Has Technology Spoiled Us?

First published March 15, 2012 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

“We live in an amazing, amazing world, and it’s wasted on the crappiest generation of spoiled idiots.” — Louis C.K.

If you want to see “amazing” as it emerges onto our collective radar, your best seat is in front of the TED stage. It’s like a candy store of jaw-dropping technology. This year’s edition was no exception. We saw flying robots, virtual cadavers (to train new surgeons) and enough other techno-goodies to keep the TED audience in a digitally enhanced state of rapture.

One that stood out for me doesn’t exist yet, but Peter Diamandis and his “X Prize” have placed their bets on something called the Qualcomm Tricorder Challenger. Remember the Tricorder from the original “Star Trek “ — a nifty little piece of hardware that could instantly diagnose Star Fleet crew members and other assorted alien life forms? Well, the X Prize foundation thinks we’re at a point where we could turn that particular piece of science fiction into science fact. They’ve put $10 million up for grabs for whoever can create a handheld device that will be “a tool capable of capturing key health metrics and diagnosing a set of 15 diseases. Metrics for health could include such elements as blood pressure, respiratory rate, and temperature. Ultimately, this tool will collect large volumes of data from ongoing measurement of health states through a combination of wireless sensors, imaging technologies, and portable, non-invasive laboratory replacements.”  The TED community collectively started salivating at the possibilities.

But as most of us had our attention focused on the amazing glimpses of our own cleverness on stage, I couldn’t help scanning the audience around me at TEDActive. Here we were, a group of privileged (and mainly well-to-do) Westerners, and most of us had technology in our hands that would have blown away the TED audience of 2002, just 10 short years ago. Imagine demoing the iPhone or iPad then. A standing “O” would have been guaranteed (not that that’s too stringent a bar to get over at TED).

It made me realizing how fickle we are when it comes to technology. What amazes us today is expected tomorrow and becomes boring the day after. We chew up innovation at an ever-increasing pace and seem to grow annoyed if we’re not constantly fed a diet of “wow.”

I started with a quote from comedian Louis C.K.  In his routine, he talks about a flight he was recently on where the airline announced that you could access WiFi while in the air.  Partway through the flight, the system went down and the flight attendants came on the system and apologized.

The person in the next seat responded with an exasperated, “This is complete B.S.!”

How, wondered C.K., could you possible feel entitled to something you didn’t even know existed five minutes ago?

Look, I love my gadgets as much as the next guy. More, in fact. But at that moment, sitting in that darkened auditorium, I couldn’t help but wonder if our own insatiability for innovation is setting off a technological arms race with social implications we can’t possibly foresee. Are we becoming spoiled idiots? Are we so blinded by our own sense of entitlement that we fail to appreciate just how amazing the world is today? And, more disturbingly, as we underutilizing the tools that technology is giving us, going for the easy distraction rather than the earth-shaking potential of innovation?Do we push technology down the path of least resistance, rather than directing it where it can do the most good for the world, collectively?

Of course, applying technology for the betterment of mankind is right in TED’s wheelhouse, so my fears are not so much aimed at what I saw during TED, but rather to the deluge of technical innovation whose only purpose seems to be to make us fatter, stupider and lazier.

Among the nobler pursuits of innovation is Segway inventor Dean Kamen’s Stirling Water still, a box about the size of a large camping cooler that allows you to “stick a hose into anything that looks wet…and it comes out…as perfect distilled water.” The box can supply a village with 1,000 liters of clean water a day.  Peter Diamandis gave us an update on the still, saying that hopes are high that it will soon go into widespread production, making a massive difference in the health and well-being of many third-world countries. It all sounds great until we remember that Kamen first introduced it on the TED stage in (you guessed it) 2002.

I wonder. If Steve Jobs had teased us with the capabilities of the iPhone in 2002, would we have waited patiently for a decade to get our hands on it? Or would we have whined like a bunch of “spoiled idiots” until it shipped? We’ve now had four version of the iPhone ship since it was introduced give years ago, so I suspect the latter is more likely.

Considering that the majority of the world still can’t get a glass of clean drinking water, it does give one pause for thought, doesn’t it?

An Introvert’s Confession

First published March 1, 2012 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

I am an introvert.

Which, I guess, qualifies as an introvert’s confession — a metaphorical “coming out of the closet.” But if you were an introvert, you would know that’s the last thing you really want to do. The closet is such a non-threatening place to be.

A few columns ago I wrote about personality tests and said that, according to the Myers Briggs Personality Test, I’m usually tagged as an “INFJ” – which, according to the labels applied, means I’m an Introverted, iNtuitive, Feeling and Judging person.  Apparently that’s one of the rarest of the 16 personality types. Only 1% to 3% of the population are “INFJ”s. Depending on when I’ve taken the test, the last two letters have wavered a bit, but never that first “I.” I am, was and always will be an introvert.

I write this from TEDActive – which may just be the definition of introvert’s hell. It’s a gathering of some 600 well-meaning, gregarious TEDsters in the desert east of LAS (Palm Springs) who are prodded at every juncture to “interact” and “connect.” A good question would be, “Why the hell would you subject yourself to that?” A better question might be, “Tell me why this is this your third TEDActive.”

This year, much to my delight, one of the speakers of the first day of TED was a fellow introvert, Susan Cain, who spoke (much to her discomfort) on the TED stage about the importance of introversion. Internally I cheered, because that’s what we introverts do. Externally I stayed calm and expressionless, because that, too, is what we introverts do.

Let me tell you how an introvert negotiates the social minefield that is TEDActive. Tonight (being the night I’m writing this column) is “Free Night,” which means you’re supposed to somehow connect with a group of five to eight total strangers and invite yourself out to dinner with them at a local restaurant.

Yeah, right.

I, to the contrary, bailed out of the last session early (which was not that big a sacrifice, frankly) and snuck away to a local diner to grab a quick bite, by myself. By the time the rest of the TEDActive crowd was heading out to dinner with their new friends, to be followed, I assume, by poolside partying and midnight karaoke, I was already back, safely ensconced in my hotel room, writing this column.

If you were judging me through an extrovert’s eye, you would probably be using words like “antisocial” (you do know what “introvert” means, don’t you?) and “pathetic.” What you don’t know is the profound pleasure an introvert can get from observing life and thinking about how it all fits into the bigger picture. As I sat in that diner, I watched a four-generation family reunion unfold before my eyes. I watched a mom take her 3-year-old daughter for a walk around the restaurant so she could be the center of attention as her new shoes sparkled and lit up with each step. And I asked myself why most of us adults don’t feel the need to wear shoes that light up when we walk through a restaurant. What happens along the way that steals that wonder from us?  If I were there with a group of others that I felt compelled to socialize with, I would have never seen that sight. That’s an introvert’s modus operandi: we observe, we think and we wonder. There are worse ways to spend your life.

Now, to be clear, I don’t skulk my way through the entire TED program avoiding eye contact and sneaking back into my hotel room. I had a very enjoyable conversation at lunch about space travel, the global rebalancing of wealth, the ethical dilemma of artificial intelligence and how our sense of entitlement may kill North America. That’s why I have come back to TEDActive for three straight years. But by 6 p.m., the tank was full. I needed some solitary time to digest.

My career has forced me to take on some extroverted characteristics. I’ve had to learn to speak in public. And owning your own business dictates that you become a salesperson. But I can’t live on a steady diet of that. At the many search conferences I attend, I usually stay at a different hotel than the “official venue.” It just makes life easier. And my longtime industry friends can tell you that I’m much more comfortable with a quiet dinner and engaging conversation than the more gregarious gatherings around the hotel bar.  That’s just how I roll.

As an introvert, you get used to living in a world that’s largely defined and judged by extroverts. As Susan Cain pointed out today in her talk, somewhere in the 20th century, the value of character somehow slipped and gave way to the cult of personality. We introverts are constantly made to feel that we should be more “outgoing.” Perhaps, though, the rest of the world should become more “thoughtful.” Would that be such a bad thing?

All of this has little to do with search engines or digital marketing. But I do think that our newfound digital connections may actually turn the tables on the imbalance between the introverts and extroverts of the world.  It seems to be less of a social stigma to spend time by yourself. And thanks to online connections, we can now connect on an “as required” basis.  Perhaps, as a society, we’re beginning to put more importance on the value of individual contribution.

Maybe, just maybe, the introvert’s time has come.