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How can we humanise the digital revolution?

At 3am Friday 15 March, I opened my PC in Austin and read the shocking news from Christchurch. I did a double-take: a white supremacist on the rampage with an AR-15. What country am I in again?

It was a tragic book-end to what was becoming a consistent theme at SXSW: that the internet, this revolution in human creativity, this great hope for global connection, came with a burden of unintended consequences: of loneliness and narcissism; of social media bubbles and alternative facts; of dark webs of Nazis and terrorists.

“Cyberpunk hasn’t died,” said the grandfather of the Cyberpunk genre, Bruce Sterling, on the last day of SXSW. ‘It’s simply moved from the pages of dystopian fiction to reality.” Sterling gives an annual lecture at SXSW, a kind of doxology for all things digital. This year he was gloomy, describing Facebook et al as the ugly children of our Mother Internet.

It’s a bit purple, but not without foundation.

At SXSW, we learned that loneliness has joined depression as one of America’s leading mental health issues; yet the second highest ambition among Americans is popularity. Twenty years ago, popularity was ranked 16th.

There was a strong tinge of remorse about what Silicon Valley has created. Aza Rushkin, the inventor of the infinite scroll, recalls his invention thus: “When I invented the infinite scroll I was super excited because I found a way to reduce the number of decisions users had to make. But it’s like a bottomless cup, people will eat more and more soup. There are thousands of designers now working on making pages stickier and more scrollable – it’s like we’re sprinkling cocaine over the keyboard.”

From cars and media to food and medicine, automation and digitisation were not so much celebrated at SXSW as mulled over for their potential dark side.

Even in the Alternative Protein session, where growth is going through the roof, the leaders were leery. “Tech is leading the discussion in food as it did in media. Twitter started microblogging and it looked cool but look at the unintended consequences. Food has the opportunity to learn a lesson from what happened to media,” said food academic Art Markman.

So, now what? The antidote is not simple. Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google – the so-called FANG – are popular for a reason. They work incredibly well. The digital revolution has delivered so much goodness. But some of it isn’t working. And Christchurch has been a terrible reminder that social is home to some of worst of humanity. And we need to fix it.

Here are four agendas that I believe will driving business decision-making in reaction to the digitisation.

Join Team Human

The headlong rush to digital everything will revive an interest in all things human. Writer and Silicon Valley provocateur Douglas Rushkin calls it joining Team Human. He advocates the revival of whimsy, joy, unpredictability, creativity. “These days, even physical touch has become an act of revolution,” he says.

So, a question: what part of your business allows for joy, whimsy, warmth or spontaneity? It’s so hard to tie these back to a business agenda but there are ways. The largest advertiser-free blog in the world is PostSecret, a whimsical project by artist Frank Warren, in which people mail their secrets anonymously on a homemade postcard. Selected secrets are then posted on the PostSecret website, or used for PostSecret’s books or museum exhibits. The site has attracted over a million postcards and created a career for the still-surprised Warren.

New metaphors

Part of the Team Human agenda is finding new metaphors that prioritise humane values over the traditional language of business. Efficiency, relevance and stickiness are the metaphors that generate massive profits for social media companies but simultaneously create addiction among the users. Likewise with urban design. “I don’t give a sh#t about smart cities. The smart metaphor implies efficiency which creates inequity. I want a kind city, an equitable city, a liveable city,” says Max Elder of the Institute for the Future.

The values creeping into business language will increasingly be human, like kindness, warmth, authenticity, generosity.


Empathy was probably the word of the festival. With trust in institutions at an all-time low empathy is a key tool for winning back confidence. There were many examples at SXSW that we enjoyed but this one, related by writer Michael Ventura,appealed. GE decided to put empathy at the centre of its mammogram product in order to use human-centred design to make the experience more positive for women and launched GE for Women by Women.

In doing so, GE made the full customer journey sympathetic and warm, making major adjustments to the functionality of the machines themselves right down to small environmental adjustments such as developing comfortable gowns to wear during the process, warming treatment rooms and fast-tracking the reporting process to cut down anxious wait times. GE decreased discomfort by 79 percent and anxiety surrounding the test by 54 percent and lifted the efficacy rating of the mammogram by 12 percent.

Environments that reward humanity

I was especially struck by an idea put forward by Eli Pariser of the New America Foundation. A thoughtful, academic sort, Pariser asked us to consider why humans behave so badly online: the trolling, the anonymous abuse, the slut shaming. Is it because online humans are especially horrible? Well, that can’t be true. The same humans drive cars and live in neighbourhoods without the equivalent carnage.

The difference is the environment. The lack of online rules and accountability allows our worst nature to flourish. It’s like road rage without the awkwardness of being forced to see other driver at the next stop sign.

So where in history can we see that a change in environment has led to an improvement in behaviour? Architecture.

“I’ve been looking at what happened in urban development in 1970s: the shift from tall, isolating boxes like council estates and apartments to planned communities and social housing. In these new communities crime and loneliness are reduced and property values have increased.”

The new urban communities:

•        Create spaces that encourage diverse participation

•        Make it feel humane and safe

•        Create a sense of ownership and belonging.

Applying this kind of design-thinking to social media would make the world of difference, argues Pariser.

It’s a hopeful message not just for social media but for all places where humans interact: humans can flourish when the right conditions are created. And vice versa.

Two weeks after the Christchurch massacre it’s the right thing ask: if automation and digitisation continue apace how can we create places that make it easy for humans to be generous, kind, creative and empathetic?

 Vincent Heeringa is executive director at Anthem and the former publisher of Idealog and Stoppress. Follow his SXSW journey on this very blog or on Twitter @vheeringa and @anthemnz. 

Vincent won many awards as a journalist with Metro magazine and The Independent Business Weekly and was twice named Editor of the Year by the Magazine Publishers’ Association for his role in founding Unlimited magazine. In 2004 he co-founded HB Media, which was later to become Tangible Media, and is a publisher at AUT Media, the publishing division of AUT University.

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