Technological Revolution

Mirror Mirror by `Fredy3D
Mirror Mirror by `Fredy3D

A few weeks ago, I had a fantastic meal with my good friends at Massimino’s, a nice little Italian place in the North End where we gather once a year to catch up and remember the past. This is a group of truly special people.

Eight, maybe nine years ago I was assigned to help implement a financial system at StateStreet. Little did I know about the true complexity of the project and the history prior to my assignment to the project. To sum it up, it was a mess! A multimillion dollar implementation on the brink of failure, this project seemed impossible and probably would have been scrapped. Multiple weekly status meetings with 40-50 people (at least 30 consultants @ ~$300 /hr), half dozen project managers with their assistants, an entire floor in the most expensive building in Boston, the best hardware costing over a million dollars, and much more didn’t seem to matter enough. Yet somehow this team of special folks managed to successfully roll out its piece of the project. It’s a nice annual surprise to hear that the system is still in use globally.

Even though  I have worked on many projects since then, I haven’t been in a similar team. It is even more troubling to see some of the latest currents that seem to sweep across this great society. Here are some observations.

We have all of the great communication technologies yet we’re less connected. I am certainly not talking about efficiency of transactional communication or the productivity gains from instantaneous dissemination of information. We seem to be less connected with transformational life-long relationships. At work, many of us stare at computer screens all day long with little time to actually talk to people outside the transactions we conduct. On Facebook, as a close friend pointed out, we see status updates that scream of loneliness and boredom. Instead of bowling or golf, many have the living room computerized “equivalents.” We have everything yet we have nothing.

To contrast this, I remember life back in Armenia back in the dark days when we had no electricity, no telephone, no running water, nothing! My father would joke that of all systems of communication/infrastructure only the sewer system worked (and even that froze one day in the dead of winter). We had hardly any food and I had to go for a daily fight for a loaf of bread. Yet in that environment we were (incredible to imagine) happy, never bored or lonely. The space/time for those days is no longer; only memories remain.

Today we are well connected exchanging / processing hundreds of e-mails, instant messages, text messages, tweets, phone calls, video chats, blogs posts and comments yet so many seem to be lonely, alone and feeling completely disconnected and alienated. TV commercials scream about depression and insomnia drugs and other remedies to address anxiety disorders. Netflix, OnDemand, and YouTube bring thousands of channels of passive “entertainment” yet it seems people need even more despite some of the videos and programming being pure trash.

The industrial revolution has ruined our external environment. Technological revolution seems to be ruining our internal environments. Or is it just a mirror?

5 Comments

  1. Your StateStreet project reminded me of Brook’s Law:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brooks%27_law 😉

    I wonder:

    1) Whether your astute observations about changing human interaction (which the Facebookers ironically call “social networking”) is an evolving phenomenon associated with nuclear families ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_family ) as opposed to extended families?

    2) Whether your observations are universal? Or are they geographic and socio-economic? Do you think that the “internal environment” is better in small towns where the local church, PTA, Rotary Club, etc. are the social nexus — as compared with the big cities, where the corporate rat race and competition for status and wealth predominate? (Note that these small towns are frequently economically depressed — and are typically politically conservative too….)?

    3)Lastly and most importantly, I wonder whether the ultimate issue is the lack of a common goal that people can near-universally unite behind?

  2. If all people were the same, Brook’s law would be more understandable (I see it differently) but I have observed the second system effect a few times.

    1) I think so. The wave could have greater than expected impact on our kids’ lives (and ours as well). I have no doubt that at the macro level we’ll adapt because the change is gradual and we’ve adapted to many similar waves before this. I certainly can’t go as far as Rule #22 in the Rules of Acquisition but these macro forces seem to impact everything around us.

    2) I don’t know if these apply universally. Maybe societies at different stages of development respond differently to the near-simultaneous stimuli – infusion of similar technologies. For example, the effect of a social networking site in the US may be different than the effect of a similar site in China or Russia (then again I can hear the arguments about features or culture being responsible). Small town vs. urban areas is another difficult question because I can only see from my little corner. There could also be regional winds (South vs. North East, etc.). I wish I had another life to study this rather than just being impacted by it. I’d have added education to your list of attributes (economy, political affiliation, etc.). Unfortunately, I only get a few hits here but it would be nice if people from other corners could comment and confirm/deny these thoughts.

    3) The common goal need not be universal but is very powerful. The goal back in the dark days in Armenia was a form of survival in the face of blockades (human drivers), the earthquake (natural drivers), and the fight for independence (internal drivers). The common goal often conflicts with the individual goal (a powerful cornerstone of US culture). The contribution to the common goal here happens through funding (taxes, charity, etc.) and through labor but technology has revealed more targets for contribution. If time is limited, my sense is we contribute less, but perhaps more of us contribute (awareness, mobilization, high volume smaller contributions, etc.). Has technology helped? Proponents of micro-lending, for example, would most likely say “Yes.”

    As always your questions added more than my initial post. But the fact is that both of us spent time reading and thinking about these points. This technology facilitated in my learning and that is very positive but it forced me to remain in front of the screen – isolated. What if Rocky was a fictional character inside a computer game? What if the exchange was on a Wii in a living room while playing “fictional” golf or something else? What if the time was spent reading news? The issue I am struggling with is that this in the end is alone individual interaction with a machine. If enough people do it for long enough, will it not have long-term impact? Is that impact mostly positive or negative (does it matter if the impact is unavoidable)?

  3. LD: Lots of food for thought. But your final paragraph is particularly intriguing: “What if Rocky was a fictional character inside a computer game? ”

    What if?
    Science fiction predicts a time when computers achieve a level of “intelligence” above humans. If that era arrives, will our interactions with bots be more satisfying and fulfilling than our interaction with fellow humans? Perhaps our current laments about the demise of human interaction are simply the “growing pains” that we feel .. as we evolve towards that point???

    What if?
    A time comes when instead of debating the lawfulness of Gay Marriage, we debate whether a man can marry one’s lifelong robot companion?

    What if?
    Humans and their robot companions travel to other solar systems with vast resources — such that the historical human conflicts over scarce resources become an artifact?

    These may be day dreams, but they are no more unrealistic than our current world would be to our great grandparents.

    Alas, getting back to reality — I just wish I could find a comfortable deskchair…. cheers, Rocky.

  4. Rocky: Will our interactions with machines be more interesting? Maybe as you say the process is already underway but I cannot understand why people appear to feel alone, lonely, isolated, and misunderstood despite the abundance of connecting technology and entertainment technology of every kind. Maybe the technology is too crude but maybe we fundamentally need close relationships with others.

  5. LD,

    Domenico de Masi, an italian economist, has no tv in his house. With no tv, people talk, play cards, sip wine, read, write, and sleep well.

    If not for my wife (maybe a soap-opera addict), I’d rather have no tv in the house either.

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