Staying Human in the Digital Era (A Series of Fortunate Tips for Shaping the Next Generation)

Strategy Oct 25, 2019

World Wide Webers, it’s 2019 and the talk of town are topics that so many of us interact with every day: conversational marketing, behavioural science, machine learning, process automation, productivity tools, chatbots, algorithms, artificial intelligence, big data, deep learning, accelerating digital transformation, and so much more.

At the same time, we are woken up by the promise of expanded time every day — kick off your day at 5 am with a workout and a meditation session they say — and aim to maximize your day as much as possible.

There is the ongoing idea that we can (and should) correct and edit our lives by optimizing our schedules through strategies like positive psychology, building healthier habits, ramping up our skills to gain competitive advantage…only to become better equipped to perform more, to be more productive, and essentially, a better version of who we are.

Between the regular dose of self-help cliches and strong coffee cups that keep us going throughout the workday, there is something almost paradoxical about our everyday existence.

As workers in a tech-dominated world, our days almost look like a seesaw, pushing us back and forth between the idea of automating our time and work (to make room for more tasks), and our mere humanity which is trying to surface through the cracks.

The reality of our times is that everything else dominates us. We are achingly maneuvered by the real heavy lifters of existence — technology, marketing, corporations, society, and media.

We consume everything but rarely listen. We are permanently connected to our devices but rarely to ourselves. We strive to be better versions of ourselves to fill in the blanks of societal gaps but never really allow ourselves to savour idle time and just be.

We forgot how to be bored. How to stare longingly out the window. How to have real conversations.

One way or another, we’re all to blame for these inadequacies — not the tech we take for granted so easily.

Don’t get me wrong; that’s not to say the world is getting worse or that technology is the culprit.

On the contrary, I am too, as mentioned by Hans Rosling in his informative book “Factfulness”, a possibilist. I am reveling in the data that states that the world is in a better condition than we think.

FYI, a possibilist issomeone who neither hopes without reason nor fears without reason, someone who constantly resists the overdramatic worldview.’

The numbers show it, and in many respects, our collective actions do too.

Adecade ago, it was almost impossible to imagine companies implementing inclusive hiring processes as the norm, diversity was not a thing, feminism was still frowned upon and minorities’ rights were still in infancy in many parts of the world.

Today, each and every one of us can be more vocal, we can easily embrace our identity, and have quick access to resources. Indeed, we can — and should — be better versions of ourselves but it’s utterly important to not lose ourselves in the process.

This is why I want to touch upon a dear topic that tackles technology and humanity, a duo that we need to navigate through every day — in a more authentic and sustainable way.

Lovely people who work in the digital space in exciting companies all around the world, are here to enlighten us with their wisdom and enthralling knowledge about the topic in the hope of making all of us more inspired and more human!

Here’s who you’ll find in this article:

  1. Yam Regev: Co-Founder & CEO at Zest
  2. Diana Stoica: People Partner at door2door
  3. Rene Hess: Co-Founder & Inventor at Innovo42
  4. Oana Iordachescu: Talent Acquisition Manager at Criteo
  5. Octavian Todirut: Product Designer
  6. Maxime Lagresle, Product Manager
  7. Naveed Anjum, UX & Design Architect at SGX
  8. Vincent Hoon, CEO & Co-Founder at Holistics
  9. Alex Mustata, Business Intelligence Developer at PRA Health Sciences
  10. Marinela Poso, UX Designer
  11. Fi Shailes, Head of Digital at CLD and Freelancer at Digital Drum

1. The Zest tribe leader with a 🍋 twist

👉🏻 Thoughts by Yam Regev, Co-Founder & CEO @ Zest, Israel

Without a humanized approach to creating products and marketing them, we become digitized commodities. But what people want and have always wanted is to connect. We should be using digital technology to enhance our human bonds, not eliminate them.

Even more than that, I believe that any young startup should eliminate all automated communication from their stack. You must be close to your users, hear their feedback, learn their jargon and let them discover your personality.

This strategy will not only shorten your time to PMF but will also set the stage for growing a group of power users who will help you spread the word about your solution.

We took this idea to the extreme with Zest, actually.

When Zest first launched, we sent thousands of personal email correspondences to users. There was no automation of the process. Then, as we developed a system of transactional emails, we took care to maintain that human touch. Now, while the responses may be automated, the language of each email is still crafted to ensure a human tone of voice.

And, we still maintain one-to-one contact with many Zest users. Members of the Zesteam correspond via email, personally respond to social media posts, and interact with Zest users in online groups and forums.

🧠 Lesson: Any young startup should eliminate all automated communication from their stack. You must be close to your users, hear their feedback, learn their jargon and let them discover your personality.


2. The imaginative introvert with philosophical sarcasm 🎈

👉🏻 Thoughts by: Diana Stoica, People Partner @ door2door, Berlin, Germany

Being human or human being?

2019 workplaces have morphed to reflect the new digital age while focusing more on their people: people’s thoughts, perceptions, aspirations, opinions, and feelings.

Work relationships used to be very transactional, in terms of what you, as an employee could get done. Now the conversation starts with: how are you as a colleague? Woman? Parent? Daughter? Expat? Broken-hearted partner?

We start to appreciate each other, first, as humans, whilst having the technology to support, track, and elevate the quality of our work.

My role, universally known as HR, has taken an instrumental and advisory part for most of the modern companies. We’ve moved from admin, paper movers to People, Happiness or Heart Officers. This evolution only reflects the focus that companies now grant to their individuals.

Three months after I moved to Berlin for a new life and work experiences, I began talking about how I think people’s issues are universal — and realized it’s the way we treat them that is different.

Companies are taking these issues seriously and looking after their health from a physical and mental perspective, and the overall wellbeing.

In this day and age, we are overwhelmed with information and our very own overwhelming choices: to quit or try to change, keep or let go, shop or save, sleep or get up. We have all the tools to be, look, eat better but we are more anxious and depressed than ever before.

We easily acknowledge that the software we create has defaults and bugs. We are committed to fixing them through processes and cycles that we call agile.

But how much time are we really willing to spend on exploring our own bugs?

How often do we look at our own battery life and the type of energy that we allow fueling it?

How much of our attention do we grant to eye versus screen contact?

How can we be better humans?

🧠 Lesson: We are looking for easy answers and quick fixes to all of our issues, but I think the questions we should ask ourselves and reflect on, are far more important.


3. The eclectic inventor who never fails to say “hello” 💯

👉🏻 Thoughts by: Rene Hess, Inventor & Co-Founder @ Innovo42, Singapore

The question we need to ask ourselves first is what actually makes us human.

There is no single answer to this question, though, I will for argument’s sake, pick the thirst of knowledge or, in short, curiosity.

Over the past 40 years, technology has had a major impact on most areas of life. Besides the obvious advantages of being able to share the current plate of food with the rest of the world, tech literally changed the way we meet, work, travel, research, and countless other activities.

And last but not least, technology has managed to help us validate (or invalidate) our understanding of the past, present, and future. For instance, without technological advances, research performed at CERN or LIGO would not be possible.

However, there is a catch. Technology supports all major aspects of life. The danger that comes with it is the fact that it can be very distracting and occupies our “curiosity time”. Having big ideas does not require any technology — their implementation or verification, on the other hand, usually does.

Let’s take Einstein as an example; he came up with the most mind-boggling ideas yet did not have any access to advanced technology (at least based on current understanding). It took armies of researchers another 100 plus years (and counting) to simulate his ideas. And that’s where technology played a crucial part.

So, how do we stay curious in today’s digital world? The main point is to build a healthy relationship with technology. In the near future (and even in the present), it will be a skill to know when to use technology and when to access one’s very own curiosity.

🧠 Lesson: We should not forget that although technology simplifies a lot of work, it does not provide new ideas (yet). That’s our job as humans!


4. The feminist tech hero (who doesn’t need a cape) 💪🏻

👉🏻 Thoughts by: Oana Iordachescu, Talent Acquisition Manager @ Criteo, Paris, France

Cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am) once postulated French philosopher, René Descartes.

The saying came as an essential differentiator between humans and animals and was considered the ultimate statement of validation as a ruling species.

If being is associated solely with attaining information, analysing data, learning skills and making decisions, then we are on our way to becoming obsolete as the advancement of technology is taking us to a realm where our main purpose becomes to literally automate every action we take.

From driverless vehicles to instant medical diagnosis to algorithms controlling dating life to simply Google-finishing our sentences, it can seem hard to know where free will and the authentic self are placed.

It all started with the dream of machines doing what we can’t do, like exploring the heights and the depths of our planet, followed by inviting technology into our daily lives so we can improve what we’ve been doing for centuries: agriculture, war, art, sports, etc. Today we are seeing competition every step of the way, but this kind of competition comes with a twist: who can do everything faster?

Most of the digital technologies have been developed for us to experience connectedness and time differently, in an expanded, but predictable way.

With the ubiquity of technology, the teachings of how to block it are also increasing. But humans are not good at choosing to opt out on newness or comfort in a consistent and persistent way for vague promises of uniqueness and self-driven life. Being aware is not a one-time check-in, but a strenuous string of continuous critical check-ins with ourselves and the surrounding reality.

Our capacity to mirror is unmatched — that is how cultures are being formed. Therefore, we need to develop a higher sense of criticism of what we are being served to mirror.

Designer and researcher J. Paul Neely has split the world into those above the API and those below, and while it sounds a bit like what Keanu Reeves would say in the Matrix, it is a way to help us understand and appreciate the facilities of experiences designed through the advancements of technology — and question them at the same time.

🧠 Lesson: Awareness and critical check-ins with ourselves can help us keep technology’s advantages and our own humanity at bay.


5. The quirky and very much bohemian (digital) artist 💫

👉🏻 Thoughts by: Octavian Todirut, Product Designer, Bucharest, Romania

I see the digital world as a window to another world that partially reflects our own image. A faint mirrored copy of ourselves. The digital age can make us more human with the right approach and mindset.

Never before have we been so connected yet mobile, having so much information at our disposal. While technology can definitely enhance our life, it can also paralyze it. There is no doubt about the fact that it can become a very compulsive behaviour, which bypasses the rationale.

🧠 Lesson: It is not about how often we access the digital world, but rather when and why we do so. Always question your intent.


6. The all-about-growth-strategy voracious reader 📚

👉🏻 Thoughts by: Maxime Lagresle, Product Manager, Lyon, France

It is fair to admit that this question can be approached through various angles and does not have a single truth.

However, my take here is:

  1. understanding the cause-effect relationships between the submersion of technology in our daily lives and its impact on the evolution of humankind
  2. inferring some life and work principles to thrive in this new world might be a good way to cover this broad topic

So, let’s start with a quick analysis of the cause-effect relationships:

Cause:

Effects:

• a shift from a stable and slow-paced world to an unstable and fast-paced world
•  a shift from information scarcity to information abundance

Once we’re aware of this paradigm shift, we should embrace a new life and work principles that will help us feel more at ease in this new world.

  • Acknowledge that we’re living in an unstable world, and it’s fine

(…) technology opens new doors of possibility while closing doors that once seemed the sure path to prosperity. — Wtf? What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us by Tim O’Reilly

While the previous generations used to be taught to aim for stability and status early in their career, it is much more crucial for any individual from this new generation, who has to deal with an unstable world, to look — at first — for their purpose. It might require to go through a trial and error period, but this is what it takes to flourish in an uncertain world.

Thus, as stipulated by Nicolas Colin in his book Hedge, “Today’s workers alternate overlapping periods of training, wage-earning, starting a business, looking for a job, working as a freelancer.” Embracing — especially early in our career — this hunter mindset as a way of life (as opposed to the settler mindset) should be a priority.

  • Develop the capability to reinvent ourselves again and again

To keep up with the world of 2050, you will need to do more than merely invent new ideas and products, but above all, reinvent yourself again and again.
What Kids Need to Learn to Succeed in 2050 by Yuval Noah Harari

Two conditions are necessary to succeed at such a daunting task:

  1. Know thyself

In his book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Yuval Noah Harari outlines the urgency — in an ever-more technology-focused world — to “get to know your operating system better.” In other words, it refers to knowing what I am and what I want from my life.

This task — as old as the hills, and preached for thousands of years by philosophers and religions — has never been as important as it is today due to the silent but brutal intrusion of tech companies in “hacking our operating system.”

In the past, not knowing our operating system had the unique consequence to not get the most out of our lives but it didn’t affect our freedom to take our own decisions.

In the world we are currently entering, this might not be true anymore. The most cutting edge tech companies’ algorithms have already started competing with us in knowing our own selves. And, for the ones who won’t make the effort to know themselves, it will be way too easy for these algorithms to control and manipulate our own decisions.

2. Adopt a lifelong learning mentality

Knowing thyself is essential but not enough to be able to reinvent ourselves again and again. This unstable and fast-paced world also requires us to embrace a lifelong learning mentality.

However, lifelong education shouldn’t be interpreted as providing more of what is currently taught in our current education system. It requires us to rethink the way we learn in order to get the right skills, methods, and state of mind to deal with a life made of constant change.

In the past, when the information was scarce and education happened mainly early in life, it made sense to provide students with as much information as possible.

But this is not true anymore; new knowledge is at hand, and we are constantly bombarded with information. For all of these reasons, early education should be more about offering fundamental knowledge, the ability to make sense of information, and the power to learn.

  • Moral choice is our greatest asset

Moral choice, not intelligence or creativity, is our greatest asset. (…) Instead of using technology to replace people, we can use it to augment them so they can do things that were previously impossible. — Wtf? What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us by Tim O’Reilly

Technology is not popular anymore… Why? Because it disrupts each industry, displaces jobs, threatens our rights for privacy, increases the inequality gap and “aims to impose a new collective order based on total certainty”.

Nevertheless, there is one thing we omit when we blame technology — it hasn’t been self-built and is only the result of human choices. And that is where the crucial role of moral choice lies in humanely shaping our digital future.

A certain amount of works have already been published on this topic from the more optimistic ones (see Tim O’Reilly’s book mentioned above) to the more pessimistic ones (see The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power).

So, the importance of making moral judgment should be broadly divulged and assessed throughout our educational system. It is even more critical in some field of study where students will most likely have to make decisions that could be very impactful on our future. Data scientists are a good example and this article published in Wired makes a good point about it.

Ultimately, my best input — inspired by Ray Dalio’s book — to the initial question I’ve been asked by Andreea Serb “how do we map out our digital future in a humane way?” would be to set good work and life principles as they are effective ways of dealing with reality.

🧠 Lesson: I leave you with Tim O’Reilly’s takeaway list of good principles to follow in order to 1) thrive in this new world and, 2) make the world a better place:

• Work on something that matters to you more than money

• Create more value than you capture

• Take the long view

• Aspire to be better tomorrow than you are today


7. The experiential self-taught designer 📲

👉🏻 Thoughts by: Naveed Anjum, UX & Design Architect @ SGX, Singapore

Humans and design have always had a history of forging a better future.

Design has been shaping society from the hunting and gatherer era to the Renaissance to the Industrial era to the age of information, and now here we are in the age of experience, which can be considered the direct product of design.

Today, design is creating systems that are delivering experiences which can change people’s behaviour.

I believe that design can have a profound effect on society — but this power comes with responsibility.

With the right knowledge and skills, we can impact the lives of millions by choosing problems that are worth solving. It is our responsibility to fix problems around us like health, education, hunger, security, racism, terrorism, and so on.

This is why I choose to build my life around the Japanese concept of ikigai (a concept that means “a reason for being.”) For instance, my ikigai is shaping society with the help of design.

And with the power of design and technology, I want to help young people find their own ikigai. Instead of letting external factors like the education system or society decide what we should do with ourselves, we need to change the mindset of young people to become seekers rather than followers.

The idea is to enable people to reach their best self by helping them find their own craft. If everyone is doing what they love, then people won’t be hating Mondays anymore, dragging their feet to work every day, and waiting for the weekend so that they could use it as a pain killer.

🧠 Lesson: Through a mix of technology and design, we can impact lives by choosing problems that are worth solving, giving people the opportunity to find their own ikigai.


8. The dualistic start-up founder 📈

👉🏻 Thoughts by: Vincent Hoon, CEO & Co-Founder @ Holistics, Singapore

Advances in technologies that impact the lives of people (and their data) should be accompanied by morally compassionate conduct that reduces the risk of abuse and protects the abused.

Applied with an upright intent, technology can help governments uncover new insights about their people to showcase their potential and raise their social mobility.

Applied with devious intent, technology can discriminate, marginalize, and undermine the well-being of a society.

Applied with compassion, technology can provide hope and opportunities for people looking to break free from their disadvantageous background.

Applied without compassion, technology can cause people to be judged permanently on their mistake for life, creating a culture of anxiety and monotonous social norms.

🧠 Lesson: Ethical and compassionate tech is a must to allow us to thrive and find opportunities in a world dominated by information.


9. The head-in-the-charts scientist 📊

👉🏻 Thoughts by: Alex Mustata, Business Intelligence Developer, PRA Health Sciences, Livingston, Scotland

Working in the biotech industry as a business intelligence developer, I not only get to deal with numbers and statistics, which are our craft in terms of foreseeing the future, but I also get to make the most of my creative side.

In this day and age, I believe it is essential to blend the sharp edge of technology with art elements — whether it’s the way you present a line chart or a graph to a customer or working as part of a small team in a creative way, whether it’s within a meeting theatre or working remotely.

I do think the main challenge within the biotechnology industry, in particular, is bridging certain gaps and attracting talent from across a wider spectrum such as from the world of humanities and arts.

Personally, I do believe that as far as the biometrics analytics visualizations are concerned, these would benefit from an art-inclined eye, so to this end, I do firmly believe that the industry itself would benefit from attracting people with an arts background such as fine arts and design graduates.

🧠 Lesson: If only we allowed more industries to tap into talent with an arts background, we would definitely help humanize the tech world.


10. The unicorn designer 🦄

👉🏻 Thoughts by: Marinela Poso, UX Designer, Vancouver, Canada

In this day and age, personal information is being mined and monetized by organizations. This is why being clear about the types of data is being collected and how it is being used should be mandatory.

Similarly, allowing users to control and edit how much information they are willing to share is crucial. As designers, it is our role to persuade companies to take responsibility in protecting and respecting the user’s privacy.

🧠 Lesson: Seeing users as humans challenges companies to build products from the perspective of the person using them. This is why data collection transparency becomes necessary to build more authentic relationships.


11. The hands-on content marketer 👍🏻

👉🏻 Thoughts by Fi Shailes, Head of Digital at CLD and Freelancer at Digital Drum, Buckinghamshire, UK

In a nutshell, as technology improves it becomes more and more human. Take chat-bots for example — they can be programmed to answer questions from customers, and often in such a way that you forget you’ve just had your query answered by a piece of AI.

We’re edging towards the adoption of an increasing number of automated features on social platforms and websites, but the irony is that what lies behind it all is the human desire to have better digital experiences; experiences which are delivered intuitively and either solve a problem or fulfill a need.

🧠 Lesson: Companies should use tech that automates tasks to have better digital experiences but it’s crucial to keep the human element in check to provide a more personalised service.


Thanks again to all the amazing voices who contributed to this article. If you enjoyed reading it, let’s connect on Twitter and Medium to get updated on my future posts!

Andreea Serb

Andreea has an immense passion for storytelling and how it drives change in the tech space. When she's not busy typing away, you will always see her reading a good book.