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Empathy and the Ever-increasing Velocity of Life and Technology

October 8, 2018

There are new work functions and means for collaboration. Obsolete job titles and lagging industries. A data glut of exponential proportions. The changes wrought by modern life force us to constantly parse the real from the false, creating a rift between new- and old-world skills and challenging our ability to navigate rapid change.

Futurist Alvin Toffler wrote about how technology would impact society in a series of books, with Future Shock (1970) catapulting him to international fame that persists beyond his 2016 death. He predicted the proliferation of free-flowing information via computers and the Internet. He introduced the term information overload into popular culture, which refers to the difficulty the average person has understanding issues, identifying their underlying causes, and making decisions to resolve them because of the overwhelming—and now, unprecedented—amount of information available.

Many of Toffler’s predictions are useful in analyzing how rapid change has impacted our daily lives. Over the past 30 years, the speed of life and evolution of technology have increased at faster and faster rates. A person of a certain age might recall the velocity spike resulting from the transition from interoffice mail to fax, which paved the way for on-demand sharing of information. From that point on, our hardware and software tools began a rapid evolution that continues to the present day, when people typically check their mobile device 147 times per day, or once every five minutes.

Living in the Multiverse

The shared view of reality that preceded the computing-technology revolution no longer exists. People born during the past few decades have a different context from those who were born before the technology revolution. Technology’s impact on society has been massive. Before our current era, shared understanding seemed easier to come by and our various spheres of life felt more aligned. In contrast, with today’s choices among hundreds of media and social channels—as well as all the human voices at the proverbial table—an almost uncountable number of daily inputs and outputs makes our ability to make sense of it all tedious and challenging.

One theme of Toffler’s view of the future is how change would impact people. He wrote:

“Rational behavior…depends upon a ceaseless flow of data from the environment. It depends upon the power of the individual to predict, with at least a fair success, the outcome of his own actions. To do this, he must be able to predict how the environment will respond to his acts. Sanity, itself, thus hinges on man’s ability to predict his immediate, personal future on the basis of information fed him by the environment.”—Alvin Toffler

For many, the ability to predict their immediate future is becoming more difficult because of the rapid changes in our economy and the ever-evolving interfaces through which we connect and communicate. The desire to go back to a time when things were more predictable is understandable, but change itself is an undeniable fact of life.

The Unclear Shape of Future Education

In the future, an inability to learn will define illiteracy rather than an inability to read. Education is experiencing a seismic shift: a four-year degree is no longer the only ticket to a high-paying job. A ceaseless cycle of learning, unlearning, and relearning adds a dizzying new dimension to our lives and our experiences with educational tools and resources. Psychologist Herbert Gerjuoy of the Human Resources Research Organization says simply:

“The new education must teach the individual how to classify and reclassify information, how to evaluate its veracity, how to change categories when necessary, how to move from the concrete to the abstract and back, how to look at problems from a new direction—how to teach himself.”—Herbert Gerjuoy

In the professional world, we can learn new skillsets through distance learning, boot camps, technical certifications, and personal experiences. Together, these various modes of learning are driving radical shifts in knowledge sharing and the ways in which we connect. Soft skills, creative aptitudes, and technical capabilities that artificial intelligence (AI) cannot readily supplant are already winning out as the most in-demand business skills. Nevertheless, with its incredible algorithmic advances, AI is outperforming humans at many tasks and can even train itself in new competencies through machine learning, leaving us wondering what will remain fundamentally human activities or what even constitutes a human right.

Mainstream Media Upheaval

Mainstream media have contributed to this speedup as well. Today, media outlets can no longer write all of their own stories because of their shrinking newsrooms. Legacy publishers are now supplementing original reporting with the work of desk-bound re-reporters, who comb atomized content such as social media and press releases for stories they can rewrite for publication. The Digg and Huffington Post content-creation models take the concept of syndication to a whole new level, exacerbating the phenomenon that Toffler predicted decades ago.

As the bytes of data we create each year rise at an incredible rate, society runs the risk of burnout, which could drive mass disconnection from the new platforms whose creation was meant to spur just the opposite. With so many subtle iterations of nearly the same content proliferating across countless news sources, the energy drain on readers and users may leave them empty handed in their search for clarity, truth, and meaning. As a result, there is incredible whitespace for creating new user experiences that take into account human needs for finding purpose through work and interactions with products, platforms, and people.

Faster and Faster We Go

The speed of our daily lives makes it hard for us to realize just how we arrived here—similar to the doomed frog in a pot of heating water. As reported in the Harvard Business Review, a survey of 483 professionals found that 60 percent of those who carry smartphones remain connected to their job for 13.5 hours or more each day on weekdays and 4.5 hours on weekends. That’s 72 hours per week. The attitude that time is money has changed the way we spend our free time, keeping us from being present and in the now with one another, as we live in constant pursuit of the next shiny new toy.

But how much faster can we go? While the technology industry is full of ideas for social good, today's political divide has made it difficult for us to put ourselves into someone else's shoes. Empathy for the user is a familiar concept to most of us who are in the business of building digital products. However, our empathy should also extend to those who are struggling to keep pace with the changes that are taking place in the workforce and at home. Professionals who haven’t tapped into continuing education have difficulties positioning, marketing, and amplifying their skills. Once out of this ever-quickening stream, it becomes even harder to jump back in and compete.

What’s Next?

Our overloaded schedules and the desire to be productive in all aspects of our lives have obscured the obvious paths that enable a productive, shared existence. As UX professionals, in taking our individual paths to engage our passion for user experience and our curiosity, we need to continue asking questions and listening to people whose needs are unmet.

By putting our mobile devices aside and popping our collective social-bubble echo chambers, we can make connections with people who might have a different or enlightening point of view. Let’s find inspiration and education in unlikely places and challenge not only our assumptions, but also our presumptions. With greater capacity for empathy, perhaps we can open our minds to finding new ways to bring everyone along on our journey. As Toffler wrote, “Our moral responsibility is not to stop the future, but to shape it.” 

Director of UX Strategy at 50,000feet

Chicago, Illinois, USA

Eric JohnsonEric plays an integral part in providing design and user-experience strategy, recommending solutions that improve and enhance the customer journey. From project start to finish, Eric provides guidance to ensure design and strategy continuously perform in sync.  Read More

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