Unplug & Recharge//

Tech Roundup: A Periodic Update on our Ever-Changing Relationship with Technology

Today: Smart offices, smart homes, AI for good, screen-stingy tech execs and Valley of the Boom.

Courtesy of Artur Debat / Getty Images
Courtesy of Artur Debat / Getty Images

• We hear a lot about the growing competition for smarter workers, but Reuters reports on one way that some companies are responding: by building smart offices. These are workplaces wired for efficiency, productivity and minimum sick time. This has been the trend in the Netherlands for a while and this piece shows how it’s being brought to Berlin, with offices that monitor and change the lighting, CO2 levels, and air quality. Some use a system of “hot desking,” in which workers have no permanent desks, and find work stations appropriate to their schedules or tasks using their phones and sensors throughout the building that are synched to their schedules. “The office building is the new company car,” said one executive. “In my world, people do not want a car as a perk anymore. They look around and say, ‘This would be a nice place to work.’”

Smart design that supports our health is also taking off for home environments. This year at CES, Delos, a wellness real estate and design company, launched its DARWIN Home Wellness Intelligence Network. It’s a system that uses smart technology in the home to monitor air, light and water quality to improve sleep, energy and cognitive health. Many of the hottest products and gadgets at CES were about how to boost well-being and sleep, and the next step in well-being tech is going to be embedding these technologies into the literal fabric and architecture of our homes and workplaces.

• The conversation around AI is mostly about how it’s going to disrupt many industries and replace millions of jobs. In fact, this disruption has already begun. But AI also presents opportunities. Here, the New York Times reports on Humu, a startup founded by Laszlo Bock, who headed HR at Google, and Wayne Crosby and Jessie Wisdom, both former Google executives, with the mission to use AI to increase employee happiness. The process involves what Humu calls the “nudge engine,” which uses algorithms to gently prod employees — in the form of texts and emails — into making small choices that can have a large impact on their health. At Thrive Global, we call them Microsteps, too-small-to-fail habit changes that are the core of our behavior change philosophy. As the science shows, people are much more likely to make changes to their lives if they’re able to start with very small, doable steps. “Often we want to be better people,” Laszlo Bock, says. “We want to be the person we hope we can be. But we need to be reminded. A nudge can have a powerful impact if correctly deployed on how people behave and on human performance.”

• It’s instructive, or at least it should be, that among the parents who are the most careful and cautious about giving their children screen time are the tech executives who are building the hardware and software we’re all addicted to. In an interview with FT, Snapchat founder Evan Spiegel revealed that he and his wife Miranda Kerr allow their seven year-old only 90 minutes of screen time for the entire week. Spiegel said it’s not so different from his own upbringing, in which his parents didn’t allow him to watch television until he was nearly a teen. “I actually thought that was valuable because I spent a lot of time just building stuff and reading or whatever,” he says. And, he notes, the issue isn’t just about quantity, but about what kids — and the rest of us — are doing with all that screen time. “I think the more interesting conversation to have is really around the quality of that screen time,” he says. In any case, it’s great that tech execs have joined the conversation about how we can all take back control of our relationship with technology. We have a long way to go and all the stakeholders need to be a part of the solution.

• And finally, I’m thrilled to recommend “Valley of the Boom,” which debuted Sunday on National Geographic (and not just because I’m an executive producer). The six-part series, which was created and directed by Matthew Carnahan, who also created “House of Lies,” tells the story of the first Internet boom — and bust — in the late 90s. It’s not just nostalgic — it’s coming at the perfect time, when everything about our relationship with technology is being reevaluated. And that’s why I got involved. To chart a way forward and reclaim our relationship with technology, we need to see where we’ve been. To take control of our tech habits, we need to understand how and why the tech world that drives those habits was built.

It’s really the story of the big bang that led to the digital universe we all live in now. But there are some differences. Our current conversation is serious, heavy, sometimes even grim. The first boom was a time of irrational exuberance, of optimism, of limitless possibility. It was a literal gold rush, in the same place as the first one, except here you could create your own gold. And sometimes all you had to create was a good story of how you might create gold. This was the birth of the idea that the narrative — the story — of the IPO is just as important as what the actual product is. It was a time when it was suddenly cool to be able to create geeky computer code. The nerd became the rock star, who could then become the billionaire. And, I should add, it’s also wildly entertaining. The stories — and the personalities — are outrageous, preposterous, and, somehow, all true. So check it out. Because whether you lived through it or not, we’re all still living the next chapter of the story.

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