The American Way
Thursday’s draw card session was Monica Lewinsky. Lewinsky once possessed one of the most famous—or should I say infamous—names in the world. “If you were a brand, what would your brand be?” she was asked in a job interview some years ago. “Let me tell you, when you’re Monica Lewinsky, that’s a loaded fucking question.” Her audience ate that one up as they did the rest of a funny, relatable and affecting speech she gave.
Her story, though interesting, was not the point of her talk. Yes, she returned to the public spotlight here (and previously at TED and Forbes) to, “reclaim my narrative,” as she put it. But the real message was to confront the audience with the dehumanizing impact of technology and to show the living, breathing person behind the pixels. We are, Lewinsky tells us, in the midst of an empathy crisis on line. We cut each other no slack. We hunger for humiliation and the shameful revelation. We click—and click and click again—on the salacious. We need to heal the digital commons and build a new expectation of compassion online.
I’d Love Just Once to See You
Technology distances us from the impact of our words and deeds. Since we can’t see the people we shame or bully online, we are insulated from the shock of the wounds we cause. Yet few would argue that technology is a universally bad thing. Stephen Bayley of the Guardian made an elegant argument of that fact at a debate hosted by Intelligence Squared and ogilvydo, and while his fellow panelists—Scott Galloway, Daniel Franklin, and Emma Holten—found it hard to disagree with the idea that the internet has given us tremendous benefit, far more than the pain it has imposed.
However, it’s an open question if we should or should not have some sort of regulation over the internet. Regulation, as activist Emma Holten told me, doesn’t necessarily mean government intervention. It means commercial and social action as well. Holten knows first hand of the perils of an anarchic web. Her nude pictures were hacked and spread which she sees as a consent violation. Full stop. Her courageous and masterful response was to share nude pictures of herself, thus regaining control of her body and asserting her right to consent. Hey, Denmark: elect this woman to some sort of political office. She’s a force of nature.
Technology also builds empathy. Even a cursory spin through BuzzFeed will point you to some tear-jerking story of online kindness that will give you all the feels. Individual acts of passionate humanity inspire us to share…our emotions. That collective acts of brutality inspire a similarly heart-felt and impotent response is the chief failing of the human race. But technology also humanizes tiny little interactions, and that may have the biggest impact of all, turning us back into a species that knows—and therefore cares about—each other.
Consider Uber, as Marc Mathieu urged the audience at a rooftop panel discussion on data and creativity. We’re in the midst of a crippling taxi strike here in France. The cabbies are pissed about all the business Uber is taking from them, and while I feel empathy for their cause, I feel much more connection with every single Uber driver I’ve ever had. Why? I know their names. They know mine. I see their strangely grim mugshots on the app when I book and am always surprised by how friendly they end up being. Technology like Uber enables us to, Mathieu said, “level up empathy.”
Don’t Stop Believin’
Technology humanizes in less obvious ways as well. Consider, as Mathieu also pointed out, how the technology enables data that “is de-averaging marketing.” (Please, can no one ever say “de-averaging” again?) Dove’s data-driven Campaign for Real Beauty often gets cited as an example of how data can start to personalize marketing. From the big insight that only 4% of women find themselves beautiful to the individualized, data-driven and socially-enabled campaigns like Speak Yourself Beautiful and the Ad Makeover, Dove has long stood out in marketers’ minds as a progressive employer of data.
British Airways used data in a different way, mining it to build the emotional Visit Mum campaign and the gee-whiz Magic of Flying billboard. But the real potential for data and technology to bring greater individualization to our lives lies at the intersection of personal data and 3D printing. Think of 3D printing, Mathieu suggested, as a local production unit which, in conjunction with data, will revolutionize manufacturing. Humanization through mass customization seems a stretch at first, but it’s a high-output version of cozy, cottage-like bespoke manufacturing.
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