By Rae Ringel
When Muriel Rukeyser, American poet and political activist, wrote that “…the universe is made of stories, not of atoms,” she touched upon a particularly salient point in the enduring tension between humanity and science, and, perhaps even more pertinent, between humanity and technology.
I was fortunate to be able to attend the recent TED2018, where over 100 speakers – activists, scientists, adventurers, change-makers and more – came to Vancouver to present on different aspects of the incredible technological advances of recent years, in honor of this year’s TED theme: “The Age of Amazement.”
As the facilitator of a workshop on the power of reciprocity of networks, my role at TED was almost 180 degrees from this hi-tech focus. Using nothing more than large pieces of paper and some good smelling markers, I focused not on how technology can help people, but on how people can help people.
The modality we utilized was called “Asset Mapping,” a facilitated framework that reveals the extraordinary resources (e.g. networks, expertise, ideas) of any given group and the myriad ways that participants can offer to support each other in their individual work. Asset Mapping fosters a spirit of empathy and generosity by allowing people to share their ideas, wisdom, experiences, and creative capital.
In a session that lasted 90 minutes, participants were asked to write down their adaptive challenge in a square in the middle of a large piece of paper, and then spent time circulating around the room and writing their suggestions to the questions posed by the other participants. The participants then divided into small groups to discuss the different questions and answers, and at the end of the session each participant took away at least one operable action item to implement in response to their posed question.
We live, as the saying goes, in interesting times; on the cusp of a future that we first saw as children, prefigured in TV shows such as The Jetsons, Hanna-Barbera’s space age cartoon counterpart to The Flintstones.
While the world of the Flintstones was an imagined, comical version of the far distant past, with machines powered by birds and dinosaurs, the Jetsons lived in an equally imagined comical version of the future, with robots, instant food, video phones, and flying cars. Amazingly, as TED2018 illustrated, almost all of these “far-fetched” inventions exist or are on the verge of realization. Unfortunately, the creators of The Jetsons were equally sagacious in their depiction of one of the consequences of this futuristic technology – an increasing sense of isolation. Whereas the Flintstones lived in community, together with their friends the Rubbles and various other characters, the Jetsons were far more isolated, with no close friends and few sustaining human interactions outside of their nuclear family.
Robert Putnam explored this sense of isolation in his work Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital. Putnam drew on evidence from some 500,000 interviews conducted over the last 25 years to show that we sign fewer petitions, belong to fewer organizations, are less likely to know our neighbors, meet with friends less frequently, and even socialize with our families less often. The title is a reference to the fact that while bowling has become increasingly popular, bowling leagues are in decline because most Americans prefer to “bowl alone.” Putnam sees technology as a major contributing factor to this phenomenon.
Technology enables us to accomplish incredible, miraculous things. It enables the deaf to hear and the blind to see. It enables synthetic limbs to integrate with the human nervous system so that people who are paralyzed can walk again. It connects people who are thousands of miles apart and provides solutions to intractable problems.
Yet we cannot and must not overlook the human component. At the end of the day nothing can replace the power of human capital – of building networks. Strong networks are predicated on people sharing resources – human, programmatic, intellectual, and fiscal. This was beautifully articulated by Gareth Ross, head of Digital and Customer Experience at Mass Mutual, the sponsor of the session. He noted, “people join organizations because of people; they take risks because of people; and they buy and invest because of people. Regardless of technology, people will always need people. Regardless of technology, human beings are key in making big decisions, thinking creatively, and providing unique insights.”
A recent article from CBS, “Generation X – not millennials – is changing the nature of work,” quotes a study showing that while Gen X-ers (those born between 1965 and 1981) are as tech-savvy and social media oriented as Millennials, they are also uniquely adept at maximizing human capital. “Gen X leaders’ strength for working with and through others is enabling them to shape the future of work and generate faster innovation by getting people working together to solve customers’ and their organization’s issues.”
What this emphasizes to me is the ongoing importance, even in the face of incredible technological advances, to focus on our human capital. To continue to build community and networks that motivate, sustain, and help us to enhance our intellectual, creative, and social resources.
The proof lies in the existence of TED itself. Although TED talks can and are easily watched anywhere, at any time, on any computer, thousands of people showed up in Vancouver to attend the conference in person. They did so because when all is said and done nothing replaces the excitement and the energy of community, of experiencing something together.
Rae Ringel is the President of The Ringel Group, an executive coaching and leadership training firm in Washington, DC. She is a faculty member at the Georgetown University Institute for Transformational Leadership and is the founding director the Executive Certificate in Facilitation and Design Program. She can be reached at [email protected]