2016: Year of the Human

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Look around. You are driving to a parking lot, walking into tilt-up concrete buildings to buy stuff imported from China, making small talk with the cashier while checking your phone.

You are on-line at work, at home, at the gym, on the move. Like Xerox once, Google is now a verb. So is Facebook. When Jeff Bezos says “drones,” you had better duck. Netflix after supper.

This digital world is convenient and entertaining, and it often seems free or at least cheap–though it’s not. The data miners are cashing in. Machines and software are getting smarter. Algorithms are evolving, almost like life forms.

The market knows. In 2015, four stocks drove the US stock market. Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google (FANG) soared, while the S&P 500 ended the year up only 1.4%.

In contrast, we humans seem to be stuck in the old ways. We are hardwired to focus on the short term–to respond to our perception of immediate threats and opportunities. Like our primate cousins, we trust our inner circle. Everyone else, no so much.

This is the wiring that kept our primitive ancestors alive.

Highlighting the contrast between the evolution of technology and the evolution of society is my submission for #BigIdeas2016.

Our societies have evolved gradually. Are they evolving fast enough today?

We have companies and governments.  Social clubs and schools. Languages and cultural norms. Paradigms of thinking and doing.

By definition, entrenched interests everywhere benefit from these norms and paradigms.

Meanwhile, technology is advancing exponentially. Our brains and bodies not wired for this. Nor are our social and individual conventions — how we do things around here.

There is a disconnect.

Increasingly, we humans are trading off our own basic needs and innate ways of being for a digital world. Seeing Star Wars at the cineplex, there were almost no employees except the kids selling toxic popcorn, but the credits at the end included a long list of those working for Industrial Light and Magic. That is the hidden, subsurface work done by the business interests, storytellers and technicians. Creative and well paid: A tiny fraction of total employment.

George Lucas said Star Wars was always about people, families. A soap opera, he called it. Stories he wanted to tell. Not about space. He is no longer involved in the films.

Our eyes stare at screens of different sizes. We get hits of dopamine but our other senses are becoming dormant. Even proprioception, the sense of where we are in space. We are slouched over now, mostly living in our heads.

Nothing wrong with technology. It’s a tool. It is moving ahead, seeming to evolve on its own. Software designing software. Robots building robots.

It’s our human side that needs work. Even in our advanced age of global communication and travel, there is a lot of ¬†xenophobia out there. Anyone not like us is THEM. But that is wrong. We are all more similar than we are different. There is magic in those differences, both personal and cultural.

In The Empathic Civilization, Jeremy Rifkin shows how over the centuries the human race has become more “we” and less “them.” We have figured out creative solutions to social problems. Call it civilization.

There have been major steps backwards like the world wars of the 20th century, but, overall, human rights and equality of opportunity have been increasing.

Here’s to more of that in 2016.

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