The Human Scale of Time vs. Time in Automation and Acceleration

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of seeing Koyaanisqatsi again, but for the first time on the big screen. (I’ve owned this movie and the rest of the Qatsi series on DVD for decades.) If you’ve never seen it, it’s a 1982 movie with no dialogue about a way of living that is out of scale. For a 38-year-old film, the idea feels stunningly contemporary. I was fortunate enough, thanks to the Museum of the Moving Image, to be able to see it with filmmaker Godfrey Reggio in the audience and then listen to a discussion with him about it. (And to shake his hand afterwards and tell him how magnificent his work is. It’s always a joy to be to connect directly with creators and other significant people in our lives and let them know their work matters to us.)

During the discussion, he shared so many brilliant ideas: that at the premise of the film are the “wonders that are our afflictions;” that we speak technology and we breathe technology; that “what’s happening in the future is rooted in now;” and so much more – I took four pages of notes!

A great deal of the impact of the movie is the sped-up or slowed-down nature of the footage. As Godfrey Reggio said several times during the discussion, “that which is most present is least seen,” so sometimes we have to change the way we see our surroundings to notice them.

This aligns with research and thinking I’ve done around the relative experience of time in our lives, and how we can think about it in terms of the design of experiences both now and as we move into an increasingly automated future.

Human Understanding of Time

After all, even humans have different understandings of time: people who know more than one language have a different perspective on time because we’ve experienced other approaches to temporal framing, other terminology for concepts like “the day before yesterday” or “the year after next.”

People who have experienced the traumatic loss of someone they love have experienced time differently as well; in my own life, I found that dates accrued significance with time and life experience. There’s an additive effect of milestones on calendar dates, so the date a loved one died means something very different to me in the years after it happened than it did before.

Designing the Meaningful Experience of Time

For experience strategists and designers, in order to make a human-centric digital transformation it’s important to think about the practical side of these insights: how does an understanding of time affect your customers, users, visitors, patients, students, residents, and whatever roles humans play in your company, organization, city, museum, etc?
How does it speed up or stand still?
How is it associated with progress or delay?
How is it light and how is it heavy?
Does urgency matter?
What can you do in the design of experience to enhance the appreciation of time relative to the experience of your brand, place, product, etc?

Last August, Greta Thunberg took a slow boat across the ocean to her appearances in New York and beyond rather than accept the carbon footprint of flying. How does time relate to value and to values for the people in your communities?

The Relative Value of Time in Automation and Acceleration

And then, a big question: How might all of this sense of time change with the continued rise of algorithmic optimization and automated efficiency? What will increasingly machine-led experiences do to the human experience and meaning of time? For most of us, automation implies acceleration, and in a sense the devaluing of time. How will we preserve the value of time in an increasingly automated world?

As machines speed up certain tasks, are there likely to be others that we deliberately slow down? We’ve already seen the rise of trends in the past two decades that prize slowness and involvement, like the methodical and very hands-on approach to making pourover coffee, for example.

It seems important that we somehow be able to retain our humanistic, nuanced, compassionate model of the passage of time amidst the acceleration of the world around us.

Which means we’re going to need to do more to understand how our sense of urgency has changed because of faster modes of communication and always-on gadgets with push notifications. We’re going to need to do more to understand how our addition of the human values of nuance, context, judgment, and such will be measured and understood in the context of sped-up workplaces driven by intelligent automation.

There are no fast and easy answers here. But for those of you designing experiences, it may be worth taking a little time to ask some of these questions, so you can design a more nuanced experience with a more humanistic understanding of time.


If this theme resonates with the conversations your company, organization, or city has been having and you’d like to hire me to advise or as a keynote speaker at an event in 2020, please do reach out. Here’s to more meaningful experiences of time for us all. 

Goodbye to 2019, hello to our uncertain future

Our emerging tech panel at UN COP25 in Madrid

This time of year is my absolute favorite because for me it’s so much about relaxed reflection and setting intentions for the year — or even the decade! — ahead. And this year, with Christmas and New Years Day falling mid-week, all normal work schedules seem disrupted, creating extra space throughout these final weeks and over the weekend between them to reflect and plan.

It’s also a good time to think about the future in general.

One of the characteristics about the way we tend to think about the future now, though, is with more uncertainty than ever.

Yet as I wrote in Tech Humanist:

Here’s what I want to offer you: To me, the idea that the future is never fixed or certain is actually encouraging. Truly, it fills me with hope. I think of the future largely as something we continuously alter, shape, or at least influence with what we do today.

That thought also fills me with a sense of duty because it means there are always many possible futures that depend on me and you and everyone else doing our parts in the whole. It means our everyday actions have more power to shape outcomes than we are often comfortable admitting.

from Tech Humanist: How You Can Make Technology Better for Business and Better for Humans

Planning your own future

My friend and one of the organizers of House of Beautiful Business, Tim Leberecht, has written a lovely guide to help us all do just that. His process will help you have a productive and insightful “time between the years,” as Tim calls it, and a brilliantly successful 2020:

>> How to Make the Most of the Time Between the Years
(written by Tim Leberecht for Psychology Today)

Some of the questions I like to ask myself and encourage my clients and audiences to ask are:

  • What kind of future do you personally want to have?
  • What kind of future do you want for everyone on the planet?
  • What are you working on building?
  • What are you trying to achieve at scale?

By the way, all of this reflection and planning pairs well with another piece about getting better at training your brain what to retain and what to let go of. Hint: it comes down to the discipline of spending time thinking about what you most want to be thinking about.

>> Your Brain Has A “Delete” Button–Here’s How To Use It
(by Judah Pollack and Olivia Fox Cabane for Fast Company)

What are some other questions that help you clarify your purpose? What are some other exercises you engage in to help you reflect and plan?

Goodbye to my wild 2019

For me, 2019 was a whirlwind of unprecedented life opportunities, but also a time for increasing clarity and commitment to what I see as my mission.

To recap: In January, just a few months after my book Tech Humanist came out, it was featured on the CES stage. The following week, I had a tweet go viral and a follow-up in WIRED that also went viral, and I appeared on just about every major news outlet from BBC to NPR to Marketplace to talk about facial recognition (and to pivot the conversation to the larger issue of how technology is changing our human experiences). The next week, I spoke at the United Nations about innovation and humanity.

Then in June, a few days after delivering a keynote on Tech Humanism at a conference in Mumbai, India, I guest lectured at the University of Cambridge. Yes, the same one Charles Darwin, Sir Isaac Newton, and Stephen Hawking are all associated with. That University of Cambridge. I know, I couldn’t believe it either.

In the second half of the year I keynoted Etsy‘s Engineering Day in Brooklyn, a Google team offsite in Lake Tahoe, the P2P Transformation Summit in London, DevLearn in Las Vegas, UX Australia in Sydney, the Boston CIO Summit, and presented versions of my Tech Humanist talk at INBOUND, Content Marketing World, the Inc. CEO Summit, Mind the Product in London, House of Beautiful Business in Lisbon, and more.

Our emerging tech panel at UN COP25 in Madrid
Our emerging tech panel at UN COP25 in Madrid

Finally in December, after speaking once again at the United Nations headquarters, this time on AI and youth skills, I closed out my work year at the UN COP25 climate change conference in Madrid where I led a panel on the final day about the challenges and opportunities of leveraging emerging technologies to fight climate change.

Oh, and over the course of the year I added representation from Washington Speakers Bureau and Leading Authorities speakers bureau. That’s exciting personally and professionally but in addition it should help make bookings easier for many large company clients, which means there may be even more of those audiences in 2020 and beyond.

I’m telling you this to say: I think all of this activity proves there’s hope. I think my year has been wild because a lot of people see the potential for technology to diminish the humanity in the world, and a lot of people want to see to it that that doesn’t happen. If my experience this year indicates anything, I think it’s that people are determined to make the best of our tech-driven future

So what’s in store for all of us for 2020?

You’ll see many articles with predictions for 2020, and some will be more outlandish than others. I’m including just a few here that will likely affect you and your business more than others:

Expect to see more facial recognition in use everywhere and to hear more debate about it. Governments, law enforcement agencies, and high-traffic facilities like airports see tremendous opportunities and conveniences in deploying this technology, while civil liberties advocates see many privacy risks and challenges. Personally, I’m on Team Ban Facial Recognition Until We Have Better Protections In Place, but I’ll continue to follow all the developments and report on them (as I did in WIRED earlier this year).

Expect to have to grapple with privacy debates inside and outside your organization. The major push for companies to meet GDPR compliance in time for the May 2018 enforcement deadline is only the beginning of such regulatory efforts; the CCPA is due to be fully enforced as of January 1, 2020, and you can bet more regulations will be coming as time goes on. Your best bet to dealing with these is to get ahead of them: enact human-friendly data collection and usage practices such as not collecting more data than you need or than is relevant to the context of the interaction. (I spoke about this topic extensively at House of Beautiful Business in Lisbon, as well as at many other events throughout the year.)

The push for digital transformation isn’t over yet (no matter how tired of hearing about it you may be). Most companies, organizations, and cities are very much just catching up, still sorting out how, for example, the data from their front-end services can inform back-end operations and vice versa. Meanwhile, upstart data-rich apps and services are still disrupting industry after industry, so we’ll still be talking about that for a while. (This was the focus of many of my keynotes to executive audiences, such as the Boston CIO Summit, and more.)

You may also be tired of hearing about AI, but we’ve only scratched the surface of that conversation. While some folks debate the semantics of whether simple machine learning processes really constitute “artificial intelligence,” the advancements within that space progress daily, with both challenges and opportunities aplenty. (Part of my focus throughout 2019 and into 2020 has been on how machine learning and automated intelligence can help with addressing climate change. Stay tuned for more on that.)

Speaking of which, perhaps the biggest and most urgent trend of all will be facing the scale and scope of climate change, and using whatever technologies and tools we can to remediate against its effects.

Looking into the future for me and for us all

Above all, what is ahead in our future is increasing interconnectedness of our experiences. It’s the perfect time to adopt the mindset that in many respects what I do does affect you just as what you do affects me, and that we’re in this together. We need to accept our futures as wholly connected: connected through data, connected to each other, connected to the planet, connected to our collective destinies.

That connectedness shows in the work I’m lined up to do. To prepare for the bookings I have for 2020 so far, for example, I will be examining more deeply the future of jobs and work, the future of privacy, the future of trust, the future of the climate, and more. All of these topics have a through-line: the future of human experiences will depend heavily on our wise use of technology, collectively and individually.

Speaking of my bookings in 2020, I have talks booked throughout the U.S. — and in Budapest for the first time! If you happen to be able to attend any of these events, be sure to come up and say hi — I’d love to see you. And of course you can always book me to speak at your company or event.

And! I’ve begun to work on my next book. More on that to come, but you can be sure it will follow along these themes.

But for now the big question is:

What will you do with the future for you and for us all?

Here’s hoping you find the quiet reflection you need in these last days of 2019 to set the kinds of intentions that will guide you to achieve what you most want to achieve, for your own good and for the good of humanity.


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 2020, please do reach out. Here’s to a meaningful year for us all. 

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.