THE BLOG

The Future Is What We Make It: Human vs. Inhuman, It's Our Choice

25/03/2014 12:47 GMT | Updated 25/05/2014 10:59 BST

The word technology comes from the Greek 'tekhnologia', meaning either the 'art or craft' through which we move things, or the 'systematic treatment' of things. I feel this is a very apt way to consider how humanity uses technology - either as a system of control, or as an art or craft to enrich and move forward our experience of the world. In short, the inhuman vs. the human application of technology.

Personally, I'm a staunch advocate of the latter, However, overshadowed by talks from Julian Assange and Edward Snowden at SXSW14 in Texas this year, I'd say the balance has definitely shifted towards the 'dark arts' of technology. In the spotlight, especially, were issues of privacy, data security and blanket surveillance. These are pertinent concerns for people, ad agencies, and brand owners the world over.

Turning to the dark side first, the conference went into Twitter meltdown over video conference calls with Assange and Snowden from their respective residences in exile. The issue of privacy and security was neatly teed up by Eric Schmidt, Exec. Chairman of Google, who disagreed with the right of an individual - "perhaps motivated by celebrity" - to leak data. Up first for the opposite team was, of course, The Wikileaks founder. Hampered by Skype issues, Assange's dialogue became more of a conspiracy theorist-esque monologue, but he did make some hard-hitting points about how we are all "living in a world we don't understand" and "walking around in a fog."

In direct contrast, Snowden came across very clearly both in terms of content and also his motivation. Framed by an enlarged copy of the US Constitution, he asserted that he had stood up against an "adversarial internet", proclaiming: "It is not the internet any of us wanted, or signed up for." And on the specific issue of blanket surveillance, he accused the NSA of trying to "set fire to the internet" and identified the tech encryption community as "fire-fighters", there to protect us all from the constant secret monitoring of millions of communications.

The laser focus of the conversation was on the need to evolve mainstream platforms to become a 'defence against the dark arts' of snooping governments (and, by extension, tech companies such as Facebook and Google). The particular area of concern highlighted was 'data permanence': the notion of permanent data records being kept of our online exploits from the day we are born. One panelist worryingly described this as the new 'birds and the bees' conversation for parents to have with their children.

The greater debate, then, is far more grave than that concerning how we brand custodians and marketers can use data creatively - it's about fundamental freedoms; issues that can affect a child from day one. Ed Snowden feels so strongly about this freedom, he's pretty much sacrificed his life for it. In the wake of Wikileaks and Snowden's actions, we - as agencies and marketers - must lead a debate about how we can get creative with data, while respecting and protecting peoples' right to privacy.

As a counter note to technology's more negative uses came a talk that was appropriately called 'Humanizing Technology and Using Innovation for Good'. The campaign it featured, 'The Most Powerful Arm: Sign for Those Who Can't', moved many in the audience close to tears: watch the video here

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[Image: by author]

Conceived for the 'Save Our Sons' charity in Australia, this beautiful creative idea sought to gain signatories to support sufferers of muscle-wasting disease Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD). It employed a robot arm to gather the requisite 20,000+ signatures nationwide in order to petition the government to fund research. Those signing up on Facebook saw their signatures appear in the physical world in real-time, via a camera over the robot - giving a genuine tangibility for those touched by the cause.

At my agency, we firmly believe that 'human behaviours build human brands', so this sense of brands becoming more real-time responsive to people's interactions and more emotionally intelligent in the application of technology is definitely preaching to the converted.

Overwhelmingly, the true emotional value of 'The Most Powerful Arm' lay - as ever with technology - in the human touch. Because crucially, despite the fact the arm could have written perfectly, it was programmed instead to reflect the struggling handwriting of the young face of the campaign, one Jacob Lancaster. The imperfect lettering chosen was actually based on the last Mother's Day card DMD sufferer Jacob was ever able to write. Suffice it to say, the 20,000-signature target was smashed. This was true human emotion and behavioural change driven by the intelligent and sensitive application of gears and motors.

In the final analysis of positives and negatives around technology, the crux is this: if we want our future to be a step forward, not back, then it's time to stop spectating and take responsibility for how technology is, and will be, used. There are clearly positive ways to apply technology and transform the human experience - but we need to make the right choices. Technology is merely a tool; the way we apply it needs to be taken to task.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee - who, of course, created the World Wide Web - put the ball firmly back in our court, saying it is time for "a Magna Carta for the internet". He added: "It is up to us. It is an artificial creation, as are our laws, and our constitutions... we can choose how they work. We can make new ones. Our choice."

Berners-Lee further outlined six key principles of free internet and web rights:

• Expression - no censoring of the internet

• Access - universal, fast and affordable

• Open - in terms of standards

• Neutrality - no political or commercial discrimination

• Innovation - protection for the freedom of creativity and evolution

• Privacy - people's right to control their own data

On a human level, the promise of living 'superhuman' lives - with our experiences made simpler, even more 'magical', by technology - is an exciting one. Harking back to the origin of the word 'technology', though, let's hope we make it stand for our collective choice to artfully move forward and enrich our experience of the world - rather than as a system to control it.