Why I Think Technology Will Bring Us Closer Together

Let me start by disclaiming that I’m a hopeless optimist and futurist. So if you’re one of those people who enjoys decrying how technology is dehumanizing us all and that we are all becoming robots, entrenched in our devices, about to obliviously drive off the edge of cliff while texting or playing candy crush, then you won’t like this post. And I probably won’t convince you. But for the rest of us, this is a short, cheesy manifesto of sorts to remind us why we love working in tech so much and why it’s meaningful.

Conversational Commerce and #NoUI

I was inspired to write this article after watching Erika Hall from Mule Design talk at a Creative Mornings event in SF. Erika talked about the importance of using natural language in product design, and how user experiences were becoming more and more like conversations.

Tech people across the industry are whispering that “conversation is the new interface.” A popular article by Chris Messina is floating around the internet called “2016 Will Be the Year of Conversational Commerce.” The experts are making it seem like conversation is a new thing. The irony of that is that the concept of “conversation” has been around for 200,000 years. Perhaps the concept seems revolutionary precisely because it is so old and so obvious.

Her point reminded me of a similar trend in tech, the “No UI Movement.” Golden Krishna’s “The Best Interface is No Interface” predicted back in 2012 that technology would be and should be moving away from interfaces and screens, which are the very evil that many anti-technologists decry. Horror stories abound of little children swiping at books like iPads and teenagers sleeping with phones that literally burned through their skin. But if the current trend is any indication, technological advancement will ultimately end up eliminating interfaces altogether. Technology giveth, and technology taketh away.

If my phone can automatically recognize that I’ve walked into Starbucks, can automatically submit my order, and automatically pay for me as I walk out, then I have no reason to take out my phone, ever. If my wearable could tap me on the wrist and tell me someone I know is nearby, or that I need to make a left turn now, or that I’ve reached my daily exercise goals, then I have little reason to even glance at it, let alone my phone screen. I can now send a message to my friend by speaking it, and in the future, maybe even just by thinking it!

Teenagers are often accused of being glued to their phones instead of making real conversation, but most of the time it’s because they’re texting each other. They’re just using their phone screens as a medium to connect with other people. Maybe these other people are Chris and Lucy at the mall and not their parents at the dinner table, but they are people nonetheless. And let’s be honest, you can’t really blame technology for the fact that teenagers don’t want to talk to their parents. Pretty sure that has been a problem since the beginning of time. The only difference is, technology has made it easier for said teenagers to ignore their parents and connect with others.

The same gravitation towards human connection could be said for gamers, who are often accused of being socially awkward, or loners. But the most addictive games are the ones where you can interact with others! Maybe not every person playing will meet another player in real life, but they are still interacting with real people in the world of the game.

The machine interface is just a medium, not an end goal. That’s why it’s so easily replaceable and vulnerable to elimination.

When screens disappear, I believe that technology will help us find new ways to connect with each other.

Virtual Reality

One of those ways is quite possibly VR. Now, at first VR sounds like something that could drive us further apart from each other. If we could all just get hooked up like in The Matrix and disappear into a virtual world, then we could get lost in this completely false world and never interact with each other again!

But I think Virtual Reality actually offers endless possibilities for immersive experiences that can help us understand each other better. If kids could learn history by actually virtually living it, like standing next to Abe Lincoln as he made the Gettysburg address, or chilling in the trenches with soldiers during WW1 crossfire (Okay, maybe not that), then they could better understand the context of the world around them today, and become more empathetic, tolerant beings. The result of that would be heightened emotional awareness and enhanced interactions with other people.

Then who’s to say humans wont be interacting with other humans in the same virtual world? If humans can interact in a virtual space, that’s just another dimension in which we can connect in. Yes, it would be kind of like the Matrix. But what’s so awful about that, as long as we’re not trapped in it?

Technology is returning us to our roots, to person-to-person interaction, yet in a richer, more elevated way than before.

It’ll be exciting to see how else technology can enhance our interactions with each other, beyond the screen.

Artificial Intelligence

But of course you’ll be wondering about AI. Much of the talk about conversational tech suggests that humans could soon be exclusively conversing with AI to get shit done, and not with other humans. If Facebook’s M (still questionably human), Siri, and Slackbots can pass the Turing test and talk to us almost exactly like humans, might they just replace our friends and lovers all together, and provide us with sufficient interaction? Might they take over completely?

Call me naive, but I don’t believe it. I don’t believe we as humans will ever be content with interacting solely with machines. I hate that movie HER, because I think it’s total bullshit. Machines are fundamentally different from us. They lack empathy, because how could they empathize? They are not human, and the very definition of empathy assumes a shared humanness.

They don’t make mistakes, at least not the same mistakes humans make. And one of the most important reasons humans connect with each other is because we share the same flaws, vulnerabilities, and fears.

We fear death and so we cling to each other. We are insecure and so we make jokes about our own shortcomings. We bond over our vulnerabilities. Machines don’t have that, at least not now and not in the near future.

I might be alone on this, but I vehemently believe that machines can never replace humans. Siri, M, Slackbot are all very useful AIs and charming to interact with. But at the end of the day they are only tools. Siri is most useful to me when she can schedule me an appointment with another human, or help me buy a cute outfit so I can attract another human. Not when she’s trying to stand in for my lover. Sorry, Siri.

Humans crave the company of other humans. The desire for human connection is one of our deepest, most primal instincts, and unless we really do get to evil, super AI who have the power and intention to kill us all, then AI will not be replacing us as companions any time soon. They’ll just be helping us connect to each other better.

Online Dating (Yeah I Went There)

Technology is bringing us closer together in other ways as well. Let’s take online dating. 10 years ago admitting you’re using an online dating app was like the biggest badge of shame. Only sad, desperate people had to resort to meeting people online. The cool kids didn’t need to.

But online dating founders recognized one of the biggest issues people encounter when trying to find romantic partners. Our social circles are limited, and most people do not have countless opportunities to meet new people on a regular basis. Shit like bumping into a hottie at a coffee shop or on the street just doesn’t happen, unless you’re living in a romantic comedy.

Technology broke down those barriers and allowed us to meet and talk to people we might never cross paths with in real life, or that we have crossed paths with but missed the opportunity to talk to. Some companies have even taken this literally and are creating ways to connect us with people we’ve serendipitously walked by, like Happn and Highlight, the higher-tech brethren of the beloved Craigslist Missed Connections. And yes, getting Catfished is still a real thing. but so is meeting your fiancé on Tinder, as many people I know have attested to.

Online dating has become so ubiquitous and acceptable that now there’s even a Tinder for meeting friends.

“The Future Of Design”

As a product designer, I often listen to or participate in conversations about “the future of design.” No one really has a concrete idea what it is, but everyone knows that with advent of AR, VR, AI and all the other scary two-letter acronyms, in twenty years design will probably look a lot different from what it looks like now.

That’s why it’s the designer who designs experiences, not interfaces, who will prevail. Interfaces are transitory, and will soon be obsolete. Experiences could be powered by technology, or they could not be. But they are always better when they involve other humans.

As designers, we have the opportunity to enhance those experiences exponentially, to make connections via technology stronger, easier, more meaningful. Maybe in that sense designers can start calling themselves matchmakers too!

And The Cheesy Closer

I believe in technology, and I believe in humans.

I also believe that as technology advances, it can only bring us closer together - as long as we humans have a say in it.

Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section! Feel free to agree, disagree, or lambast me for writing something so cheesy / obvious.

I’m a freelance product designer. Check my stuff out at www.wangmay.com and follow me on twitter! @butitjustis