The Human-Technology Connection: Enabling Change

First published May 6, 2010 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Aaron Goldman scooped my column on Apple, Siri and search (although, looking at the column, I think I can claim partial authorship) so I’m going to broaden the lens a little bit. This is a theme I’ve discussed in a number of recent presentations, as well as at least one prior column, and I think it touches on why the news from Apple and Siri is potentially so important.

Humans Will Be Human

I’ve said before that “technology doesn’t cause our behaviors to change, it enables our behaviors to change.” The difference is subtle but profound. Let me give you an example.

I recently moderated a panel discussion on social media in the B2B marketplace. One by one, the panelists marched out their supporting evidence (14 zillion people access Facebook every 12 seconds, that sort of thing) and their own opinions. The consensus was: things have changed. Indeed, they have. But at the top of the session, I said this wasn’t about technology, this was about people. And people are social animals. We follow the herd, and more importantly, we communicate with the herd. One could feel the “Groundswell” (a pun and plug in one!) literally surging through the room.

At the end, we turned to the audience for Q&A. A middle-aged woman, definitely falling on the Digital Immigrant side of the tech-savvy divide, stood up and called the entire panel out: “I don’t buy it. I don’t buy all this technology is making us more connected. I haven’t seen any evidence of it. In fact, I’ve seen the opposite. I’m a professional recruiter and I can’t get a candidate to pick up the phone and talk to me. I need to get to know them and I can’t do that through an email. I need to have a conversation. I think technology is isolating us, not connecting us.”

It’s All About Options

The panelists pointed out the generational differences between her and her candidates, saying that this could be the cause of the change of behavior. But I wanted to probe a little deeper, because I wasn’t so sure technology was the culprit here:  “I suspect that when you’re recruiting, your motivation to connect with a candidate is not always the same as their motivation to contact you,” I said.

“It’s your job and top of mind, but for them, you’re just an interruption in what they were already doing. They may not be ready to have a chat with you,” I continued. “Twenty-five years ago, when we were starting our careers, the phone was the only choice for instantaneous, ‘at-a-distance’ communication. But now, we have many choices, thanks to technology. So, they have options and they’re picking the one that’s appropriate. They’re time-shifting the interruption to a time more convenient, when they’re more motivated to contact you. I suspect that if we had that choice 25 years ago, we would have done the same thing. Technology hasn’t changed us, it’s just given us more options to do the things we really want to do.”

The Human Act of Searching

So why is that important for Siri, Apple and Search? Well, just as we had to adapt to the phone as an instant communication channel, we’ve had to adapt to the interface that search gave us to seek information. Let’s face it; typing words into a box is not the way we evolved to communicate. We talk. We touch. We listen. We see. We’ve had to adapt to a non-organic, structured format — 10 blue links in a list — because we had no choice. It was all the technology would allow at the time.

Also, separating the acts of retrieving information and doing something with the information is not natural for us either. We’re used to a tighter connection between the two. Information is seldom an end point. Doing something with the information is a much more common objective.  But up to now, search could only really act as an information retrieval tool.  It was powerful, and we adapted quickly because we recognized the power, but it wasn’t natural.

But look at what Siri and Apple are trying to do: On this platform, search is asking for something, getting it and immediately doing something with it. Sound familiar? It should. It’s what we’ve done for most of our history as humans. And that’s what technology, at it’s best, should do: give us more ways to be human.

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