To make technology that puts humans first, we have to practice what we preach

Getty Images
“You know,” your friend at the bar says, sipping at a pint. “I heard Trump manipulated voters because some company in England told him what to say based on people’s Facebook likes.”

“Yeah, Cambridge Analytica — I heard about that, too.”

The give and take of technology exists everywhere we look today.

“So they use Facebook to sell us things we don’t need with ads, and then they use our data to control our politics…”

“Yeah, but check out this live-feed from SpaceX one of my Facebook friends just sent me. They’re about to land another rocket.”

You both gaze into your phones like crystal balls, watching like gods as the Iron Man himself — Elon Musk — ushers in a new space age.

The give and take of technology exists everywhere we look today. At times we feel like victims, helpless pawns at the mercy of the titans in Silicon Valley. At other times we feel like superhumans, able to get the answer to any question and see anywhere in the world in the time it takes for our coffee to finish brewing.

Best iPhone X cases - Peel case

The same app that baits us into endless swiping at the bar, our eyes glued to the screen and oblivious to all the possible connections around us, might also connect us to well-matched partners we normally wouldn’t have crossed paths with during our day-to-day grind.

So which is it: victims to the black-hole-like attraction of our devices, or apes empowered with a god-like variety of options? You may not realize it, but it’s up to you.

Choose your own adventure

Pamela Pavliscak, founder of the design research company Change Sciences, has built a career studying the way humans interact with technology. Last year, she summarized some of her takeaways in a TEDx talk on “How to live happily in the digital age.”

“The actions we take everyday shape technology,” she told the audience, “so that what we do and choose not to do teaches the algorithms. What we say and how we feel is recognized by the people who are developing technology.”

In other words: We imbue technology with our behavior.

“The actions we take everyday shape technology”

Every choice we make helps to shape our culture, deeming which habits are considered acceptable and which are taboo. And every day we’re feeding “big data” algorithms with information on how we interact with the digital realm.

Combined, these two influences tell our engineers, designers, and business owners what we want and what we don’t want, what they should steer towards or avoid if they want their tech adopted, if they want our money. And because the goal of most businesses is to make money, they’ll usually do whatever the culture and data suggest.

The question then becomes, what do we want to suggest to them with our actions?

What is it about the tech that sometimes makes us feel like victims, and how can we avoid that so that we feel more empowered, so that we feel like we — the people using the technology — are the priority?

Not surprisingly, media theorist Douglas Rushkoff offers perhaps the most accessible and succinct answer to these questions in the description for his Team Human podcast:

how to put humans before technology pamela pavliscak photo 3 1
Pamela Pavliscak

“The simplest way to understand and change our predicament is to recognize that being human is a team sport. We cannot be fully human, alone. Anything that brings us together fosters our humanity. Likewise, anything that separates us makes us less human, and less able to exercise our will.”

So perhaps technology that empowers us and “puts people first” simply means technology that helps us connect and share – which may sometimes mean not using our devices at all. When you’re sitting in a deserted lobby waiting for a dentist appointment, it makes sense that staring into your phone and texting a friend provides you the best option for connecting with others.

We can’t expect someone else to save us from ourselves.

But when you’re waiting in line at a concert with a bunch of people who obviously share your taste in music, addictively flicking through memes is likely sabotaging your greatest potential to build meaningful connections with fellow humans you’re already elbow to elbow with.

Unfortunately, the decision isn’t always as clear cut as an uninspiring waiting room or an exciting group of peers at a concert. But maybe there’s an app that can help us?

It’s on you to decide

OK, so I’ve got bad news. I checked, and there’s definitely not an app for that. While emotion-detection is certainly shaping up to be a big market in the coming years, right now it’s still in its infancy. Even our most talented A.I. — IBM’s Watson — is incapable of picking up on your thoughts and desires.

All this means is that we can’t expect someone else to save us from ourselves. It’s simply not possible for tech creators to design products capable of surveying our surroundings and reading our emotions to let us know when it’s a good time to self-reflect, when it’s a good time to chat with a nearby stranger, or when you’re in a prime spot to scroll, scroll, scroll through the infinite possibilities of the digital realm. Not yet at least.

Facebook News Feed

So for the time being — and for better or worse — this is still a judgement call we have to learn how to make. It’s a skill we each have to practice and put into practice, especially if we want to see our continued relationship with technology tilt in the favor of Team Human.

The good news is, as Pavliscak taught us with her words of wisdom, it will indeed tilt based on our choices and actions. We just have to take ownership of those choices, acknowledging that technology isn’t there to steer our willpower, but that our willpower steers technology. The purpose of our gadgets is to be there when we need them;  our duty is to know when that is.

And as we get better at this – as we show a preference to use our devices as little as possible – the companies that make them will begin to tailor their technology to prioritize human interaction and non-invasive empowerment, in the same way they’ve currently tailored it to provide nonstop amusement. No need to petition Mark Zuckerberg so that he’ll stop hogging your time with all those push-notifications; instead, show him it’s annoying and a bad business model by turning them off.

Show the tech titans that you’d prefer to have time for the other things in your life by simply taking time for the other things in your life. They’ll inevitably adjust to accommodate, shifting their focus from getting you to stare at ads for as long as possible in favor of providing value by giving you more time.

No, it won’t be easy. Putting people first is undoubtedly an uphill battle in a world where big data is being used in manipulative ways against us all the time. But we do have a way to fight back. And luckily it’s as simple as teaching technology to put people first by doing it ourselves, every day.


Canada’s winters inspired a startup to warm homes with cryptomining heat waste

Cryptomining may be the key to untold riches and the future of currency, but it’s also an environmental nightmare. Heatmine, thinks it has the answer, but it could mean bolting a mining rig onto every home and business in the country.

The Galaxy S10 may be announced before MWC, sell for up to $1,750

While we still may be months away from an announcement, there's no doubt about it: Samsung is working hard on its successor to the Galaxy S9. Here's everything we know about the upcoming Samsung Galaxy S10.

We want every laptop to be as thin as an iPhone. But is it practical?

The Acer Swift 7 is the thinnest notebook you can buy, and it feels like the notebook of the future. But it makes too many compromises along the way, and some weird design choices hold it back.

Patent highlights Apple's sky-high ambitions for AirPower wireless charger

At its September event last year, Apple unveiled the AirPower -- its new wireless charging mat that will allow you to charge multiple devices at one time. It has not yet been released. Here's everything we know about the device so far.

Honor to out-megapixel the competition with 48MP camera on upcoming View 20

After its phenomenal success with the View 10 in 2018, it looks like Honor is getting ready up the ante with its forthcoming Honor View 20. Here's everything we know about it so far.
Home Theater

Confused about LED vs. LCD TVs? Here's everything you need to know

Our LED vs. LCD TV buying guide explains why these two common types of displays are fundamentally connected, how they differ, what to look for in buying an LED TV, and what's on the horizon for TVs.
Product Review

The Asus ZenBook 14 is a tiny notebook that gets lost in the crowd

The ZenBook 14 aims to be the smallest 14-inch notebook around, and it succeeds thanks to some tiny bezels. Performance and battery life are good, but the notebook lacks a standout feature other than size.

The best MacBook deals for December 2018

If you’re in the market for a new Apple laptop, let us make your work a little easier: We hunted down the best up-to-date MacBook deals available online right now from various retailers.

How to connect AirPods to your MacBook

If you have new AirPods, you may be looking forward to pairing them with your MacBook. Our guide will show you exactly how to connect AirPods to MacBook, what to do if they are already paired with a device, and more.

Hitting ‘Check for updates’ in Windows 10 opts you into beta releases

Users who are careful about keeping their system updated should watch out -- Microsoft revealed this week that clicking the Check for updates button in Windows can opt you in to testing beta code.

Secure your Excel documents with a password by following these quick steps

Excel documents are used by people and businesses all over the world. Given how often they contain sensitive information, it makes sense to keep them from the wrong eyes. Thankfully, it's easy to secure them with a password.

Which Macs are compatible with MacOS Mojave?

Is your computer ready for Apple's big Mojave update? Here's what you need to know about MacOS Mojave compatibility, what Macs can successful download Mojave, and the requirements you need to know about.
Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Booze-filled ski poles and crypto piggy banks

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!

Change your mouse cursor in Windows with these quick tips

The standard mouse cursor is boring, so change it! With this guide on how to change your mouse cursor in Windows, you can choose to use one of Microsoft's pre-installed cursors or download something a bit more extravagant.