Wednesday, February 26, 2014

"We Want to Be Human"

BARCELONA--You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone at this year's--or any year's, really--Mobile World Congress that isn't wowed or impressed at the newest phone, latest app, or coolest gadget. Science fiction is jumping from fiction novels and movie reels directly into our lives. Those that have been successful in the tech world have tapped into one of our most basic needs: connection. And no, not an Internet connection (though the Millennial generation might say otherwise). Humans, as any scientist can tell you, are social creatures; we are biologically programmed to be with others. And yet, according to Intel's in-house anthropologist Genevieve Bell, some businesses have been riding on the coattails of technological advancement and have yet to tap into what we really want: "We want to be human, not digital."

Credit: Stephen Shankland, CNET
Human constants, such as our need for connection, are the real roots of technology. In this way we have molded technology to fit our needs, from telegraphs and stereoscopes to cell phones and Skype. This is the key to great technology: "If you can tap into [connecting to people]," said Bell, "you can always succeed."

While we have done a great job at making technology adapt to our needs, Bell also notes that technology has also shaped us. Yes, we all want to hop on Facebook to talk to and share with our friends, but where's the app that's made to surprise us? That manages our reputation? That lets us forget about our troubles? These are the areas that are "ripe for innovation," Bell said. 

Boring works (Singapore)
Courtesy of Slawek Kozdras, Flickr
If you think about it for a minute, you'll start to understand. Companies like Netflix, Amazon, and Pandora are practically founded on crunching the data on our behavior, our likes, and our previous purchases and suggesting other things we might like, listen to, or buy. We like these companies and their apps because "we really like the familiar." But after 28 seasons of Survivor (and counting), four Law & Order spin-offs, and 13 number one singles from Rihanna...what comes next?

"We don't have a lot of algorithms that work out how people are about to become bored and how to deliver something surprising to them that won't freak them out," Bell said. "The first person who gets there wins."

In addition, Bell wisely points out that technology typically works best when it's connected to other technology, but humans work best when we're unplugged, or "disconnected," as she put it. And yet there is still the element of human connection that we desperately need and cling to.

The effects of technology on our behavior are still being discovered. Right now, an app to help us "be bored" would be a welcome sight, but may be old hat in the near future. That's technology to gamble on. But the common thread throughout our lives, and indeed throughout history, is connection and communication. Technology that invests on keeping humans connected will always be money well spent.

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