Can technology leave room for humanity?

I’m sure you’re familiar with the picture. Deeply polarised views, the resurgence of racism, populism and fake news shaping our political system. No matter which ‘side’ (or continent) you’re on, it’s unlikely you think 2018 has gone swimmingly.

Situations like this are years in the making and influenced by numerous factors. But I can’t shake the creeping suspicion that technology is increasingly responsible for our accidental, dysfunctional society.

When did you last speak to a stranger?

‘Familiar strangers’ is an idea that describes the swathes of people we see every day. Until a few years ago you relied on them for pretty much everything. Your cup of coffee in the morning, the bus ticket home, and the groceries you bring home for dinner.

Amazon Go takes the self-checkout idea one step further

If you live in a city, this is probably no longer the case. I can click and collect my coffee before work, buy and scan my own digital bus ticket, and use a self-checkout machine at my local supermarket. And that’s just the physical realm. I could go entire weeks without speaking to a stranger if I wanted. Happily circumventing everything from ambiguity (how do I get to my destination) to delays (avoiding the morning queue) and other minor inconveniences (the overly chatty checkout person… or just having to leave the house).

Strangers can subtly shape our thinking and behaviour

We already know this convenience comes at a cost. Psychologists have measured the beneficial effects of face-to-face contact for personal well-being, health and happiness. However, I believe it’s having a wider and more damaging effect.

I’d wager if you have an office job, more than half of your daily communication is digital and between a limited group of people. This leaves us with 2 problems:

  1. Body language aids mutual understanding and relationship building. But with only 7% of face to face communication based on words or content, we aren’t reading the few people we interact with correctly.
  2. The echo chamber runs rampant, reinforced by a stable set of family, friends and colleagues. Without new blood, the diversity of opinions declines, and unchallenged we become more convinced we’re right.

Familiar strangers could be one of the few remaining ways to challenge preconceptions and change views. To reclaim the disappearing common ground.

Humans of New York catalogues the faces and stories for an audience of 20 million

It might sound hyperbolic, but consider the last time a stranger surprised you. Yoofs in hoodies are an obvious example. A warm and well-spoken conversation can do wonders for our unconscious bias. And who knows, that newfound empathy might creep into our daily conversations, nudging the same stereotypes held by others.

Going a step further, these micro-interactions and accidental conversations are an opportunity to burst our usual bubble. Authentic, spontaneous and brief — they’re less likely to trigger defensiveness and easier to share.

Hold on, I thought technology made us more connected?

Yes and no. It’s true our extended networks are bigger and we might stay in contact for longer, but it’s a less meaningful form of connection. In reality, society is becoming lonelier as a result of technology. Most of the conversations we do have online are pretty shallow; either blindly agreeing with the things we want to believe in (giving rise to fake news), or posting anonymous malice disguised as debate.

Should we just give up now then?


Only joking. If you agree, then do something about it. Make a conscious effort not to let modern conveniences get in the way of your humanity.

And for the Technologists and Designers out there (of which I am one), make a commitment to consider the implications of your decisions and facilitate social connection in the experiences we create. As AR and VR become the lenses we interact with/ through, it’s a topic that’s quickly becoming urgent.

If you’re looking for inspiration, here a few examples I like:

Neighbourly are an NFP who seek to build sustainable communities by matchmaking willing people and organisations to those who need help. Bonus points for being started in Bristol!

Even are building a new financial system which puts an end to pay-check-to-pay-check living. They take a holistic approach — working with the existing infrastructure to build sustainable financial health.

Sidewalk Labs (an Alphabet company) aim to solve fundamental problems in urban environments using Human Centred Design.

NB My personal view is that governments shouldn’t delegate this responsibility, but if true to their philosophy, SL have potential.

A final note on Ethical Design

Ethical OS is a great tool to help anticipate the consequences of design decisions

Ethics is a hot topic in AI, but should be more fundamental in the Design Thinking process if we truly want to design a better world — not just a more digital (convenient) one. If you’re interested, The Copenhagen Letter is a good foundation to build on.


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