Well-Being//

Tech Has Become the ‘Third Person In the Room.’ Time For a Rethink

It’s not the technology, people: it’s us.

Image: REUTERS/Gabrielle Lurie
Image: REUTERS/Gabrielle Lurie

“There is nothing inevitable about becoming skilled, just as there is nothing mindlessly mechanical about technique itself… technical understanding develops through the powers of imagination.” – Richard Sennett, The Craftsman

If you ever lie down on a psychoanalytic couch (or even if you video call a therapist, a surprisingly effective new solution which is on the rise thanks to digital platforms), there is often an invisible third person in the room. That person can be a parent, a past, a metaphor for what you bring to discuss and resolve.

The third person in the room psychologically may shift and morph in your imagination. They may represent a block, a hindrance, a critical voice, or a lost echo, a longing. Or they can be the spur to self-improve, to grow and develop, to achieve great things. Even if they are not there, or exist in your life in a very real way, how they affect your psyche is a strange and deeply personal process.

This is because the human being, with a psyche and a soul is as radiantly unique as any other living creature. Our environment impacts on us with the same minute precision as sunshine on flowers or climate change on ice caps.

Today’s world sees a mobile workforce made up of humans who have at their disposal the means to do things, which were not imagined five years ago, such is the speed and scale of innovation. Yet they themselves have broadly stayed the same physiologically and psychologically for 50,000 years.

By introducing technology so very rapidly into every aspect of the human existence in such a preposterously short historical period of time, we have thrown a third metaphorical person into all our lives.

Every single interview I conducted and every single major paper analysing this moment in the history of work talks about skills as the holy grail: skills to ward off redundancy at the hands of robots; ‘upskills’ to cope with the increased possibility and complexity of new digital tools.

As a report by McKinsey on the workforce of the future noted: “Automation will create an opportunity for those in work to make use of the innate human skills that machines have the hardest time replicating: Social and emotional capabilities, expertise, coaching…creativity”. Human strength is to mitigate a world increasingly mediated by screen.

We are on the threshold of an even more mind boggling era of technology allowing humans to fly forward in their lives. Who can fail to be riveted by the possibilities of the Internet of Things, or the cellular agriculture behind ‘clean meat’ (mass-produced meat which is made from animal cells but not live animals), or the shift to robotic ‘pocket closet’ spaced apartments, such as the MIT spinout Ori Living.

Overall, the public sphere is far more attuned to the gloom and doom stories around technology than the good news. The social media scandals around data use and Facebook in particular have not helped: the biggest single narrative in the public sphere around new technology after robots is surveillance, privacy and data manipulation.

It is important that we keep perspective, that we don’t become overly mistrustful. IBM suggests that “by 2020, 85% of all customer interactions will be handled without a human agent”. Yet clearly, we simply cannot rely exclusively on the robot or the chatbot because when we do, we fall faster and further into a distinctly inhuman place, where the very idea of untangling the technology becomes infinitely more expensive and exhausting than planning its real operational impact in the first place.

The Editorial Intelligence Network Survey published in April showed that amongst highly qualified professionals, nearly 60% feel positively that communication and collaboration technology make working life better and more productive, with 30% saying they would not limit the use of technology for their job under any circumstances.

Nevertheless, that leaves 54% of respondents who would like to “streamline” their use of technology “both when working at home and the office”. One thing is clear: human skills and being human are what matters a great deal to a very important constituency: customers.

PWC’s customer experience report ‘Customer experience is everything’ notes that “human interaction matters now – and 82% of US and 74% of non US consumers want more of it in the future”.

Technology has made us project a lot of expectation on to bundles of fibre optic cable and devices on which we feel dependent. The mindfulness training and focus on mental health awareness does not, in this respect, go far enough. It does not allow room for too much actual questioning of dependency, on digital infrastructure and what to do about it.

The first thing we can do is become far more nuanced in how we judge our relationship with this “third person in the room” and begin by recognising the “other” ness of the digital product and the digital dimension.

An interesting comment on this came from one of my network in our Editorial Intelligence attitudes to technology at work survey: “Collaboration is my life and work, so technology opens up enormous opportunities. However, without clear intention and attention to its rightful time, place and priority, it establishes impersonal patterns of interaction. I have to work with people to undo the habits technology has created. No-one looks up at each other anymore”.

The semantic steamroller

It was the early twentieth century American commentator Walter Lippmann who memorably declared: “You cannot endow even the best machine with initiative; the jolliest steamroller will not plant flowers” .

Human beings remain full of the same feelings, the same 168 finite hours in a week, the same kinds of bodies and minds, but everything else is wildly, unimaginably different. The technology blogger and Silicon Valley investor Benedict Evans wrote recently of AI and Machine Learning that “the system that was built to detect skin cancer sometimes detects rulers instead…the system has no semantic understanding of what it’s looking at”.

The solution to the problem of overload and ferocious flux and endemic toxic workplace stress may be to flip the problem on its head. Instead of regarding technology as the third person in the room, the one who ultimately must be listened to in order to resolve and reform, perhaps it is us, the human which is that third person, surrounded as we are by the technological “selves”.

What this means is that we need a new form of connection in our minds and in our practices: one which reframes who has true agency, autonomy and control. Because, regardless of how automated and automatic our technology, the vital third person who mediates between them is in fact us.

The recent Boeing Max-8 air disasters are a cautionary tale for what happens when only one ‘person’ steamrollers over the other. In this instance, two separate but apparently related fatal commercial plane crashes within a year prompted the worldwide grounding of Boeing 737 Max-8 planes. The preliminary reportindicated both a failure of the anti-stall software but also a disconnect between the training and awareness of pilots relative to the complexity of the new software. Here you have two “species” co-piloting a plane: a human and their automated software systems. When they fail to work harmoniously together, in this case when the human was unable to override the technology failure, true disaster strikes.

The Blended Self

I wrote about the “Blended Self” in my book Fully Connected: Social Health in an Age of Overload – the person who technology allows to be at home and at work simultaneously, to bring their home lives in to the office just as much as they bring, through email and messaging and cloud-based platforms, their work home.

The Blended Self is both a customer and consumer and a worker. Having enough time to really learn how to use something, or to apply it and then judge whether it works or not, well, that’s back to our CAT Syndrome – Complexity, Anxiety & Time Management: it takes time, and the greater the complexity, the more the anxiety.

The Blended Self is more than just identity. It is about keeping things real. I wonder how real it was for those Boeing pilots to have a brief training programme (allegedly only 45 minutes) for a new software programme relating to the anti-stall device. I wonder how real it is to feel like something isn’t right and be able to complain about it to your manager or boss?

I wonder, too, about the point we have reached as humans – either pilots in the cockpit or software designers, or managers and board members, when blind faith in technology overrides human experience? One report was of an older pilot hitching a ride in one of the affected cockpits in between the flight disasters and using his experience and common sense to ignore what the technology was doing. In so doing he was able to avert disaster.

I was struck by remarks that Hannah Kuchler, former technology correspondent with the Financial Times, made to me about the whole point of humans and workplace technology. She said: “Overall, we do things dictated by tools we have and none of the productivity tools in this new collaborative era really encourage proper thinking… I was working all day because I was answering Slack messages is not different from saying I was working all day because I was answering email: neither involve deep thinking which can hopefully lead to more innovative, value-add solutions.”

I was also struck, however, by someone who does keep it real, and who does bring her entire self to her job, Cassandra Knight, VP, Chief Litigation Counsel of Paypal:

“Are people going to be marginalised by new technology? I’m not dystopian about it. We’ve had many periods in our past of different points of tech. I am one generation away from picking cotton in the South, nine generations of Mississippians until my parents both were first to go to college and I was born in California… Coming from this and of course the Industrial Revolution… all sorts of changes for workers, paid and unpaid over centuries. There will always be big changes, but I haven’t lost hope”

I haven’t lost hope for the workplace, either. I’m a pessimistic optimist, in that order: I see the problems in a very clear-eyed way, but I believe that we are on the cusp of another seismic change, one which puts technology in its place.

This change is, of course, to do with people, and the way organisations hire, manage, teach and treat their people. It’s not the technology, people: it’s us.


This is an extract from ‘The APPlied Human at work‘ report.

This piece was originally published on weforum.org

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