it has made us less discerning, but I cannot understand the lack of recognition of the ability to transform our lives.
So, how should technology become in the new decade? It has never been about the shapes and forms of technology, but about how we can interact and engage with it in a more meaningful way? I am completely on the side of those who believe that technology needs to be regulated. But I am also on the side of the few who believe that we need to be better educated to identify the potential of technology.
As we march into the new decade in four days, I hope that we as a species find more productive ways of engaging with our own super-child (technology). Our engagement needs to start from more purposeful thinking, more effective design, easier applications and use and more powerful impact. For example, can we have a ride-hailing service for ambulances driven by a consortium of specialised emergency healthcare providers? Can we have intelligent and cost effective water management systems for farming and irrigation? Can we have more localised and shorter supply chains that reduce environmental burdens of manufacturing? Can we reduce income inequality by having a live, demand-and-supply driven wage determination system that doesn’t depend on archaic organisational practices? Can we have a high-quality, specialised and recognised educational system working in parallel with schools and universities that doesn’t require minimum number of years to be spent?
The answers to all the above is a resounding “yes” but the timeframe required to bring them into action depends on our engagement and mind frame towards technology. The technology to bring all the above into fruition exists or can be created. The barrier towards activation will be inefficiencies, policies, regulations, vested interests, politics and unequal distribution of resources, power and decision-making abilities.
We need technology to change our ancient and medieval mindsets for the better. The proof of the diversity and impact of myriad applications has been displayed in the current decade. Technology in the new decade needs to be focused on bringing more of the deeply meaningful changes into life for us as human beings. Building another social media platform for men in their 50s will not do it, but building a platform for social entrepreneurs to discuss and ideate with the public and establish some form of rewards / incentive scheme will be a great way to start.