How to make technology more human
by Gianpiero Petriglieri

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One early evening a few weeks ago I went for a walk in the streets of Vienna. I was there for a gathering of Human Resources executives, the third conference I have attended this autumn in which a central theme was the “technological revolution” and its implications for employment, education, and lifestyles.


An hour earlier, while on a panel, I had answered some audience members’ tweets—sparking a minor controversy. Did reading from that tablet on stage enhance or diminish my humanity? Did it make me more connected or disconnected? I was still mulling over it when a row of benches on a side street distracted me.


I turned down it, pulled by a feeling of déjà vu that I could not make sense of, until the street delivered me to the entrance of a conservatory’s student residence. Then all of a sudden a memory of another autumn evening on that same street emerged intact.


I had stood there almost twenty-five years before, while on a rite of passage for many European teenagers of my generation—interrailing. We used the brand name of the monthly open train ticket for under-26s as a verb, because Interrail was, like Google today, not something you used. It was something you did.


Those cheap train rides were a social technology. They took young people on a journey into adulthood as Europeans, a journey towards each other and away from provincial upbringings and old conflicts that still cast their shadow on the continent.


For many a middle-aged man and woman, like me, the European ideal, first born out of the trauma of war and the promise of peace and prosperity, became a European identity over long nights in packed second-class carriages rolling to Paris, Munich, Madrid, Stockholm, or Amsterdam.


Standing on that Viennese street a quarter century spent living and working across Europe later, it occurred to me that those trains were one of the most humanizing technologies I have experienced in my lifetime.


What made them such was not the efficiency of railways’ engineering or the success of one pricing strategy. It was the freedom and connections they afforded us. Interrailing expanded who you were and where you belonged. It turned people unlike you into people like you. Grasping those trains’ significance, in other words, requires looking at them through both instrumental and humanistic lenses—picturing their geographical and cultural destinations, contemplating what they did and what they meant to us.


Those two lenses are necessary to grasp the significance of any technology. These days, unfortunately, we privilege the instrumental one. Where will new technologies take us? What will they do to and for us? Less often do we consider who we are becoming as we use them.


Consider popular sentiments about the rise of information technology: a mixture of hope and anxiety. We once reserved such feelings for our more charismatic leaders, but technology and leadership are associated ever more closely. Think of electric cars, computing devices, online retailing, search engines, and social media platforms to name just a few hi-tech enterprises whose expansion, and iconic leaders, provoke as much enthusiasm as suspicion nowadays.


Hope and anxiety about leaders deploying the latest technologies are not new. The controversy on the treatment of users’ data by companies and governments, for example, is the 21st century installment of a timeless concern—the risk posed by leaders equipped with more technology than humanity.


What is new is that the risk now concerns most of us, whether we are leading countries or our own lives.


And so we discuss how to ensure that we control our machines, rather than the other way around. Meanwhile, we acquiesce to an imbalance equally risky as that between people and machines. That is, the imbalance of humanism and instrumentality in designing and using technology. While concerns for freedom, connections, and culture populate our rhetoric, it is concern for impact, returns, and efficiency that usually motivate our choices.


A technology cannot be called revolutionary, however, simply because it gives leaders more impact and reach. There is nothing revolutionary about leaders using new tools to expand their power. Technology can only be called revolutionary if it changes the way power is experienced, understood and distributed. And even then, the question remains open as to who benefits from that redistribution and what they do next.


Similarly, a technology cannot be called humanizing simply because it lets people broadcast their stories. There is nothing humanizing about using new tools to protect and assert our stories. Technology can only be called humanizing if it frees us up to revisit and broaden those stories, and if it helps us to better understand others’.


While technology often augments leaders’ power, and occasionally gives new leaders power, in short, it is humanity that keeps power in check. This is why the most productive relationship between instrumentalism and humanism is a conflict of equals. Subordinating one to the other does us harm. We might control technology and still kill humanism, with the excuse that it is too costly, inefficient, or passè.


Consider a fabled corporate creation myth, that of one college dropout’s stint in a calligraphy class. That passage of Steve Jobs’ life is often re-told to suggest that a background in the humanities, a refined taste, a meandering intellect are valuable because they help build a great company. Not because they will make one a more interesting and decent person. The subtle, devastating message is that humanism is a strategy for, rather than the counterbalance of, instrumental aims.


It is this attitude that dehumanizes us, before it is inscribed into technology through the intent of designers and habits of users. How can we be expected to build and use technology to liberate and connect people, if such attitude binds and isolates us?


Before we point our fingers at smartphones yet again, then, we would do well to revisit a fierce debate that shaped one of the most widespread technologies of the last century—management. The most influential advocate for its instrumental function, Frederick Taylor, argued that the function of managers was to increase efficiency and maximize their enterprises’ returns. Peter Drucker soon challenged those theories. He presented a humanistic view of managers’ function in the enterprise that cast both as vehicles for people’s expression and growth.


Many of the advances business has brought about in the past century can be seen as a result of the tension between those two visions of how to organize labor, enhance productivity, and define success. That tension will stop producing much progress if all we are left with is Taylorism in Druckerian clothes. Once all we care about is efficiency, and humanism is reduced to a matter of style, the real threat comes from the smart machines that we have become, not from those we will build.


Much like those old trains, we might not control the speed of technological advance, but we can still make plenty of choices about where we’re going. There is no going back, which makes it all the more important to consider what it means to move forward, rather than simply applauding or lamenting how fast we go.


About the author:

Gianpiero Petriglieri (@gpetriglieri) is associate professor of organisational behaviour at INSEAD ,where he directs the Management Acceleration Programme, the school’s flagship executive programme, and the initiative for Learning Innovation and Teaching Excellence.

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