The interaction between man and technology in industry
BY SANDY STRASSER
(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 2 2017)
He invented the word ‘megatrend’ and popularised the term ‘globalisation’: for more than 20 years, US author John Naisbitt has been amazing readers with predictions about the future. Naisbitt is the author of numerous bestsellers and the recipient of 15 honorary doctoral degrees. He owes his fame most of all to his bestseller ‘Megatrends’, which was published in 1982 and in which he was one of the first to predict the transition from an industrial to an information society and to describe the fundamentals of globalisation. He married his German publisher Doris Naisbitt in 2000. Since then, the couple have co-authored seven bestsellers. Within the context of their research into economic, social and cultural developments, they visit countries in Asia, Latin America, Africa, Europe and the US and write articles and columns for top-flight publications. They speak at conferences and advise governmental and political institutions. We invited the couple for an interview.
John and Doris, as researchers of trends and the future, what is the exciting part about observing societies for you, generally speaking?
We do not refer to ourselves as researchers of trends. We observe the present, and conclusions can be drawn about the future based on what we see. The exciting thing about it is the gradual identification of patterns. In doing this, you cannot rely on isolated bits of information. You have to enlist a variety of sources, including your personal experiences. You could compare it to putting together a big puzzle, with an overall picture emerging only once the individual parts are connected. Here, however, one does not have the benefit of a true puzzle, with a picture of the end result to work from. With an ordinary puzzle, the pieces are assembled based on the final image. We never know how the final picture will ultimately look. To find that out, you have to be open in all directions. And that’s very exciting.
What are the symptoms that indicate that people are growing ever more dependent on technologies, and on networked digital technologies in particular?
The New York Times has described mobile phones as a new drug. But we wouldn’t go as far. But young people in particular are almost fused with their mobile phones. It certainly is absurd to see people congregating in a bar, only to check and send their messages. Where’s the real interaction? Apparently, there’s a certain fear of not being reachable all the time, of missing something. It is sad when real friendships are replaced with “friends”, and “likes” become the currency of values.
To what degree does the human factor still present a competitive advantage, in spite of the continuous developments in this area?
We are still far from being remote-controlled as individuals, or merely part of an automatic process. Talent, commitment and dedication are just as important today as they were in analogue days. Technological developments open up many possibilities, particularly in developing countries. But it is always up to the individual person to either use or miss out on these opportunities. Once with no opportunity, small and micro-scale entrepreneurs in African countries, for instance, are nowadays innovative in tailoring their online offers to local conditions. They develop apps and are willing to modify them at any time. The more flexible they are, the more successful they are as well. The days when companies grew cautiously, over decades are a thing of the past. Most start-ups follow the principle of trial and error. If a thing fails to catch on, it is discarded.
How does one strike a proper balance between technology and the human factor in the world of industry?
There are no general rules for this. It’s like finding the right balance between work and leisure. The balance should settle in. The current challenge is to gain a real view of the future. A dental technician should know that his or her job has an expiration date, particularly in the case of routine tasks. The same applies to legal assistants and other back-office jobs. Or to cashiers in supermarkets, for that matter. Entire professions have come, and they will also go again. The question is not one of striking a balance, but of finding a timely point to change course or take further training. We cannot expect businesses companies to postpone cost reductions through digitalisation in favour of a better human balance. Looking back, we see that we have been through developments like these time and again. And contrary to all forecasts, new technologies have also created new jobs. The negative scenario of economies is not rotation in the labour market, but rather a standstill in development.
In your 1999 book, ‘High Tech/High Touch’, you used these two terms as a formula to describe the way in which we have been reacting to high technology to date. Please explain this approach.
‘High Tech/High Touch’ was mainly about striking a balance in the personal area. What technologies do we allow to enter our lives? What value do we assign to them? How do violent games, which sell violence as something natural, affect us? We are not just what we eat, spiritually speaking, we are also the result of the things we feed our thoughts. The danger – and this applies not just to social networks, but also to TV series – is one of complete immersion in an illusory world. If the difference between genuine and fake becomes blurred, and no distinction is made or is desirable between the two, we can no longer speak of a balanced High Tech/High Touch.
To what degree is this thesis more up-to-date today than ever before?
We know that, in future, robots will take over a whole array of tasks that are still done by hand today. Lifting an elderly person into a bathtub with the aid of a robot is a big relief. But it does not replace the feeling of sympathy, or the compassionate “How are you?” of a nurse.
Many services, such as FaceTime, Skype, WeChat, and others, now make it possible to see one another across great distances; but they cannot replace personal encounters, or an embrace.
A dangerous trend is what are known as “echo chambers”. Those who only navigate in flat and uniform opinion groups lose the ability to critically consider situations and things, including their own opinions. If we permit algorithms to manipulate opinions and make decisions on the basis of this, the situation becomes critical. And yet, standing behind it all is the human being.
What else is important nowadays if we don’t want to lose sight of our sense of humanity and togetherness in the face of the digital world?
For adults, it starts with the self-control it takes to control the extent to which we allow technology to enter our lives. Self-criticism is necessary if we intend to determine when we are in danger of losing this control. More than anything else, though, children should learn of the opportunities and dangers involved in dealing with the digital world. Training in the right approach to take towards social networks must begin almost at preschool age.
What relevance do technological changes have for our social behaviour?
That is entirely up to the individual and can range from loneliness to enrichment. Often, problematic personal relationships form the most fertile ground for harmful applications of the possibilities of technology. In families that restrict communication to a minimum, children in particular will be in search of other sources and forms of communication. This is one area in which social networks and a virtual circle of friends offer what seems to be an easy substitute. It is not change in technology, but rather the already extant social behaviour that lends a positive or negative dimension to dealing with these very technologies.
What is your personal ideal of a modern society?
Today, we are more mobile in every respect. Not only can we travel many of the countries of the world, but we can become acquainted with people from all over the world, too. Our job world has very few life-long careers left; what it does offer, however, this is an opportunity to learn new things and engage in new occupations all the time. And to continue to do so into (what once was considered) old age. Many jobs have become much easier thanks to technology, and today we have the world as our market if we so wish.
All of these things can be viewed in a negative light as well, of course. When it comes to gaining access to change, there are no rules or regulations. How achievements and challenges are viewed is always up to the individual.
What is concerning is that politics is still far from modernisation. Party-based thinking driven by election cycles impedes decision-making. This stunts rather than promotes a country’s competitiveness, and hence the conditions for the economic well-being of its citizens. Not even necessities as obvious as the education reforms we all want can be implemented. An ideal modern society consists of more than the citizenry; it also involves adjustments in social, economic and political framework conditions. We are not likely to achieve this, at least in the medium term.
Doris Naisbitt is an observer of global social, economic and political trends, Director of the Naisbitt China Institute and an author, co-author and columnist in German and Chinese media. In addition to exploring future global developments, she dedicates her efforts to promoting personality development. Her personal experience of embarking upon a successful career later in life inspires audiences and encourages people to reinvent their lives. ‘How to make the most of your talents’ is the header of Doris Naisbitt’s biweekly column in ‘China Youth Daily’, China’s second-largest newspaper. Doris and John Naisbitt live in Vienna and China.
John Naisbitt, author of the New York Times number one bestseller ‘Megatrends’, has been in the spotlight of the publishing world since the publication of the work in 1982. For nearly two years, his book was one of the greatest success stories in the history of publishing, with more than 14 million copies sold in 57 countries. ‘Megatrends’ was followed by international bestsellers such as ‘Re-inventing the Corporation’ in 1985, ‘Megatrends 2000’ in 1990, ‘Global Paradox’ (1992), ‘Megatrends Asia’ (1995), ‘High Tech High Touch’ (1999) and ‘MindSet!’ in 2006. In his earlier career he was a Board member at Kodak and IBM. At the age of 34, he was appointed Assistant Secretary of Education under U.S. President John F. Kennedy. After the assassination of the president, he was a Special Assistant to President Lyndon Johnson. Propelled by social and racial unrest in American cities, John Naisbitt began analysing social and political developments in the U.S. This led to the publication of ‘Megatrends’ in 1982.