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Humanizing Technology: The Pros & Cons

One of the perks of being a lifelong sociolinguistics nerd (full disclosure: there aren’t that many) is when I can take notice of the range of terminology people use to describe my own work. It turns out people have a wide variety of ways to think about and describe the relationship between technology and humanity. Most recently I’ve been hearing the term “humanization of technology” pop up a lot from companies looking to bring me in for speaking or advising services. I find it such a fascinating term for a few reasons.

What is wrong with the concept of humanizing technology?

It’s not that the term is wrong, per se. And after all, it’s very similar to my own language around Tech Humanism, and all of the similar terms I use. It’s just that the nuance I infer from it — which is, to be clear, not necessarily what those prospective clients may have been implying — is that it suggests adding a human face to tech. It even feels almost manipulative.

If you think about it, most of the time we don’t actually use the term “humanizing” in everyday language — although we do often talk about “dehumanizing.” That suggests that when we talk about things that are dehumanizing, we’re starting from a default perspective that our humanity is intact. So forces that would dehumanize us threaten the fullness of our humanity.

The assumption with “humanizing,” on the other hand, is that we’re talking about a context where our humanity is not intact, and that there is something that must happen to ensure that we are granted our full humanity.

The idea that this is how people are approaching the discussion of technology is illuminating.

But I mean, I see their point, of course. Technology — especially as it’s used within bureaucratic business processes — can certainly be used in ways that disenfranchise and disempower our humanity.

What’s the alternative? Not humanizing technology?

Rather than “humanizing technology,” philosophically, I prefer to orient from where we already are fully human, and employ our human sensibilities to create the kinds of experiences that would most amplify our human wellness and fullness. That’s why my work centers on meaning, which I consider to be core to human traits and central to the human condition.

Achieve “humanization” by aligning business objectives with human outcomes

But again, I know where people are coming from with this framing and terminology. In fact, I’ve been asked in an interview before, by Douglas Magazine:
“So in other words, humanizing tech is good for both business and the consumer?”

And my answer at that time speaks directly to the business imperative underlying the terminology:

“If a business entity can create an experience for the human being that is more seamless and more frictionless and more delightful and aligned with what they’re trying to accomplish, then, yes, it stands to be a more efficient experience on the business’s side too. It improves both sides of the experience. There’s this natural harmony that can happen there.
“Business is responsible for creating most of the technology that’s out there. That technology is responsible for creating more and more human experiences. And so it feels like finding that right symmetry of the relationship between human technology and business, and really bringing that into harmony is the only way that we’re going to have a future that builds meaning and an awareness of human joy, and context and meaning.”

— me, as quoted in Douglas Magazine, September 30, 2020

So what are some “humanizing”-by-default approaches we can bring to our work to operate from a place of full humanity?

The best ways to bring a fullness of humanity into the work you’re doing is to adopt approaches that are humanizing by default, like:

Encourage “humanizing” language: instead of always saying “users” or “customers,” (or “students” or “patients” or what-have-you), say “people” when you mean “people.” This can help bring a humanizing perspective to the sales experience, the marketing language, the operations, and whatever technology you’re deploying throughout the organization.

Recognize that most of the data that passes through business is human data, and make an effort to think in humanizing terms when you interact with that data in the business model. This is part of what allows business to align its objectives with human outcomes.

Get clear on what human problems you’re trying to solve at scale, and encourage teams to translate their own work into how it helps the company solve those problems.

Why focus on words like “humanization” or “humanizing” technology — why do the words matter?

Language matters, and the words we choose to describe our work matters. In fact, how we describe the world is in no small part how we experience the world. Even the way we experience words and ideas changes us:

The upshot is that the current state of people’s bodies affected the words they used. This is again compatible with the idea that the meanings of relatively abstract words are based in embodied simulations of the more concrete things they’re described in terms of.

— Louder Than Words, Benjamin K. Bergen

And if we can agree that that is so, then how much more important is it that the actual embodied experiences we build around us — meaning, the ones we design into the built environment, into technology, into amplified, accelerated, algorithmically optimized experiences — represent the best and most enlightened ideals we have?

Meaning matters. Metaphor matters. Let’s be intentional with our words so that we can be even more intentional with the experiences we create for ourselves, our future selves, and future generations.