Smart Technology

Column: Gerd Leonhard – Taming the beast

The march of progress in technology often proceeds from magic to manic to toxic. At first it works and it’s fantastic – in other words: magic! Then we start to get manically obsessed with it because it works so well that we can no longer do without it; it’s habit-forming and addictive. Finally, it reaches the toxic stage where it begins to poison our relationships with other humans, and with ourselves. A truly restrained way of using computers would be to take yet another step by devising rules and laws to govern machines that are more powerful than ourselves.

What can we do, both collectively and individually, to tame the beast we have released upon the world?
First, we need to face the problem, something most people are very reluctant to do. We need to make decisions individually and collectively to discipline ourselves. For instance, we could choose not to keep our smartphones on the nightstand, or not only to switch them off during flights but also at certain times of day or during holidays. On average, people in the United States, across all age groups, check their phones 46 times a day, according to Deloitte. That’s up from 33 views per day in 2014. Is this really necessary? Is it healthy? The choice is ours. Digital obesity is becoming a problem. We’re getting fat on data, so to speak, and the effects are similar. It’s like eating: we have too many things to eat, and if we try to eat too much we become bloated.

Gerd Leonhard

The time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time. no computer in the world will ever be able to understand that

Gerd Leonhard is the founder and CEO of The Futures Agency. He is based in Zurich. His new book, Technology vs. Humanity, is out now published by Fast Future Publishing.


Whose job is it to make these decisions?
We all have a personal responsibility for keeping our own lives under control, but that is not the final solution within a system that’s so extremely complex and which, at least now, lacks transparency. Governments, public officials, and organizations need to put pressure on the companies behind this trend. Collectively, we need to understand that technology is a very powerful industry to be faced with, and many of the things it creates are highly addictive. They’re like drugs. We need to regulate the issues of digital addiction and make it more transparent. It should not be addictive by design. It‘s commonly believed social networking companies employ psychologists to work on how to make their platforms more addictive. That is not a good thing. It’s like cigarette companies adding substances to tobacco that make smoking more addictive. As a society, we‘ve come to condemn and prohibit such corporate behavior, and we need to fnd similar rules for keeping people in balance.

This is a societal question, not just a private one. If technology becomes too sticky, then people get stuck, right? In the end we need to agree on simple rules about how to keep technology sustainable. I describe this as Digital Ethics and this must, almost by definition, form the core of any truly sustainable technology. Digital human rights and digital ethics must also be established as core rules for doing business in the technology market.

The list would be long, and we need to come to some form of transnational agreement on them, but I‘m pretty sure they need to include rules like these: We should never allow humans to be governed by technology, specifically AI. Technology should never cut humans out of the loop just to ensure speed or profit. We should not augment humans to endow them with supernatural powers. We must not empower machines to upgrade and expand themselves without human consent. We should retain our right to disconnect and remain embodied as humans.

This right to disconnect is under threat and we need to push back. We also need to be able to take our time and must not punish people for turning off and signing out. Unlike machines, humans need time to contemplate and digest all this information. The compulsion to be always online is increasing and will only get worse. For instance, if you disconnect your car, your insurance company could cancel your policy because it‘s no longer able to track you and monitor your driving behavior.

Perhaps the most important rule of all should be: we must not seek to completely eliminate accidents from happening, to suspend the laws of chance or extinguish serendipity, that quintessential human quality of finding meaning in apparently irrelevant or happenstance discoveries. As the old saying goes: the time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time. No computer in the world will ever be able to understand that.


echnology vs. Humanity  - IoT Column in Smart Industry

Gerd Leonhard’s
new book out now

Technology vs. Humanity

Which side are you on?
Gerd Leonhard’s provocative new manifesto


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