Personal transformation in the digital era: How can humans stay relevant in an increasingly automated world?
As technology takes over every facet of our lives, are we prepared for what the new digital future will look like?
Artificial intelligence, biotechnologies, and robotics will transform everything we do. From our work, education, and health care to our day-to-day lives, and there are big question marks around how we humans will adapt to the seismic changes ahead. Are our workplace skills adaptable? Are we making the most of the things that differentiate us from machines? And is over-use of digital tools changing who we are?
At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Sberbank held its annual business breakfast to discuss the challenges ahead. The event was hosted by Sberbank CEO Herman Gref and featured contributions from a psychiatrist, doctor and neurophysiologist Andrey Kurpatov, Ngaire Woods, the founding dean of the Blavatnik School of Government, author and psychologist Susan David, and acclaimed yogi and author Sadhguru.
In recent years, the breakfast has unpacked the big challenges for business and government as technology slowly advances into every corner of the workplace, but this year the theme was altogether more personal.
“We're touching on a very sensitive theme. It’s human,” said Gref as he welcomed guests. “Technology is growing so fast and todays' technological changes are very different from anything we’ve seen in the past. Information overload, growing choice and uncertainty, and creeping privacy loss make the impacts far greater than ever before.”
But how are these changes affecting us as human beings, and particularly those growing up as digital natives? The research is starting to paint a picture of an emerging generation losing touch with themselves, and those around them.
Kurpatov issued a stark warning about the impact of hyper-information on the developing human brain; creating long-term changes to young people, emotionally, socially and cognitively. “In hyper-information environment, creativity is suppressed,” he explained, adding, “hyper-information also leads to social anxiety, self-injury, and depression. And crucially, it leads to an inability to look forward, which means an impairment in self-motivation and goal setting.”
Woods agreed, “This is incredibly important research. Every single university in the world is suffering a pandemic of some of the smartest people in the world.” She went to explain how at Blavatnik, and more widely at Oxford, they try to encourage students to leave their phones outside during lessons. “I say to my students, do you want to be smarter? Then leave your device outside. Because even the presence of a phone from the person sitting next to you is sucking up your bandwidth.”
And all this information is not necessarily widening our knowledge. In fact, Woods warns confirmation bias means we seek out information that re-enforces the things we already believe, “we would like to think that when we look at our devices, we’re gathering information from a variety of sources, but it turns out we click on the things we agree with.”
And the impact of our collective digital obsession is being felt not just in schools and universities, it reverberates through government and businesses as well, argues Susan David.
“The (emotional) skills we need have been side-lined,” she says, “an organization that cannot face difficult emotions, is an organization that cannot adapt and thrive. Because here’s the thing: our emotions are data. Our emotions contain information on the things we care about.”
“Pain plus reflection equals progress,” agreed billionaire entrepreneur and philanthropist Ray Dalio who has donated millions toward research on transcendental meditation, one of the key ingredients that speakers agree can help off-set the damage caused by being too plugged-in. Digital hygiene and mindfulness are also important, Kurpatov stressed. “Following digital hygiene rules should become the norm. That, and we need to improve the quality of our social interactions.”
“Well-being is far more wide-spread than ever before, but all we’re hearing is more whining because people have not learned to handle the fundamental human mechanisms,” said Sadguru, marking this point by dismissing himself early to leave for a scheduled meditation.
“I think we all together face the same problems,” Gref told the room during his closing remarks, “I feel responsible for my company to bring value to my 300,000 employees. We invest a lot in programs and training to help develop these so-called soft skills, but we have a problem that teachers are not trained to teach these things at the moment.”
As businesses around the globe shift from placing the emphasis on what machines can do to transform the way we work and play, it’s clear that the emphasis also needs to shift now to humans. The future of our livelihoods and our happiness depends on it.