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Technology at Its Tipping Point: A Design Manifesto for Humanity

Tristan Harris (left) and Raphael Bemporad onstage at SB'18 Vancouver | Image credit: Kim Bellavance/Sustainable Brands

Today, we are at a confluence of three global tipping points.

  • Environmentally — from extreme and destructive weather events to rising sea levels and temperatures, climate change is impacting ecosystems everywhere.
  • Economically — we have rising income inequality, with the world’s eight richest people owning as much as the poorest half of humanity, and 1 billion children worldwide living in poverty.
  • Technologically — we are dazzled by new innovations and the amazing connectedness they offer, but our addiction is taking a very human toll.

With so many challenges and therefore so many opportunities to create real change, Tristan Harris, founder of the Center for Humane Technology, told a packed plenary room at SB’18 Vancouver that he believes our focus should be on ethical technology: “[Technology] may be the most important tipping point; if we don’t solve for [it], we won’t be able to solve for the other ones.”

Let’s be clear. Technology is not neutral; each application is fighting for our attention, programmed to exploit weaknesses in our brains to create addiction and to keep us coming back for more. We understand inherently that this addiction is not good for us, but like all addiction the pain and dissatisfaction is coupled with hits of pleasure and the endorphin rush.

Knowing this, Harris and co-presenter Raphael Bemporad, co-founder and principal of BBMG, asked themselves, “How do we create the wisest moral operating system when we make choices on 2 billion people’s behalf? And if we are going to influence people, how do we do it ethically?” To begin to answer this, they conducted an ethnographic study of people’s tech habits and their impacts to reveal our deepest vulnerabilities and desires.



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From this study, five human conflicts emerged, and Bemporad and Harris identified companies that are addressing these conflicts positively.

1. Conflict of identity — Who am I?

When we present our curated life to the outside world — amazing trips, perfect birthdays, filtered and altered photos where we look stunning — we lose sense of who we really are. The idealized self we present to the world, and in turn is presented back to us by others, creates a conflict of identity — our lives measured by the external validation of likes, hearts, comments or shares. And in these Facebook and Instagram worlds, what is rewarded? The idealized self. Post a picture of a puppy and your likes skyrocket, dare to post that you are hurting and few if any people will respond. This curated world is not real and, for our teens and tweens who are still trying to find themselves, it is creating epidemic rates of depression. How to we create authentic worlds to connect through?

Brand examples: Rihanna’s Fenty brand seeks to provide products that perform across all skin types and tones; while Finstagram (fake Instagram) accounts allow users to post real experiences for real friends.

2. Conflict of Autonomy — Am I in control?

The fast pace at which technology moves demands short response times, removing our most human ability — reflection. Instead, we make decisions with our limbic system, sometimes referred to as the reptilian brain — the one that manages our fight or flight responses. The second critical question: How do we design for convenience while allowing human control?

Brand examples: Snips, a Siri alternative, offers a private, decentralized, open-source voice assistant. And Blue Apron allows cooking convenience with control; you select the meals, they deliver to your door.

3. Conflict of Community — Where do I belong?

Humans have an innate need to be known and understood. We seek to be part of something bigger than ourselves — a tribe, a clan, a community. When we favor virtual relationships over physical ones, we undermine this need. For real humans, connecting face to face strengthens our sense of belonging.

Brand examples: Airbnb allows travelers to stay in local neighborhoods, instantly transforming the travel experience. Meetup believes “getting together with real people in real life makes powerful things happen. Side hustles become careers, ideas become movements, and chance encounters become lifelong connections. Meetup brings people together to create thriving communities.”

4. Novelty — What is enough?

Our brains are wired to be attracted to new things. When we experience new things, we get that happy dopamine rush, as we do from each ping from social media. My own experience suggests it draws us in for an experience and is more compulsive than addictive. That said, if you are lonely, which a growing number of Americans are, social media may satisfy your craving for connection. Luckily, the two companies cited by Bemporad and Harris absolutely address our innate need for novelty:

Brand examples: How about we launched a site for couples — novelty reinvented for the committed, monogamous relationship. Rent the Runway allows women to fulfill the dream of an endless closet.

5. Conflict of Velocity — How do I want to spend my time?

In this “instant” world, where we need things now, we find ourselves rushing from one thing to with constant demands placed upon us. This need for speed comes in direct conflict with our need for sanctuary. Our health suffers — resulting in anxiety disorders, stress, high blood pressure, depression. Humans need sanctuary, calm, reflection.

Brand examples: Yondr creates phone-free spaces: “In our hyperconnected world, we provide a haven to engage with what you’re doing and who you’re doing it with. In physical space and real time.” And Headspace — meditation made simple — allows you to reset immediately. Getting ready for an interview, having trouble getting or falling back to sleep or simply having a stressful day? These 3- 5- or 10-minute sessions will set you right.

Whether you agree with the nuances of all of the five human conflicts or not, there is clear truth in their commentary. How do we address it? Bemporad and Harris presented a compelling call to action, insisting now is the time for Humane Design.

  1. Design for the human environment
  2. Put your money where your values are

How could we go wrong?


Nicole Palkovsky advises small businesses and nonprofits on creating sustainability strategies that are innovative, create business value and drive performance across their organizations. She currently leads Ronald McDonald House Charities' Environmental Sustainability Program, directing a team of talented professionals… [Read more about Nicole Palkovsky]


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