It is an understatement to state that technology is advancing faster than humanity's ability to adapt to it. This has not necessarily destined us for a dystopian future and the collapse of civilization. It’s my hope it can do the opposite and save us from ourselves. Perhaps the ability to download information and other people's thoughts directly into our brain (1) can build understanding, increase empathy, and create a peaceful more unified world. Perhaps downloading knowledge into a child's mind without them having to learn it will exponentially increase knowledge and progress.
There are numerous causes for concern and I’d like to address three ways we can ensure that human connection is not displaced by technology. After all, hundreds of thousands of evolutionary history is embedded in our genes and if we release technology out of the genie bottle without understanding how humans have learned to connect and survive all these years that dystopian future becomes more problematic.
These three practices will help ensure that our feet stay grounded while we reach for the stars both virtually and literally.
Part 1 - Slow Down:
Although there is some debate on when and how our human brains developed, it is clear that our limbic system developed first (2). This is the part of the brain that, very simply, is where emotions come from. Although this helped us evolve, survive dangers, procreate, and eventually give birth to rudimentary language, it is still mostly reactionary. We didn’t have the cognitive skill to stop, breathe, think about our actions and consequences. Our immediate emotion was how we would have most likely responded.
Once our newer part of the brain, our neocortex, developed, we began to understand rational thinking, complex ideas, learning, conceptual understanding, and logic. We began to develop more complex language, varied communities, and eventually agriculture, culture, and eventually Culture Club, pop culture, and cultural revolutions.
Today, we can communicate faster than ever, with a broader audience, and remain anonymous if we wish! We can respond emotionally without fear of the consequences because we can’t see the other person's reactions to our emotional outbursts. Our brains can’t compute. If we spend our days online then we lose our ability to perceive it when we communicate with someone face to face.
How do we rebuild the practice of connecting thoughtfully, empathetically, and rationally? We slow down. We pause. We consider. We imagine being the other person. When you are talking to someone in an emotionally charged situation, you read that email that makes you angry, or you see that post that triggers something from your past, slow down, take a breath, take a minute, take a day, before you respond. Re-establish that human connection by slowing down and being okay with the silence. Be okay with the silence in your own mind. Then you can reply with your emotions being an asset rather than a liability. Or, perhaps you don’t need to reply at all.
Part 2 - Listen to what is not spoken:
As indicated in Part 1, humans are losing the ability to read each other’s facial expressions, body language, even tone of voice. If everything becomes electronic it’s difficult to distinguish what’s sarcastic or what’s mean. When is it appropriate to crack and joke and when is it good to just send a heart emoji?
Emoji’s are a new form of communication that can express our feelings and indicate intention and helps immensely with electronic communication. However they can’t tell the whole story. Emoji’s are the grunts of our ancestors explaining in a non verbal way, OMG, or just kidding, or I like you - wink wink.
In real life, how can you tell someone wants to engage in conversation or would rather leave? How can you tell if someone is flirting or just friendly. How can you tell that a nod doesn’t mean yes, it just means being polite?
Human culture and language is complex and confusing when we are practicing. How much more difficult is it when we are reduced to screens, downloads, and tiny smiley faces? Like a muscle, our ability to connect with others will atrophy if we don’t listen to everything - and not just the words. We listen to their body language, their tone, their gestures, the speed and volume of their voice, their eye contact, and their responses to you.
We also must listen to the environment. Are you in a coffee shop, a park, an office meeting, or a club? What distractions prevent clear communication?
Only by practicing these things will we be able to deepen our connection with each other.
Part 3 - Intelligent Stories:
You may have heard the expression, “People don’t remember facts, but they do remember stories.” This is how Fake News, conspiracy theories, and false narratives are born and thrive. You could have all of the accurate data in the world, but if there is a compelling emotionally charged story that seemingly debunks your facts, you will lose that debate. You don’t need to look far to see this in our world today: Climate Change, Vaccines, Flat Earth, Wars, have given rise to extremist views, populism and division.
It makes sense doesn’t it? Extreme views are caused by extreme stories. Extreme stories are driven by extreme emotion. Extreme emotion buries itself in our brain and makes it hard to root out with simple logic and facts. Emotion is a survival mechanism. It is embedded deep within us. How can we balance the equation? How can humanity move forward without falling into ideological tribal communities?
We tell emotionally compelling stories that incorporate our logic, our facts, and our power of reason. We infuse powerful emotional narratives into statements and flow charts and numbers. We combine our limbic brain with our neocortex. Although we may not convince everyone, connect with everyone, or change your crazy uncle's mind about the actual shape of the earth, we will succeed in building a future that is technologically advanced and deeply humanly connected.
As Jodie Foster’s character Elle, in the movie Contact exclaims, “The future is what we make of it.”
(1) Evans, Vyv PhD (2020 July 21) The Future of Communication https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/language-in-the-mind/202007/the-future-communication
(2) Reward Foundation, The Evolutionary Development of the Brain https://rewardfoundation.org/brain-basics/evolutionary-development-of-the-brain/