24 hours of travel, 1 very awesome Grand Canyon tour, 20+ Expo Village stand visits, 3 insightful keynotes, multiple sessions delivered by knowledgeable and motivated speakers, 1 more night in Vegas, and… the trip home to look forward to.
Safe to say, as the title says – I’m tired, but super-excited!
The general session today was a little more light-hearted in terms of technology, entitled “Optimism and Happiness in the Digital Era” the speakers were Alison Dew (CMO, Dell), Brynn Putnam (Founder and CEO, MIRROR) and will.i.am (Founder and CEO, I.AM+), so quite a mix!
I did not have any specific expectations heading into this session, if I’m honest I had probably pre-judged that this would be the ‘fun’ session of the week, the human element of technology rather than the tin and code. I wasn’t disappointed! I am pretty sure will.i.am invented a couple of new words in the session, and there were a good few laughs as he is a very animated character. But in all honesty, I wasn’t just not disappointed – I was inspired. The session started with the host, Eben Shapiro (Deputy Editor Time and time.com) giving a short speech on the history of technology and the effect of tech-pessimism – from Prometheus, through Icarus, to the British Industry and the rise of the luddite movement. Touching on the technology division in society, he quotes Amara’s law: “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.” and asks “on whose behalf is the technology being invented, who gets to experience and who gets to control it?”.
The subsequent conversation between the speakers was focused on this theme, very active and inspirational in a way I could never have predicted. For me, it highlighted and underlined how we as individuals, parents, an industry and a society, have an individual and a collective responsibility to ensure that the technology created is being created for the right reasons and is accessible not just to those who can afford it, but those who need it.
Otherwise we risk greatening the imbalances in our society – making rich people richer, making powerful countries more powerful, and those who are disadvantaged even more so. And at the same time, a responsibility to ensure children understand the importance of critical thinking. Yes, it is ok to use machines to do some jobs and to gather information, but you still need to think critically about what you are asking them to do, solve or create, and whether it’s right or appropriate – or needed.
Other topics up for debate were the fear of robots, AI and the intrusion into our daily lives and livelihoods. As well as the impact of screen-time on our children, and the implications of digital footprint data being the property of the entities we interact with. And the idea – how come Google knows all this stuff about me, but my doctor never asks for my phone and the data that provides?
But one topic that caught my attention as a technologist and as a parent, was the impact of personal devices and their constant “in reach” distraction has on our ability to switch off, or even to sit down and have some deep thought. It made me consider that when I’m in the car driving, and therefore have no access to my device, I do engage in thought – obviously with due consideration for safety on the road – but I can bury myself in one topic for hours. But when I am at home and get even slightly bored, the phone gets picked up and I engage in news feeds, Facebook, or some other distraction. This is something my children are growing up with. Am I comfortable with that? People in coffee shops will sit as a group and stare at their phones instead of socially interacting – they are slowly losing confidence in talking in person. will.i.am said that society is not highlighting this as an issue and sleep-walking into raising a generation that don’t think critically.
At a business level, devices can cause constant distraction too, always on, always connected doesn’t mean always efficient. Often the opposite. Successful use of modern tools is not simply about what they can do, but how they are used. As IT leaders we also need to consider the behavioural, social and business impact of the things we are technically making possible. This is a big change and can’t be solved by the usual user training plan. We must build healthy working environments using modern technology to create a balanced, productive workplace with habits that can positively overflow into our personal lives. This means we need also to become a technology conscience and beacon for how a modern productive workplace operates, looks and feels. We are fortunate to work in an industry that is both leading the evolution of the way we work – technology will drive the new digital economy, as well as positively influencing the way we live in the future and how society operates.
Now…. let’s get that plane home!
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