Augmenting Human Experiences for More Meaning: Lessons from the Arizona Canyons

I’m reminded by my memories on Facebook (yes, I still have Facebook for a variety of reasons — that’s a separate post) that it was two years ago that Robbie and I took a side trip to the Grand Canyon and Antelope Canyon after I delivered a keynote for the Arizona CIO/CTO Forum.

I’m so glad we took some extra time to make that road trip and explore the area. Because one thing it demonstrated is that for all of the hand-wringing out there about how people take photos instead of experiencing things, what Antelope Canyon especially demonstrates, if you let it, is that the process of framing a photo shows you something — a shape, a color pattern, a play of the light — that you might have missed otherwise.

That was also the trip where I discovered this low-tech form of “augmented reality” at the Yavapai Observation Station: a viewing tube with notches for points of interest and captions for each of the notched views.

There are all sorts of ways to augment human experience for more meaning, and technology has tremendous capacity to do so at scale — if we leverage it well and with intention.

What examples have you seen where human experiences were augmented and resulted in more meaning?

The Future May Be Bright Because the Kids Are Alright

It was an honor and a joy to guest lecture at my undergrad alma mater University of Illinois at Chicago last week. The campus was totally the same and completely different, and it was fun to revisit the places that were so meaningful to me 25 years ago.

Oh, and the students were almost without exception delightfully engaged, they participated, they asked great follow-up questions, and they came up to meet me afterward and expressed what had made them think, wonder, and hope.

And then! To top it all off, I got this lovely email:


So good news, everyone:
The kids are alright. ❤️

Make Your Own Calling (Transcript of Talk to NSA NYC)

On Thursday, August 22nd, I gave a talk to the National Speakers Association New York City chapter at their annual Summer Social event, to which they invite a lot of prospective members, mainly people who may want to make speaking their business but who aren’t yet there. The theme of the evening was to make it clear that we all have a process by which we get there, and I shared mine. The following is a transcript of that talk.

Photo credit: TE McLaughlin

All my life I’ve envied those people who say in interviews that they always had a singular vision of what they wanted to do with their lives.
I’ve never been one of those people.

I always wanted a calling. I would read interviews with famous people and so many of them said they knew that they had to write or they had to act or they had to play baseball.

I mean, did I have to become a professional keynote speaker, talking to corporate leaders about emerging technologies and digital transformation?
Uh, no. I did not have to.

In fact, throughout my life and especially throughout my career I’ve struggled with pinpointing and defining what I do and what I’m about. Maybe you have, too.

So whether you’re here tonight because you’re building a career as a professional speaker, or you think maybe you’d like to, or whether you just want to be able to do it well enough as a secondary part of your occupation to generate leads for your primary business —
whatever the case, I think now and then it’s helpful to go back and look for clues throughout our lives about what has led us to where we are, and how we can take it further.

Me? I grew up interested in lots of things. Reading was one of my favorite hobbies, as well as writing and making up stories, poems, songs, and plays, and performing them for my family and our friends. And charging maybe a quarter for admission. (Because I was also a budding entrepreneur.)
Also learning to program — which in the ’70s and ’80s meant typing up pages of code I’d torn out of printed magazines.

So somehow I was equal parts book worm, aspiring writer, stage ham, and computer geek. I was very adaptable, multi-skilled, as it turned out. But I would’ve traded it all in to have had a singular calling.

I wanted my calling to be music — I loved music — I sang at my church, played clarinet first chair in my high school band, and taught myself literally a dozen other instruments. My dream career was to be not just a singer or rock star, but specifically to be a singer-songwriter.

I have this one memory of being very young — maybe 6? — and using the family typewriter to type out lyrics so that I could study them as inspiration for learning to write great songs. You know the earliest one I can remember studying? Bob Seger’s “Against the Wind.”
Yeah, that’s right: a song about an aging man reflecting on the hard decisions in his life.
I was precocious, yes, but I think it also showed that I was also already fascinated with people and their stories, and the human condition.

Anyway, I really wanted music to be my calling, but I loved too many other things. I was too adaptable.

In first grade, I even won first place in two different statewide competitions:
one for a statewide young author’s contest
for a book called Herman the Horse Gets Lost,
and one for a statewide computer programming contest
with a game I’d written/coded called Doggie.
My love of animals was clearly strong even then (and I’ve now been a vegan for 21 years).

And then there were languages. When my grade school class hosted some foreign exchange students from France and we got handouts with French phrases to learn (“bonjour! je m’appelle Kate”), I discovered that I was good at learning them. (It turned out it ran in the family — my dad had been a linguist in the military, and was fluent in Arabic. Side note: he had also been a singer. Also multi-skilled.) I loved language. I taught myself basic Spanish during family trips to the public library. My older sister studied German in high school, and I helped her with her flash cards — and along the way, I picked up the vocabulary and an affection for the language. I’m not kidding, I loved languages.

So while there was no single calling, there were all these recurring themes: writing, performing, computers, music, fascination with people, and language.

That’s not exactly a college major.

So when it came time for college, I couldn’t decide if I was going to major in music, theater, or language. Ultimately I decided that what I wanted to do in music and theater I could do without a degree in those fields, but what I wanted to do with languages
— which was, get this, to become an interpreter at the United Nations
(remember that, because it comes back up later)
— I could only do with a specialized degree.
So I majored in German, minored in Russian and linguistics, and had a concentration in international studies. I went all in on languages.

And then I built my career in technology. But that actually makes a certain kind of sense.

I’ll explain.

I think the thing I always loved about language is that things could mean different things. That a book is also a Buch and a livre and a libro and a книга(kniga)… that you could have different names for the same thing. Which meant, I realized, that a thing exists separately from whatever you call it. Which meant that meaning itself was adaptable.

It turns out that that idea — that meaning isn’t fixed, that we learn and curate our own sense of meaning, that we can create meaningful connections with each other based on what we have in common — that idea became the undercurrent of the work I’ve done throughout my life.

Part of what drives my work in technology is a curiosity about what makes humans human. My contention after some 25 years of working in this field and researching this topic is that the most notable attribute about humanity — and the one most pertinent to a discussion of technology — is that humans crave meaning.

Meaning, after all, takes many forms in our lives: the considerations of relevance, significance, purpose, even our own existence in the cosmos. Meaning is about what matters.

And one of the ways I describe my work is that I am helping humanity prepare for an increasingly tech-driven future, and what’s so fascinating to me about the idea that meaning is what matters is that you can also say that innovation is about what is going to matter.

And all of this is true on both an organizational level and an individual level.
So conveniently, the same tools that I now talk to corporate leaders about in preparing them for digital transformation are tools we need as speakers:
Purpose, relevance, alignment.

We need to define what is most meaningful to us and to our audience to find the alignment between them. We have to be able to tell our own most meaningful stories and talk about our own experiences in a way that people can see how those insights are relevant to them.

And we have to dig deep for our clarity of purpose and know why we’re doing what we’re doing, and as I tell business leaders, we have to know what we are trying to achieve at scale. In other words, what does this look like when it’s very successful? For us that means, not just how much money do you hope to make as a speaker, but what changes do you want to be part of making in people’s lives and in the world?

For me that can be summarized in the phrase Tech Humanist, which is both the term people sometimes call me and the title of my most recent book.
The idea of the book — the idea of my work — is that technology is changing everything, most notably (and what I care the most about) human experience, and business is most responsible for those changes. So there has to be a way to marry the interests of business and humanity through tech, and my work is dedicated to doing just that.

So in practice, what I speak about is digital transformation. But every speaker’s subtext is transformation, of some kind: we’re all trying to help people see their way from one state of mind or being to another state.
In my audience’s case it’s from a state of fear about the future and technology to a state of preparedness for the future and curiosity about how technology can help amplify their company’s purpose.

And in the biggest picture sense, as I mentioned before, I like to say I am helping humanity prepare for an increasingly tech-driven future.
That idea is endlessly inspiring to me, and in my experience, to make a career out of this, you have to draw from what you’re naturally curious and inspired about.

There also has to be alignment with what the market wants. Sometimes that’s not entirely what you want. My moments of strongest market validation this year followed a sarcastic conspiracy tweet about facial recognition, so now I get tagged on a lot of posts people make about technology conspiracy theories and invasive use of facial recognition. Some of that is relevant and interesting to me, but I can’t imagine reshaping my career to become the Tech Conspiracist.

In any case, this is what it all boils down to, all the advice about finding your niche, your positioning, your value proposition… it’s about whatever consumes you in the middle of the night anyway, and what you’ll wake up with fresh ideas about. For me, that is somewhere at the intersection of meaning, technology, and the human condition.

Because eventually I realized that if you aren’t born with a singular calling, you get to spend the rest of your life knitting the threads of your passions together to form one. You get to make your own calling.

In many ways what I do now is the perfect combination of what I dreamed of doing as a kid.

No, I’m not a singer-songwriter, but I do write and I do perform.
I certainly use my skill with language both in a broader sense of understanding the meaning of things
and in a literal sense: I get to try out my foreign languages when I travel internationally.
And these days it takes a pretty good deal of tech savvy to do some of this work, in terms of the digital marketing it takes to build a business. So I’m grateful to have that in my background, too.
So although it sort of bothered me as a kid, I now consider my versatility to be my strongest asset as a writer and speaker:
so many things interest me that I can draw parallels between unexpected ideas for new insights.

Speaking has become my main source of income, and it’s an amazing career because once you decide what your message is,
you can get the message out to people who can take it to heart and make decisions with it
And I’ve been honored to be asked to speak for big companies with huge impact like Google,
forward-thinking cities like Amsterdam,
and even this year, thanks to my friend Jennifer’s invitation, at the United Nations.
Remember I mentioned that?
When I saw the interpreter booths at the back of the room I got chills.

Getting to speak for cool clients is definitely a perk of this business, and there are plenty of other upsides to this job: travel can be fun, the money can be good, and you can feel like you’re making a difference.
The downsides? The road warrior life can also be exhausting, the time away from friends and loved ones is tough, and most people have no idea what it is you actually do.

As a speaker, you have this weird job no one quite understands
— a lot of people think it’s more glamorous or more sleazy than it really is — 
so it’s nice when you can be around people who understand
that what you’re doing is mining the depths of your experience,
sharing truths about yourself and your observations about the world
so you can help your audience understand how to make a difference, how to transform.

The barrier to entry in this field isn’t very high: you can start speaking anywhere and anytime.
There is no one right way.
You can absolutely use your unique combination of skills and life experiences to carve out a path that suits you so perfectly you might swear it’s your calling.

But the barrier to greatness is a lot higher
and you need great people around you to support you,
to challenge you,
and to encourage you to do better and bigger work.

That’s what’s so great about building our network here and in other communities of speakers, amongst all these other adaptable, versatile, multi-skilled people like you with varied and colorful life experiences who are just as much on a quest to make your life into your calling, get your unique message out, and transform the world.

Preparing for the Next 10+ Years: Data After the #10YearChallenge Data Sharing Discussion

I’ve been fortunate enough to make my living writing, speaking, and advising about the impact of technology on humanity for quite a few years now. Most commonly, though, my audiences tend to be business leaders, and what I write and speak and advise about most often is how they can adopt a digital transformation strategy that helps the company succeed while keeping the human in focus and respecting human data.

So the massive mainstream media reaction to my viral #10YearChallenge tweet and subsequent piece in WIRED was in some ways a switch in perspective: from talking to businesses about human data, to talking to humans about business use of their data. And it gave me the chance to address a far more universal audience than usual — on BBC World News, Marketplace, and NPR Weekend Edition, among many other outlets — in a cultural moment so widely discussed, it was referenced in the top article on the Reddit homepage and mentioned on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. My goal through it all was to spark greater awareness about how much data we share without realizing it, and how we can manage our data wisely. Just as the goal of my work is to help amplify the meaning in the experiences businesses create for the humans they do business with, my hope in connecting with a mainstream audience was to encourage people to participate in experiences meaningfully and mindfully. People all over the world gave me an overwhelming amount of feedback: some worried, some praising, some critical. I listened as openly as I could to everything I could.

With all that listening, I know that some common questions remain. I see many of the same recurring themes in comments on Twitter and elsewhere. So I’m using this opportunity here, at home on my own company’s site without the time limits and fleeting news cycles of a major news channel, to address a few of them, and I hope they will, in their own small way, be part of the conversation we carry forward.

Let’s get this one out of the way first, since it’s been the biggest misunderstanding throughout this whole deal:

“Facebook says they didn’t have any part in the meme. Didn’t you say they designed the whole #10YearChallenge meme to gather user data to train their facial recognition algorithm?”

It’s funny: I didn’t say Facebook did it, and quite frankly, it wouldn’t matter. I was musing on the fact that the meme was creating a rich data set, and pondering aloud what that data set could theoretically be used for. In any case, it was a thought experiment, not an accusation. In my WIRED article I expanded on the thought experiment and did not accuse Facebook of having engineered it. In fact, more importantly, as I wrote there:

The broader message, removed from the specifics of any one meme or even any one social platform, is that humans are the richest data sources for most of the technology emerging in the world. We should know this, and proceed with due diligence and sophistication.

— excerpt from my article in WIRED

That said, though, I wouldn’t have made any definitive statements from the beginning claiming that Facebook didn’t or wouldn’t have done something like this. I’m sure there are plenty of well-meaning people in the company’s leadership, but between psychological experiments, Cambridge Analytica, and various leaks and breaches, there have been too many missteps, lapses, and outright errors in judgment on Facebook’s part for them to be above suspicion when it comes to violations of data security and trust.

Nonetheless, although it was a very common misconception, I genuinely don’t suspect that the meme began with Facebook — and I don’t believe that matters. What matters is that we use these discussions to deepen our thinking about personal data, privacy, and trust.

“How can people who’ve taken your message to heart and now recognize the importance of this topic learn to manage their data more wisely?”

If you think of your data as money, you may have a better instinct for why you need to manage it well, and take care not to spend it loosely or foolishly. I’m not a fan of the idea of data as currency (partly because I think the human experience is more dimensional than a monetary metaphor conveys), but just this once I think it may be a helpful comparison. And as long as you know you’re safe, not getting lied to or ripped off, this “data is money” comparison may help illustrate why it can be worth it to spend it on experiences that matter to you.

In terms of actionable steps, here are a few helpful resources:

Personally, one easy step I take is to use the On This Day feature on Facebook to go through my posting archive day by day. I may change the permissions on old content, or delete a post completely if it seems like it no longer serves me or anyone else to have it out there.

I also have recurring reminders on my calendar to do reviews and audits of my online presence. I do what I call a weekly glance, a quarterly review, and an annual audit. For the weekly session, you can assign yourself one platform each week, and review your security settings and old content to make sure there isn’t anything out there that you no longer want to share. The quarterly review and annual audit may entail different activities for you, but for me they also involve updating old bios and links in various places, so it becomes a strategic review as well as a security check.

“What about Apple Pay and unlocking your phone with your face, or accessing your bank account with your face? Or paying for your meal with your face? What about other biometric data like fingerprints?”

All of this is relevant, and I’ll unpack some of these issues more in future articles. The short answer, though, is that with some of these uses, such as Apple Pay, you take an educated guess that the company collecting your data will safeguard it, because the company bears some risk if they screw up. But not all data sharing carries proportional risk on both sides, so think critically before using these services.

At least for now, pay for your fried chicken with cash, not your face.

“What about 23andme and other DNA/genetic data issues?”

That’s a whole other article. (I will say I personally haven’t done a commercial DNA test because bad outcomes always seemed possible.) The topic does relate to the rest of this, and it does matter that we’re 1) cautious of using commercial services like this, and that 2) we hold companies accountable to adhere to the uses we agreed to, and not to overstep what we understood to be our contract.

“What about data tracking in smart home systems?”

The standards and precedents are not yet well defined for the use and protections on data collected by smart home devices like smart speakers listening passively for a command. The safest thing to do is hold off on using them, and the second-safest thing is to turn them off when not in use.

While I did address some of the issues and opportunities with smart home automation and devices in Tech Humanist, this is again a topic I’ll dig into more in future articles.

“What about regulations on data? What about regulations on facial recognition, or on AI in general?”

The vast amount of personal data transmitted and collected by business, government, and institutional entities is what powers algorithmic decision making, from ecommerce recommendations to law enforcement. And this vast data and broad algorithmic decision-making is also where machine learning and artificial intelligence takes root. Artificial intelligence, broadly, has the chance to improve human life in many ways. It could help address problems associated with world poverty and hunger; it could improve global transportation logistics in ways that reduce emissions and improve the environment; it could help detect disease and extend healthy human life.

But machines are only as good as the human values encoded into them. And where values aren’t clear or aren’t in alignment with the best and safest outcomes for humanity, regulations can be helpful.

The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR, that went fully into place in May 2018 is for now the most comprehensive set of regulatory guidelines protecting individuals’ data. And American tech companies have to play by these rules: just this week, Google got hit with a 50 million euro fine for violating the term that requires companies to produce clear disclosure on the data they collect from consumers.

Meanwhile, for many Americans it’s tough to imagine what entity in the United States would be responsible for enforcing any set of regulations pertaining to data and AI.

In the meantime, just as with climate change, we need efforts on the macro and micro scale: the experts tell us that for any kind of real reduction in impact on the environment we need big movement from commercial and industrial entities which produce the lion’s share of emissions, but that doesn’t mean that, say, you shouldn’t put your soda bottle in the recycling bin, not the trash. We’re learning more and more how important it is for us to be mindful of our ecological footprint; we also need to learn how to be mindful of our digital footprint.

“Should I turn off facial recognition image tagging in Facebook?”

I would advise doing so, yes.

the Facebook settings screen where you can disable automatic face recognition

“Are you saying I can’t have any fun online?”

Oh, heck no. By all means, I am very pro-fun. Even when it comes to digital interactions.

It’s easier to have fun when you know you’re reasonably safe, though, right? The biggest takeaway from this discussion about the possible side effects of the #10YearChallenge should be to remember that when any meme or game is encouraging you — and large groups of other people — to share specific information about yourself, it’s worth pausing before you participate. It’s relevant to wonder who might be collecting the data, but it’s far more important to think what the collected data can do.

But share the meaningful parts of your life online with friends and family, and enjoy being able to follow their updates about the meaningful parts of their lives. That has certainly been the most wonderful benefit of social media.

Not only am I pro-fun, I am also very pro-technology. I love tech, and I genuinely think emerging technologies like AI, automation, and the Internet of Things — all largely driven by human data — have the chance to make our lives better. (As I wrote in Tech Humanist, I believe we have the chance to create the best futures for the most people.) But to achieve that, we need to be very mindful about how they can make our lives worse, and put measures in place — in our government, in our businesses, and in our own behavior — to help ensure the best outcomes.

2018: Transformations All Over the Place

It’s a good thing the work I do is in insights and transformations, because probably little else would have prepared me for 2018.

On a global scale, this year seemed to be about 1) getting a grip on the scale and immediacy of climate change, 2) raising questions of policy and human decency toward migrants and refugees, 3) comprehending the magnitude of emerging data privacy issues and the impact of technology on our behavior and our lives, and 4) dealing with a recidivistic slide in countries around the world into populist nationalism and fascism. So. Y’know. Just little stuff.

Transformation and Systems

Since my own work is at the intersection of technology and humanity, I was particularly interested in the stories that pertained to that third topic: data privacy and the impact of technology on human behavior, experience, and life in general. But I also know that none of these topics happened in a vacuum. Our willingness to confront climate change—or not—will parallel and perhaps have rippling consequences in how we handle the emergence of artificial intelligence. Acknowledging and dealing with underlying issues will be key in both scenarios. And the discourse around those topics will shape the global political theater, and vice versa. It’s all connected. 

So it’s timely that this is the year my book Tech Humanist was published; it delves into the idea that how we articulate purpose and values inside business will have effects at scale on the human experience. The reviews and testimonials on behalf of the book have been incredible and humbling. Here was one:

“For the past two decades, the Computer History Museum has chronicled the amazing rise of the technology which just in our lifetime has become the most powerful agent of change the world has ever known. While the stories of creativity, invention, innovation and impact are fascinating, what all this means for the future and humanity is what we are poised to take on now as an institution. Nowhere has this become more clear to me and my colleagues here at the museum than in reading Kate O’Neill’s blog about a year ago entitled “The Tech Humanist Manifesto.” The idea that we need to develop and imbed in all future technologies the very best of ourselves and our ethics and ultimately have the goal of those emerging technologies to make us better humans has resonated deeply into our own plans of what we will present, discuss, and debate going forward.
After reading the manifesto, my initial thoughts were ‘Kate should write a book on this.’ Which I am very happy that she has done, and now her humor, excellent insights and heartfelt philosophy can reach the leaders and influencers throughout the world. And the rest of us too.”
— Gary Matsushita, Vice President, Computer History Museum

As the book launched in September, I embarked on a nearly-four-week long speaking and book tour, finishing the trip by being recorded for the “Talks at Google” lecture series, which they describe as bringing “the world’s most influential thinkers, creators, makers, and doers all to one place” — and that place is the Googleplex in Mountain View, California. With that description, I can’t tell you how honored I was to be asked.

If you don’t have time to watch, I’ll give you the premise: the technology-driven future can be filled with human meaning. I genuinely believe that. It’s the undercurrent of my work, and my personal and professional purpose. With automation and artificial intelligence amplifying and accelerating the goals of business, it’s an important message for business leaders and experience designers to hear. 

Human-Centric Digital Transformation in Business

It encourages me that so many companies have signed on to this “Tech Humanist” message of human-centric digital transformation by hiring me to keynote their corporate events (and it was lovely that so many this year were in wonderful locations, such as Palm Beach in April for a Kelly Services event, and Barcelona in May for a Cisco event). 

Delivering the keynote at a Kelly Services event in early 2018

In October, I was delighted to partner with Cognizant and their Center for the Future of Work for a webinar on automation and the future of human jobs and work. We talked about how and when human jobs will be augmented, displaced, and replaced by automation, but also how new jobs will be created, and what those jobs are likely to be. (I am already booked to do a good deal more writing and speaking on that subject in 2019, as well; sign up for the KO Insights email list if you’d like to be notified when new insights are available.) 

In December, analyst firm HfS Research, which specializes in automation and artificial intelligence for enterprise, invited me back to keynote their FORA (Future of Operations in the Robotic Age) event on the hyperconnected economy. Again, they did this specifically to emphasize the human angle in this otherwise technology-heavy discussion of enterprise operations. I find that incredibly encouraging, and I’d love to suggest that you should, too.

The Tech Humanist Movement Grows

My “tech humanist” message and movement is spreading in ways I could never have predicted, too: some of this year’s highlights for me were seeing my work finding its way into university curricula, such as having The Tech Humanist Manifesto licensed for inclusion in a textbook, and seeing my work spread internationally, such as signing the paperwork to have my previous book, Pixels and Place, translated into Korean.

Transformation in Cities

In fact, speaking of the international scale of the message: in early December I was honored to be asked to keynote the Amsterdam Economic Board’s annual meeting, as part of an initiative preparing the city of Amsterdam to be future-ready for its 750th (!!!) birthday in 2025. It was the perfect synthesis of Pixels and Place and Tech Humanist: I shared my thinking about how cities of the future can be fully human-centric while embracing data and emerging technology to empower its citizens, its visitors, and all the humans who live, work, and play in the city. 

Transformation Happens on a Personal Level, Too

The theme of transformations with systemic consequences carried over on a personal level, too: I celebrated 20 years since quitting smoking and 20 years since going vegan. Apparently 1998 was also a pretty darned transformational year for me.

Oh, and another transformation: suddenly this year I became allergic to mango! I love love love mango, so that was disappointing. Now I have to carry an Epi-Pen with me everywhere; that’s a weird change that could have systemic effects. After all, who knows if someday I may need to offer my Epi-Pen to someone else who’s having an allergic reaction? (It’s a good idea for more of us to carry Epi-Pens.) 

On a heavier note, this was also a tough year for transformative losses: most notably my dear friend Jen lost her husband in late summer, and for me and many of her friends, the following weeks and months were devoted to seeing her through her grief and adjustment to being a widow, something I am unfortunately qualified to help with.

Speaking of which, another systemic effect: with Kate Spade’s and Anthony Bourdain’s deaths by suicide happening just days before the 6th anniversary of my late husband’s death to suicide, I felt their deaths acutely as triggers. Triggers are, at the moment, talked about through a sneer in contemporary culture, but they’re real and they’re hard; I wrote about them in this essay called “Suicide vs. Love” back in 2014 when Robin Williams died.

It All Connects Together

And the reason why all these deeply personal matters are relevant here, in this year’s business summary along the theme of interrelating systems, of how one planet’s shadow causes change on another planet’s surface, is that this is how we must begin to think about humanity. We do not live in isolation; we do not live in tidy boxes that separate one effect from another. Our lives and our deaths affect one another. Our decisions—professional and personal—shape and change each other’s lives.

The world around us is transforming in big, fast, sometimes frightening ways, and it will continue to transform, radically and quickly. We must adapt with it, and we must take responsibility for our role in making the best of those changes. That means thinking about the connectedness of systems, and about the connectedness of us all.

Happy New Year, and may 2019 bring about happy and meaningful changes for you, for me, and for everyone. 


If this theme resonates with the conversations your company, organization, or city has been having and you’d like to hire me as a keynote speaker at an event in 2019, please do reach out. Here’s to a meaningful year for us all. 

10 Fundamental Insights about the Tech-Driven Future for Humanity*

*and why women, POC, and other underrepresented people in tech should lead it

Today I spoke at the Irish Business Organization of New York’s women’s networking luncheon and addressed them on the tech-driven future for humanity, and why women should be leading it.

Tech Humanist front cover

Here are those insights in brief; if you’d like to hear more of this, of course, I elaborate on all of these points within my keynote presentations and my books.

  1. The tech-driven future will be neither dystopia nor utopia. It will be what we make it.
    We tend to tell a story about technology that pits the worst case scenario against the best case scenario — and conveniently leaves our actions and responsibilities out of the equation. But the truth is we are very much responsible for shaping the future of technology.
    Is it possible that tech can even help us be better humans? As I repeatedly asserted in Tech Humanist, with the emergence of automation, artificial intelligence, and other capacity-expanding tech, we will have the opportunity to create the best futures for the most people.
  2. Humans crave meaning.
    We just do. We seek meaning, we’re compelled by meaning; when you offer meaning to us, we can’t resist it. To bridge the gap between what makes tech better for business and better for humans, business needs to create more meaningful human experiences at scale.
    Moreover, the shape meaning takes in business is purpose, and the amazing thing about purpose is that when you can be clear about what you are trying to do at scale, it helps both humans and machines function more effectively. Humans thrive on a sense of meaning, common goals, and a sense of fulfilling something bigger. Machines thrive on succinct instructions. A clearly articulated sense of strategic purpose helps achieve both of these.
  3. Robots aren’t “coming.” They’re here.
    Everyone talks about robots coming 
like they’re some far-off future 
as if millions of homes don’t already have Roomba and Alexa.
  4. What tech does well vs. what humans do well will continuously evolve.
    What does tech do well, for now? Productivity: 
speed up laborious tasks, improve reliability of variable tasks, automate repetitive tasks, archive, index. Certain types of predictive insights: 
track data, expose patterns. Security: 
impose rules and limits, regulate access.
    What doesn’t tech do as well? Tech isn’t so hot at: 
Managing people. Making judgment calls. Fostering relationships. Discerning contextual nuance. (Yet.)
    Also, humans can’t leave meaning up to machines. That’s value humans add to the equation.
  5. Machines are what we encode of ourselves.
    And since that’s true, why not encode our best selves? Our most enlightened selves?
  6. Data-rich experiences tend to be better experiences. Just remember that analytics are people.
    Everyone loves the oft-quoted statistics about data: every 2 days we create as much information as we did from the beginning of time until 2003, and over 90% of all the data in the world was created in the past 2 years.
    And there are huge opportunities to use this data to make amazing, delightful, fulfilling, enriching human experiences possible.
    But what’s important in all of this is remembering that most of this data comes from humans, and represents human identity, preferences, motivations, desires, and so on. Most business data is about people. Analytics, in other words, are people. And while relevance is a form of respect, discretion is, too. So we need to treat human data with respect and protect it excessively, even as we use it to inform the design of more meaningful experiences.
  7. If you don’t align human experiences with meaning, you risk building absurdity at scale.
    There’s a story I tell (and it’s in the book) about a big retailer encoding a behavior change that, at some point, could put a cultural norm in jeopardy. And the upshot is: experience at scale changes culture. Because experience at scale is culture.
  8. “Online” and “offline” are blurrier than you may think.
    This is basically the whole premise of my previous book Pixels and Place, but the short version of this insight is: just about everywhere 
the physical world 
and the digital world converge, 
the connective layer is 
the data captured through 
human experience.
    And to create more meaningful human experiences, 
we need to design more 
integrated human experiences.
  9. Everything is in flux. Embrace change.
    70-80% of CEOs say the next three years are more critical than the past 50 years. The coming years, for example, are likely to see massive shifts in the scope and types of jobs humans do. Some companies will gain tremendous efficiencies from the use of automation; I propose that companies reinvest some of those gains 
into humanity in various ways: better customer experiences, job training, basic income experiments, etc. And that where possible, companies look to repurpose 
human skills and qualities toward higher value roles.
  10. Diversity in tech is a strategic asset. Scratch that: it’s an absolute imperative.
    We need women — 
and diversity of all kinds — 
in tech, 
leadership, and entrepreneurship for myriad reasons: because algorithms contain our biases, because it makes the space better for everyone, because we need diverse representations of the problems tech can solve, and on and on.

If these ideas and insights resonate with you, check out my book Tech Humanist: How You Can Make Technology Better for Business and Better for Humans. Or inquire about booking me to speak at your company or organization.

Here’s to a more meaningful future for all of us.

Experience Timeline by Technology Era

To understand what constitutes experience and what has constituted experience throughout different eras of technology, I offer this timeline of what characterized and will characterize experiences throughout the major eras of recent and forthcoming technology. We are somewhere around the social-enabled and “smart” era, with elements of the “intelligent” era beginning to show up and legacy remnants of the previous eras still left behind.

To understand what constitutes experience and what has constituted experience throughout different eras of technology, I offer this timeline of what characterized and will characterize experiences throughout the major eras of recent and forthcoming technology. We are somewhere around the social-enabled and “smart” era, with elements of the “intelligent” era beginning to show up and legacy remnants of the previous eras still left behind.

Experience Timeline by Technology Era

platform? context? (not eras, because many overlap)

analog (industrial/pre-industrial?)

digital

web-enabled

social-enabled

“smart”/connected data sources

“intelligent”/AI

fully virtual / ambient virtual

characterized by

solid state, tangible

electronic, power-operated

interlinked, global knowledge, global village

social sharing, FOMO, FONS, selfie culture

data tracking, anticipatory based on past behavior, algorithmic

anticipatory based on externalities, secondary behaviors, cognitive cues, emotional indicators

dominant eras

??-?? (ongoing)

19th century – ?? (ongoing)

1990s – ?? (ongoing)

2000s – ?? (ongoing)

2010s – ?? (ongoing)

2010/20s – ?? (ongoing)

automation

mechanical

electronic

interlinked

social triggers

algorithmic

anticipatory

dominant interface

tactile

tactile, impulse?, text

desktop screen, text, images

mobile screen, text, videos

voice

voice, gesture, ambient

sensory interactions

buttons, dials, levers, etc

typing, mouse, visual cues

typing, mouse, visual cues

typing, touch, visual interactions

buttons, keypads, visual displays, voice

visual

y

y

y

y

y

y

tactile

y

y

y

audio

indicators

indicators

content

content

interactions

Interactions, triggers

ambient cues

kinesthetic

motion-powered

gestures to trigger sensors

gestures to interact

olfactory

detect gas leaks, detect coffee smell

simulate aromas?

taste

simulate taste?

What does placemaking look like in each context?

What does business need to do to innovate in each?

What do meaningful human experiences look like in each context?

What is the future of meaningful human experience?

The future of meaningful human experience is multi-sensory, contextual, dimensional, integrated, intelligent, responsive, anticipatory, adaptive, and inclusive.

 

Make It Fun

The “selfie emoji”/bitmoji feature in Google’s new chat app #Allo is well integrated and should drive adoption. The app also features AI in the form of its machine learning capability, encouraging users to interact with a chatbot assistant that learns and adapts. But to do that at scale requires widespread adoption, so they turned to Addictive Product 101: make it fun. :)

(Think it really looks like me or nah?)

Beyond Customer Experience

Businesses are finally starting to catch on that a disciplined approach to improving the customer experience leads to profit. That’s the starting point, and it’s fantastic.

But what’s the next step? What’s beyond improving the customer experience?

Well, we can think about the customer not merely as a customer, but as a well-rounded human being, who takes on many roles throughout the course of a day: patient, student, user, guest, citizen, not to mention friend, employee, parent, and so on. We can improve the human experience.

How can we improve human experience? How can we think about those many roles we all have in a business context, and why should we?

Those additional roles become dimensions of the person you’re trying to do business with. The more dimensional that person is to you, the more likely you’ll be able to offer them value. When you offer them value, you establish the basis of a meaningful relationship.

We always have to look for the human nuances if we want to build meaning.

The Most Interesting Things About Pokemon Go Have Nothing to do With the Game. (CEOs, I’m talking to you.)

Rather, the most interesting things about Pokemon Go have to do with connected experiences, and the sweeping changes these are bringing: new marketing models, opportunities with augmented reality, location-based marketing, and all the assorted issues with data privacy and security. The most interesting things about the Pokemon Go phenomenon have nothing to do with the game itself and everything to do with how different things are starting to be and are going to continue to be.

(These, by the way, are all part of what I examine in my forthcoming book Pixels and Place: Designing Human Experience Across Physical and Digital Spaces. Available in print and Kindle versions on September 1st, but you can pre-order a Kindle copy now.)

Connected Experiences Bring New Marketing Models

Marketing models are poised to be overhauled now that an online interaction can be credibly and consistently traced to offline visits in stores. See McDonald’s deal with Pokemon Go to make all 3,000 of its Japanese stores “gyms” in the game. The full details of their deal haven’t been disclosed, but one option this presents is an incredible opportunity for cost per visit modeling.

Connected Experiences and Social Interaction

The social experiences are different with augmented reality, when interacting with a digital experience doesn’t automatically mean being oblivious to the world around you (although obviously it still can – see, for example, the guys who fell off a cliff while playing, or the person who drove into a cop car).

But since you can engage with the game through a camera view of what’s ahead of you, it’s actually possible to walk and play and still be at least somewhat connected to your surroundings.

Connected Experiences… and Your Business Strategy?

This is only the beginning of what’s to come.

On social media, people have been laughing at the businesses who are developing Pokemon Go strategies (and well, it does sound absurd), but honestly if they’re starting now even these are a little late to the biggest opportunity. The gold rush was this past two weeks, when everything was novel and players were entertained by the outreach. Even if the game’s popularity continues to grow, players will likely begin to be put off by overt attempts to capitalize on the game from late entrants. And if your business is still laughing, you’re missing out on time to think about how augmented reality and connected experiences stand to change the status quo.

Of course then there’s this:

So I’m not saying to rush out and do something specific to Pokemon Go that has no alignment with your customers’ motivations or your brand. (Although if you have an idea for an experience that aligns and integrates your customers’ experience with the game in an organic, authentic, and/or memorable way, by all means do it, measure it, and publish a case study about it.) This is a call for strategic action about a macro trend, not mindless reaction to a micro trend. Trying to capitalize on the trend without strategy will probably come across to people like an attempt to manipulate the moment.

You need strategic planning (and do please note: I offer strategy workshops) that sets you up for success as the physical and digital worlds increasingly converge. There’s enough transformation taking place that there will be a relevant, meaningful way to make these opportunities align with your brand and your customers. Your job is to try to catch it.