Isolation in the tech driven world


Alexa, do you love me?

Stop. Pause for a moment and consider our world of 2017; Our friendships, relationships and families; How we eat, shop, pray and love. There is not an aspect of western life that has not been somehow affected by the digital revolution. There has never been a time when humanity has been more connected. Connected to each other through our extensive social networks; to a dizzying wealth of information, knowledge and experience; to services which have redefined everything from catching a lift somewhere to meeting our partners.

And yet a story is emerging, both in research and reflected in the popular culture of Mr Robot, Her and The Circle which is painting a discomforting picture. Could it be that the digital interface we connect to the world through has isolated us from the very essence of the human experience? And has this happened so fast that we have been in thrall to it, struggling to adapt to it?

Will the story of the 21st Century be the story of the isolated self?

Whilst this idea might sound alarmist, evidence abounds and, like the singularity moment of the industrial revolution before it, it presents opportunities for brands with foresight to shape a better world.

Are we isolated from each other?

Our mental environments are overloaded by ubiquity of access, abundance of choice and a sinister, opaque process of collecting and commercialising our private data. The deeply emotional has been replaced by the visceral and reactionary. The deeply intellectual has been undermined by the ephemeral.

Are we isolated from the human condition?

In its quest to design perfect, singular experiences, Technology has bound us to behaviours which have isolated us from human experience. Just as the utopian dreams of brutalist architects collapsed once messy, real humans moved into their prototypal communities of tomorrow, so too have our digital experiences failed to account for the fundamental human need for real connection. We witness our lives by proxy - life through a screen - our behaviours channelled through the carefully wireframed interactions with our devices.

Are we isolated from the present?

This quest for the 'perfect design' is often termed 'user experience', and yet this diminishes us, stripping our individuality in favour of a generalised persona. As our behaviour adapts to the demands of this design we become disconnected from our immediate, real world stimulus. We participate in life through our digital proxies. Our expectations of our interactions, relationships and ourselves are changed, from the child that believes every surface should be swipe-able to our perception of the cost of the digital services we use.

Are we isolated from reality?

Such designed experiences give way to solipsistic relationships with ourselves and the outside world. Filter bubbles, digital narcissism, fake news shared because we care more about the social currency we gain by sharing a popular viewpoint than the veracity or the value of the piece itself. At worst, such solipsism gives rise to a complete redefinition, repudiation even, of fundamentals like 'truth' and 'value'. Our digital channels reward group thinking, mass sharing, reactionary outrage and limit intellectual discourse by a character limit.

Are we isolated from the community?

In this world, old ideas like community become turned on their heads. Our digital communities roll hundreds, even thousands deep, but lack real human connection. We swipe left and right through potential partners and click ‘like’ to support a social cause, even when the reality of the economic impacts of our disengagement are right outside our window. We compare the reality of our day to day lives against the best of our carefully curated projections of our friends. This is making us miserable.

Are we isolated from our own agency?

Our submission to the business metrics of engagement, sharing, transactions and other quantitive measures reward these behaviours to the detriment of the quality of our interactions and relationships. These new measures have created a generation of experiences that are only designed at the service of data, not human need. Paradoxically, this makes them more indispensable, if we are to earn the rewards of our new technologically connected world. Our participation in life is measured by our participation in the digital experience.

In a world where we are our data, does this encapsulate our entire selves? What happens when the quantified self plays out in a culture which tends to conformity and governmental control? We are already used to the idea that our credit score defines our financial reliability and even social standing. Social scoring may not just be a figment of a Black Mirror-style dystopia but is already being considered in China.

Are we isolated from our best, most spiritual selves?

So powerful are these experiences that, even though we categorically know that our privacy and rights are being undermined, we still are bound to them. In order to function in the modern world, we place an enormous trust in the technocratic elite which build and maintain these systems. We trade free access to powerful digital tools in exchange for our data. And now it is not just the corporations that are playing this game, but governments and public institutions are redesigning their interaction with citizens on these same principles.

From the isolated self to the enriched life.

Perhaps there is another way. A way to enrich lives instead of diminishing or controlling them. A way to harness technology, design and commerce in service of the human. A way to use our platforms to build a better quality of interaction which in turn creates more value for the user and business alike. A way to redefine our relationship between ourselves and our digital worlds.

The large companies that become redemptive in the face of these challenges will shift humanity from this state of isolation toward an enriched spirit and to enrich lives in a world where we are isolated, we need to build better relationships. Enriched relationships, responsive to our context and needs, empowering us in service of a deeper symbiosis of service and user, one benefitting the other. Enriched ecosystems which encourage quality interactions between people, brands and services, raising the value of the relationship for all.

Enriched work which gets to the heart of our creative relationships with one another . When Apple introduced the Macintosh, it made a bold statement. The very first interaction which it provided the user was a greeting: “Hello”. Hello is the first word in the building of a relationship. It demands nothing. It diminishes nothing. It engenders trust, which is the fundamental building block of a relationship.

The solution to isolation has not been more connection. The solution to the human needs of the 21st Century have not been singular designed experiences. The future capital of technology will not be desire but trust. The true superpower of design is intent and action to make things better in human terms. To build relationships. To enrich lives. To help us be human again.