I’ve always had an interesting way of looking at things, and especially when repurposing the ideas of science and technology; of giving them a human face or characteristics. (I once had an idea to deconstruct a recipe in order to help people understand blockchain technology, I’m still ruminating on that one).
As someone once said, I have great “linguistic dexterity”, but I generally struggled to find a way to succinctly and visually communicate the idea to others.
For years I’d see humans as technology and try as I might I couldn’t quite explain what I meant without referring back to the etymology of the word technology, and 20 minutes later I was still talking.
In case you were wondering:
- from Greek tekhnologia ‘systematic treatment’, from tekhnē ‘art, craft’ + -logia (see -logy).
That was until my experiences over the past week, when I spent six days living in London without a mobile phone. It was both a wonderful and anxiety-inducing experience.
The first thing that happened was that my brain set off on its own spin cycle.
I can’t remember anyone’s phone number and they can’t contact me. What if there’s an emergency? There’s bound to be an emergency.
How do I get home? (I was at a friend’s house at the time and immediately my brain forgot the public transport route home).
I did orienteering in the Brownies, I must be able to remember some of the basics. I have a compass at home, I can’t use it but at least I have one, right?
I have meetings this week, how am I going to get to them?
I don’t have a watch. I’m going to be late for everything. I hate being late.
Interestingly I didn’t think about not being able to receive or send emails, use social media, read articles or the news. Not then anyhow.
After a few cups of tea and giving myself a good talking to I jumped online and organised a replacement thinking I’d be at the most 2 days without a phone, which is doable.
Day three arrived and still no phone. And the anxiety started to set in again. And then I had to get in touch with my mum who is on holiday in the Caribbean. We usually WhatsApp and call each other a few times a week. Short functional, transactional messages.
“How are you?”
“I love you”
“I love you more”
“How’s the family?”
Blah blah blah.
Short bursts of social media messages from family, friends, colleagues, throughout the day that were actually mini disruptions for my attention. More noise during my already noisy days (and nights).
I decided to email mum and started to write long beautiful messages and she’d reply in a similar vein. Eventually, my brain reminded me that we used to speak via Skype so I called her and we spoke for nearly one hour about some of the contents of our emails. We were always close but it felt as though something had been unlocked and we were closer.
Day four arrived and I noticed that my anxiety levels had dropped that was until I realised that I was determined to go to a friend’s party on Saturday night.
By then, I had spoken to a few friends (mostly via email, for some reason I had ignored the fact that I had a house phone) and said I was going to buy an A-Z street map. One friend said, “don’t do it” (as though I was heading the wrong direction from digital to analogue).
The night of the party I checked the address, printed two sets of directions, a map of the local area (just in case) and set off.
Unfortunately by the time I was sat on the tube I realised that I had not taken any phone numbers, couldn’t remember the last time I saw a working phone box (did I even carry any cash anymore?). I had only taken half of the directions from the printer and had forgotten to write out the exact address.
Panic ensued, damn my clumsiness for dropping and breaking my mobile phone.
I was only halfway through my journey and had to change from a tube to a bus, but I was now in central London in an area that reminded me (of the bird’s eye view) of the Arch De Triumph. (Have I mentioned before that I am very visual?). Lots of roads converging onto one spot, bus stops on each road and there’s me without a clue or a working knowledge of London bus routes.
I thought about asking a stranger to do a search on their phone for me, but I decided to look for a bus map and/or depend on people’s personal knowledge (rather than just using digital technology).
I’d be a nomad, a type of flâneuse in my own city, refusing to be controlled an agenda of efficiency, instead lead by curiosity, instinct and serendipity.
And then it hit me, I was now in a living example of how humans can be the technology.
With the help of some local experts (Quora) I eventually found the right bus (in the right direction), a number 76, and when it arrived I asked the driver if he knew of some of the landmarks (Google Maps) that I knew were close to where I was supposed to be going and if he could let me know when we were getting close-by (CityMapper journey alerts).
I sat on the bus and looked out the window, seeing parts of London (Google Earth) almost for the first time, smiling at people who weren’t using their phones. Having little conversations (or overhearing) about people’s lives, thoughts and general gossip (social media status updates from strangers. It reminded me of this brilliant video.
Eventually, the driver shouted that we were approaching my stop so I went up and thanked him, for his knowledge of the bus route (Citymapper).
It was a great night, spent with some of my favourite people (Facebook groups), having deep and meaningful conversations with friends who updated me on some global news activities (news alerts), we shared opinions publicly (Facebook timeline) and others dipped in and out of the conversations. We made jokes (in real life memes) and shared them with others in the room (made them viral).
It’s now day seven, and I have a temporary replacement phone. It’s a smartphone but I have only installed my emails, WhatsApp, Skype and CityMapper. I’ve restricted my social media usage to when I’m on my computer and am arranging to meet people to connect in real life.
I’m less distracted, more present but one of the biggest realisations is that my social freedom (see the previous article) has been enhanced. My ecosystem, network, community (whatever you want to call it) feels enriched because I connected with real humans to help me solve my problems (and vice versa) I saw the value in who they were, their expertise and trusted that they were willing and able to share.
And that’s the key word, TRUST.
I trusted the human to be a human.
But more importantly, I trusted my myself. With my complex, often forgetful but beautiful synapse-firing, pattern recognising, problem-solving brain.
And that’s what it is to be human, in those moments, we are able to CHOOSE to let go. Of the anxiety and fear, to allow creative solutions to our problems to develop. Ones that surprise us, that can work out better than if we had planned it.
I believe that is when we become primed for serendipitous moments. That serendipity is actually a consequence of those times when we let go of logic and allow our minds to be free, to be creative without restraint, to make new connections, that we would have probably been told are wrong, redundant or that digital technology can do it faster.
Happy circumstance, fate, Moira. (Did I mention that I love words and their etymology?).
It’s in those blissful moments when your mind wanders freely that all we are taught and led to believe about the need for human efficiency (emotionless functional human workbots?) that we become uniquely human.
And that is what I mean by humans as technology, that it is important for us to rethink and address our slightly obsessive need for autonomous efficiency. To remind ourselves that is is that very uniqueness of being human, that can help us solve some of our (and on a larger scale the world’s) problems.
As a technology futurist, this experience has made me question the deeper purpose behind some of the conversations around sentient technology and artificial intelligence.
Why does the technology need to be ‘human-like’ when we already have enough humans to connect with?
Are we just looking to completely replace human connections with functional logical beings rather than celebrating and nurturing the connections with emotionally complex, organic sentient beings?
More questions than answers right now but I already know which I’d prefer.