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The Technology Optimist (Competent Communication #10: Inspire Your Audience)

[speaker demonstrates ordering food in French via Google Translate]

In a few days, I will be visiting the French-speaking part of Canada. Knowing no more than a dozen words in French, I am a bit nervous about this trip. Thanks to Google Translate, I know that at least I will not starve.

I am a technology optimist. I love technology. Not everyone think the same way. Pages after pages are written about “is technology good or bad?” On a daily basis, someone says “technology is not perfect,” which is often used as a wildcard argument about problems with technology. Of course, technology is not perfect, but isn’t about everything in life so? I do not buy the narratives that technology is, in overall, negative or even neutral. Let me tell you why, with the three often-cited negatives of technology.

1. Communication

With social media being so popular, there are a lot of self contradictory comments such as: people chat or post on [some social media website] instead of communicating with people. When people chat or post, aren’t they communicating with people?

Even if we assume in-person talking to be the gold standard, it is not always possible, such as when we are in different countries. When I first moved to the United States, I felt particularly lonely. I managed to keep in touch with people from my former hometown through technology, and make some new friends online in additional to in real-life. Contrary to popular belief, the Internet is not only made of pedophile, rapists, etc. There are also nice, genuine, and ordinary people, and I was lucky to befriend some for a while. During one Chinese New Year, I mentioned to one of them that it was no festivity where I was, and I was not getting any Red Pockets (red envelopes with money inside that are handed out to younger people during Chinese New Year). “Would you like a Red Pocket?” The person offered. I gladly accepted. A week later, a Red Rocket arrived at my mailbox. It didn’t come with a huge sum of money, but it was the thought that mattered. To this day, the act of kindness still warms my heart.

Technology opens up new possibilities to communication. People around the world can rejoice together for the successful landing of the Falcon 9 rocket, even if they cannot make it to SpaceX’s headquarter. A couple of months ago, some of us cheered on our District’s contestant together even though we were not at Vancouver.

Of course, we do not need to pick sides, since the forms of communications can complement each other. At Westside Toastmasters, we share two hours of quality in-person time together each week. But websites also enable guests to find us and enables the clubs to share meeting recaps with others.

2. Information

They say technology has brought us too much information. “Information overload” is said to have crippled us.

But there has always been more information than we can digest. Look at the sky at night. There are more stars than we can recognize. As early as 3rd century BC, the Library of Alexandria had somewhere between 40,000 and 400,000 scrolls, more than anyone could read. Even today, each of the old-fashioned library or yellow page-like directories has more entires than we care to learn.

The good news: Not only that you do not have to absorb or understand everything, technology makes it easier to get just what you want. Google something, and even there are millions of hits, the first page probably has what you are looking for. As someone who works on search engine at work, I know this is not a coincidence. Cynics might call it “technology making us lazy”. I call it efficiency. You can get further and save time for where you really want to spend time on.

3. Disruption

There is a lot of fear that tech giants are going to rule the world, kick us all from our jobs, etc.

One of such battlefields appears to be shopping. Amazon’s emergence has made some of us embrace brick-and-mortar stores, even traditional giants like Walmart or that “small business” supermarket that constantly tries to overcharge me. Rosy pictures of leisurely wandering around a store, chatting with helpful store employees and exploring products, is only fun when you do not have time constraints. When you do, chances are that you will get a nice workout but you won’t find what you need, as we experienced yesterday while looking for travel pillow. Amazon reminds me what shopping should be like: Need something? Order it, get it, done.

There are blanket statement about technology taking away jobs. They always make me laugh. My job is possible because of technology, and they have been talking about technology putting programmers out of jobs before I was born. While some jobs are made obsolete, other jobs (and arguably more jobs) are created: deliveries, telecommuting while home-bound or traveling, selling goods and services by former homemakers or seniors, etc.

Then there is this obsession in the media about “OMG killer robots!!!” Rich people as well as smart people who specialize in other fields have warned against “robots” (which is very vaguely defined if at all). None of them has even offered any actionable remedy anyway. I share the view of Andrew Ng, an actual computer scientist specializing in AI research, who compared the perceived problem with worrying about overpopulation on Mars. Instead of listening to the vague siren that something might go wrong, I prefer to be amazed by how machine learning benefit us right now: automatic language translation, image recognition, etc.

I feel particularly optimistic about technology over a lot of things. Whenever I see something suboptimal, I can often do something about it. “But I cannot program.” Yes, you can. There are so many free tutorials and resources about programming and other subjects. Last month, I decided that the club map on Toastmasters International’s website was not that great. I learned the Google Maps library and created a better map over the weekend. Nowadays, a lot of people are using open data and tools to make the world better.

I am proud to be a tech optimist, and you can too. It is time to look beyond the pseudo-debate of whether technology is good or bad. After all, technology is what we make it. Let’s join forces to make it benefit us.


Background

The speech was inspired by not only my then-upcoming trip to Montréal, but also the fun that I had around that time exploring Google Maps, GPU-accelerated computing via WebGL, etc. The speech is also a hopefully-improved version of my other speech about technology.

By the way, it is not meant to be an exhaustive argument about anything. Only so much can fit into 8 to 10 minutes, after all.

Preparation

By this point, I have finished Competent Communication manual a few time. Of course, I could still work on the skills described in the projects. Project 9 and 10 are both about persuasion. However, where Project 9 focuses on convincing (e.g. with logical arguments), Project 10 focuses on inspiring. Think of it as making the audience feel good and feel motivated. Therefore, I focuses on the positive side and on feelings, i.e. the benefits of technology, what technology can do for you, you too can feel good about technology, etc.

It was amusing that my speech about me loving technology was affected by technology problems. I thought it would be a great idea to incorporate a wireless speaker that I had into my Google Translate demo. I arrived early and tested the setup several times before the speech. However, during the speech, no sound came out. After trying a couple of times, I turned of the wireless speaker and just used the speaker on my phone. A glance at the wireless speaker afterwards revealed that I must have turned it off by mistake. Glad I did not blame technology! It helped the speech somewhat that having presented so many times, I was prepared for such scenario and calmly switched to the fallback plan, kept eye contact with the audience, and even smiled a bit. In retrospect, I should have also told a joke about the situation. I bet everyone would have burst into laughter. Pro-tip: When using technology stuff in your speech, always prepare a technology-related joke that you can use, just in case.

Feedback

My evaluator liked the Red Pocket story as well as the demo. I was not too sure about whether the demo was worth it. With the delay, it took about 2 minutes out of this 8 to 10-minute, content-rich speech, so I had to cut out some of the other points on the spot. There must be some other possible strong openings that might take much less time.

My evaluator also gave me some suggestions about body language or movement. Apparently, I turned to and looked at the right side too much. I also walked to the front of my stage too much while not paying attention to people on the side.

Another person told me that not all of Steve Jobs’ presentations went well either. That would be great material to be incorporated into my next speech.

I thought my audience enjoyed my speech, and the “make them feel” part worked. I did not know very well how much they were convinced or inspired. Time will tell.

Epilogue: Montréal was wonderful. I look forward to visit it again soon. Not only that, everyone we met spoke fluent English, even those whose first language was French. My optimism still stands because even though I ended up not needing Google Translate a lot, several tools such as Google Maps and Evernote were tremendously helpful during the trip.

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