Technology and human interaction

Some worry, even fear, that technology may surpass human interaction. This is exactly what I would call a Promethean fear: the fear that a new technology will somehow lead to our demise or change human nature. Human nature seems robust. Things like running water, central heating – even money and fame – only expose and amplify what was there to begin with. There’s no significant change in human nature during any person’s lifetime. We live like the royalty of a thousand years ago, but still believe that we don’t have enough. We still crave the same things: love, meaning, safety, exploration and growth. When I see a guy sitting across from a girl in Starbucks looking at his phone – that’s boredom that has become socially acceptable whereas it wasn’t quite as “normal” before. It is the fundamentals of their relationship exposed – and it is obvious that something isn’t right. In days gone by it would have been a yawn – or simply staring into space. Now this is emptiness filled up with the instant gratification of likes and shares on social media and the lovely cats on YouTube. The ancient Egyptians would be proud.

It’s not that things don’t change. They change gradually. Human nature appears to remain fairly constant. What if technology gets a sprinkle of human nature when it comes to artificial intelligence. When machines can properly learn and execute without our approval – that can get scary. We may fall in love with AI – the way that was shown in the film Her. Something interesting happened today when I went running. Naturally enough, I procrastinated right up to the point of when it became dark as I was finishing my run. I went to turn on the flashlight on my iPhone only to realise that the latest update has changed the layout of the place that the flashlight button is normally in. It took some fiddling, but I found it. For about three minutes I was let down and disappointed by Apple – stranded in the dark. I was afraid that I’d step on something. In a way, that’s kind of the fear of AI: they will sabotage us by taking control. It’s happening already, in 2016. I never asked for my phone to move the flashlight button. Have my interactions changed? I don’t think so. In the 1990s, parents were terrified of adding phone lines into their kids rooms – because that would finish them. Video games. TV. Radio – before that. Nothing has really changed the fundamental needs we have. Do people actually spend less time in the pub? I think they do. However, they are spending more time at festivals – taking snaps of their tents and dirty boots – and surely to God, they are interacting with other people.

What did people do before the radio? Before this so called technology? After all, we are still using electromagnetic waves to communicate, so the radio is a closer relative of modern technology than it might initially appear. They read books and newspapers. Is it really that different that reading something online? For sure, there’s no instant feedback, but you are still finding out what people did miles and years away from where you are. I think that reading a book by Seneca or Tolstoy is a human interaction. It is deep, meaningful – it is life changing. Sometimes it is like getting advice from a grandfather you never had. To further emphasise that point, I remember having a brief imaginary love affair with Prince Andrei from War and Peace. Am I that different from the poor chap in Her? I have a bit more insight, that’s all. Human nature will drive us to find answers in whatever place is available – nature, books or social media. We seek and find human interaction no more and no less than we did before.

I honestly can’t be sure what the world was like before the printing press. I guess people were just bored more. I guess they craved each other’s company more. I am not sure that they had that luxury as going back even 200 years ago putting food on the table was a real struggle. Is it possible that people interacted more in the past? Possibly. However, if that is the case – that ship has sailed a long time ago.

If anything I would argue that my mother in her 50s has the opportunity to be connected to her classmates that she hadn’t seen in 30 years – an option she would never have had had she been born 30 years earlier. Technology gives us opportunities to be social or to hide from human interaction. The choice is down to human nature – the nature of any given human. It is tempting to blame technology. We all know that it’s not the development of advanced weapons that leads nations to be more aggressive. It’s not the development of social networks that causes people to give terrible anonymous comments. It’s the other way around. The problem is that blaming technology is just another way to hide from our own choices.

technology and human interaction

The industrial revolution of our time

Something exciting is going to happen to the transport industry within our lifetime. Driverless cars and drones are coming. There will be multiple lanes of drone traffic above our heads – Futurama style. Anyone who knows how to invest in air – leave a comment. Looking back at previous industrial revolutions is always a good idea to extract a few lessons. I doubt that we are looking at Highland Clearances ahead. The tragedies of previous industrial revolutions are down to a lack of options. The world is globalised and it is easier than ever to re-skill given the low cost of acquiring information. So you have a choice to either do something else or move.

industrial revolution of our time

While there’s all this panic in the US saying that technology is killing jobs, in reality it is creating jobs at a level that parallels it. The numbers back up this assertion. There’s this Promethean fear that technology will lead to our demise – countered by the utopian notion that someday no one will have to work and everything will be done by robots. It has been talked about a lot, notably Adam Smith mentioned it in his essays. The latter isn’t going to happen – or it would have happened already. We live in a world where the average person in the rich world has a more comfortable lifestyle than many an emperor of times gone by.  The hunger for more is deeply entrenched in the DNA of a critical mass of people – who will always seek to compete with others. This way nobody can sit idly without their bite at the resource allocation cherry we call our economy. While it is scary to consider what AI may do to us if it gets super concentrated, I don’t think this will happen within the next 50 years – making it too hard to make assertions about it. I guess our domestic animals still haven’t taken over, so maybe we will find a way to tame the AI as well.

While technology has made things more efficient, it has consistently needed people. When machines comes in, activity increases – rather than staying the same. The internet has led us to use our phones more, not less – just differently. Higher tech equipment in factories led to more production, not less – and it is different to what it was before. Computers have led to more professional services, not fewer – again, they changed their nature to a certain degree. This kind of transition always means jobs. Different jobs, in different places. It is plausible that the entire truck/taxi driving population will go into moderately skilled jobs to do with drone production and control. It may not all be in your home town like it was before, but it ain’t disappearing. The politicos talking about it is probably down to appealing to the people who fear for their jobs.

An interesting essay arguing the opposite point of view is up on Aeon by Prof James Livingston. He makes an interesting argument that a huge number of Americans just about make it over the poverty line through working full time – and many don’t even achieve that. He says that a job in Walmart comes with food stamps as a benefit. Great line. Unfortunately, he doesn’t balance his argument by mentioning income tax. I am not sure of the intricacies of the US income tax system. In Europe, above a certain income level – basically enough to live on for one person who has to rent a place – tax quickly rises to over 50%. Apparently, it is even higher in the US. So if there wasn’t such crazy tax, a job in Walmart probably wouldn’t come with food stamps. Now, I am not sure which is the lesser of the two evils, but the fact that work doesn’t pay is a consequence of the tax system too.

The rise and fall of social media

It seems that Twitter isn’t feeling so well. Last week, The Financial Times spoke about Twitter’s revenue – dwarfed by that of Facebook – and a few courting attempts by Salesforce et al that ultimately didn’t result in an offer. Gary V described the lack of engagement that he gets on Twitter – and an explosion of attention on Snapchat. Finally, Justin Kan who spoke at an event in the Computer Museum in Mountain View today put up a little tombstone for Twitter – anticipating a death in 2017. What is the death going to look like? Why is this happening? Of note, I saw all of these pieces (FT, Gary and Justin) as videos – on Facebook, YouTube and Snapchat). Hmm…

the-rise-and-fall-of-social-media

Twitter isn’t growing, but it sure is useful, even for people who joined late. A huge portion of traffic to my various websites comes from Twitter. It would never occur to me to advertise of Twitter. I think the reason people don’t like it is that it is full of bots and censorship. Gab.ai is evolving to take care of the censorship part. I wonder if it will fall on deaf ears if it is built to resemble Twitter and come out in 2017. Justin Kan suggested that it is down to the fact the Twitter didn’t have a “second act”: Facebook went from profiles to newsfeed, Snapchat added video, whereas Twitter didn’t. I am not sure I can 100% relate to that logic: I think the problem may even be that Twitter went in too many directions and didn’t really stand for any one single thing. Facebook can probably be accused of a lot of this kind of thing too. So yeah, I think it is down to the inauthenticity – the bots and the spam that is so prevalent on Twitter. You cannot go anywhere without getting followed by 10 social media marketing experts.

It is like a biological system. A new species evolves – with a new DNA. It takes time for the viruses to evolve to hack into that DNA – the viruses being the likes of bots and other spammy entities (including marketers!). There are fewer of them on Facebook – due to the nature of Facebook, and I think that’s why it has done better. Twitter has a particularly vulnerable DNA.

Millennials and generation Z have a special place in their hearts for authenticity. We don’t seem to respond as well to traditional advertising – or anything that spams our attention, anything that we didn’t seek out ourselves – and thus we *perceive* it as being manipulative. Of course, all it means is that we prefer to be manipulated in more elegant ways.

I think that in the last 10 years we’ve come really yearn for authenticity. Instead of accepting interruptions with TV ads, we’ve come to realise that we can curate our own content. From that point, advertising that interrupts and pushes things has become unacceptable and rude.

Let’s take 2 extremes. Snapchat seems more authentic compared to a TV ad. Why? There is a perception that if something is snapped live – it is less likely to be contrived and edited. It is different every time – and we all love variety. Let’s compare it to Instagram. It is more informational – a video says 1000^2 words. IG stories are catching up, but they seem to be an auxiliary feature. Having said all this, Snapchat’s revenue is still pretty small compared to the established behemoths. There will come a day when we are mourning Snapchat too. Snapchat has a vulnerable DNA, but it is far more niche than Twitter and hence has a more loyal crowd that are likely to stick with it. Perhaps people have a natural affinity for video – especially if we can get it in VR – that will happen in the next 10 years I assume. Snapchat is the new TV. For how long? It went books-radio-TV-blogging-YouTube-social. I hope the next step is something other than being plugged into the matrix. Promethean fears aside, the productivity of receiving information is constrained not just by the delivery method, but by our means of receiving it. **Elon Musk spoke about how he hopes to be able to expand the bandwidth of the human ability to perceive information.** Like, that’s genuine Matrix territory. Video seems to be winning in the social media game because how efficient it is as delivering information (entertainment, whatever it might be). VR is the natural upgrade from that. Justin Kan says that the big break in VR is going to be a computer game. They already exist of course. They aren’t as much fun as they should be because they constantly break immersion.

Matt Mullenweg, who developed WordPress at a time when there were already multiple blogging platforms, is a hero of the early naughties that is mentioned less often than Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos, but may well end up a bigger deal. He says that VR is at stage of the hype cycle where the expectations are way out of proportion. The next few years of VR are going to be boring. My intuition is that we will see VR go mainstream, I mean Facebook-of-2007 kind of mainstream no earlier than 2020. Perhaps, VR is going to grow B2B rather than B2C at first.