Ready for the Soft Side of Technology

Almost ubiquitous technology access and worldwide connections open channels that create opportunities that weren’t possible even a few years ago. That technology facilitates many tasks and opens possibilities that were previously beyond our imagination. These changes and capabilities create more promise for the future and for making unprecedented progress…

…but technology advances are creating change we may not be ready to handle.

Much of our focus remains on new technologies’ capabilities and we forget (or ignore) the most difficult issues. Technology is quickly outpacing our ability to fully absorb its impact on each of us. These impacts require tough discussions about difficult subjects – uncomfortable in a tumultuous world. Technology forces us to make trade-offs – either with conscious choices or in the breech.

Brad Smith, the President of Microsoft, highlighted this during a talk at UW-Milwaukee this summer. He did a terrific job – and shocked me with his approach. Mr. Smith spent only a few minutes discussing the technology and new developments coming online. The rest of the talk focused on the softer side of technological advances. He outlined five areas where technology is far ahead of the discussions about its impact. Specifically, the way technology impacts security, privacy, ethics, workforce, and sustainability.

None of these five topics are technical – or particularly difficult to understand. They also have no clear answers. These topics require talking about right and wrong, who owns what in the cyber world, and what could (and should) be done. The conversations all involve trade-offs and compromises in areas where emotions run high and positions are entrenched.

These discussions are tough and the trade-offs are difficult because reasonable people can have different opinions and reach different conclusions. Trade-offs exist between security and flexibility, privacy and progress, and stability and change. Then there’s the ethical discussions about what’s fair and what’s right. The pace of change makes these discussions more critical and more difficult than ever before.

Still we must try because the juice is worth the squeeze. New technology opens new frontiers and better lives for everyone, provided we can harness both the technical advances AND our best thinking.

We can create a powerful alignment between new technology and cutting-edge thinking. New technology creates wide-ranging impact and profound implications for society as a whole and each of us as individuals. It’s important that we align the technology and thinking towards clear, shared outcomes that we want to achieve. We need to understand our increased interconnectedness and the unintended consequences that result from unseen connections. Understanding the overall situation and focusing on desired outcomes make it more likely that we will implement the right technology at the right time in the right way. Making that happen creates better outcomes for all of us.

The stakes are high enough to drive broad engagement. We face existential threats – some created by technology and others by our response to them. Our social and economic success have never been more tightly connected as resources become more strained and limited. Each of our families’ well-being depends on our engagement with these issues as they will determine our vocational success, financial security, and long-term health.

The most important discussions take place closest to you. Few of us have a broad audience or much influence in the world at-large. Still, those smaller circles can catalyze powerful conversations. They also provide the opportunity to learn more broadly with lower risk. We need to focus on outcomes and places where we agree, rather than highlighting our differences.

Together we can change the future. These changes will require thousands – perhaps even millions – of these discussions. Each of us control a bit of this future, providing we learn and grow, remaining receptive to new ideas and flexible in our responses. Throughout this process we will discover our interconnectedness and alignment. Those discoveries make it easier to align to achieve outcomes where we agree.

The future is bright – especially when we work together.

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