Sign of the Times

How Technology Shapes Our Perceptions

By Cara Bedford

The online world used to be a novelty just a couple of decades ago, when you could still hear old guards grumbling about all the newbies posting unsolicited opinions on Usenet. It was a time of clear delineation, and milestones could still be set according to the latest leaps in hardware advancement. But along the way, new trends started creeping up on us. Defining the current moment put you in danger of missing the point altogether. Rather than attempting to frame the situation in fixed terms, the ability to quickly adapt to new technologies and online spaces became advantageous and, in some ways, a necessity.

The employee of today has a much firmer grasp on topics once relegated to the cubicles housing specialized tech geeks. As a result, the IT department is not as sequestrated from the daily workings of a company as before; with the advent of smartphone, other lines got blurred, including the one keeping our private and professional lives separate. With mobile gadgets, social networks became ubiquitous, as ease of access reached an unprecedented scale. Portable and powerful, they became the definition of an external brain – and we like to think of our brains as smart, don’t we?

With total adoption of smartphones, the culture shifted. Changes in physical design became a thing of the past, as it became dedicated to a flat screen onto which the ever brighter bells and whistles of various apps were projected. We can feel the full weight of new developments as we realize how little they surprise us: a previous way of doing things is hard to imagine, while Total Availability became a principle that cannot be questioned.

Curating Our Own Content

Living in the Information Age means having an endless array of data available on demand. But we rarely have the time – another precious commodity – to bother with fact checking. Machine learning can be a great tool to better our understanding of the world, but as the machine learns about us, can we tell whether its algorithms provide honest feedback? Relevant information gets conflated with truth, and becomes new authority. The use of AI for marketing purposes does not necessarily imply the possibility of a machine becoming sentient, but rather of a complex set of routines trying to define our behavior for marketers. Nowhere is this more useful than in the world of business, where it can apply both to a company and to an individual.

The meaning of work underwent a significant transformation: gamification can turn chores into something akin to video game activities, driving employee engagement up. Behavioral science is closely monitoring the percentages, figuring out the prompts which trigger certain desirable behaviors. Enthusiasm of workers remains a matter of debate, but few would argue against data charts.

To get our bearings, we must learn to curate the content we encounter; this means making an informed decision a priority. Since we are the ones who create the aforementioned algorithms, tailoring them to our needs creates an increase in efficiency that is impossible to ignore. Nonetheless, it does not come without its own set of issues.

The Overpowering Freedom of Choice

Modern workplaces are anything but inflexible. In order to reach the desired output, many companies are willing to adapt to their workers’ needs more than ever before. There are possibilities for remote work; traffic jams, rainy days, hailstorms – no problem: work from home is the answer. For the people in the office, this means not seeing their coworkers – possibly ever, as they’re often continents apart. Alienation becomes another thing taken for granted; social networks, with their digital circles of friends, preconditioned new generations to this way of thinking long before they’ve entered the workforce.

Freelancing has never been easier, and the research shows that the gig economy is booming. Companies can bring outside help as the need arises, without all the bureaucratic baggage. Online talent clusters sort candidates by score and feedback, often for a fraction of price paid in the company’s country of origin. This forms a complex question – freelancers sourced from less fortunate economies can earn better wages than ever before; this also means one less job available for local talent. The strain this new marketplace puts on the human side of things is much harder to ascertain.

Being proactive has become the new norm, and for many freelancers this means being available around the clock, regardless of time zones. Circadian rhythms get thrown out of the window for the sake of job score, and an individual becomes obsessed with metrics. Every skill is on display, monitored, utilized, categorized and graded. Indeed, nothing is wasted from the company perspective, but something does get lost.

Introverts can find it hard to adapt to the work environment where being upbeat became synonymous with advancement. Walls get torn down to make way for sprawling office floors populated with people unable to hide from one another. And why would they, if work is a collaborative effort? However, it cannot be denied that one common personality trait is suddenly considered unsuitable for the modern workplace. It’s worth noting that many IT pioneers were once regarded as introverts – a luxury allowed by their niche occupation. Today, the playing field is much more even and everyone plays ball, regardless of the emotional and mental cost.

Despite it all, there might be a change coming: new research has pointed out the need for a bit of privacy in the office.

Gentrification of Dystopia

There are some insights in perhaps an unexpected source: the domain of genre fiction. Speculative attitudes formulated by pioneers of cyberpunk such as William Gibson and Philip K. Dick moved past the alien planets that fueled their predecessors’ imagination, dealing instead with an iteration of our own future, one that was quickly becoming our present.

Canadian author William Gibson did not even use a computer when he wrote Neuromancer; instead, he focused on the duality between high tech and low life, while his evocative writing style featured strong fetishization of technology. Corporations resided in dark towers, prone to raids by a party of adventurers – hackers. Cool gadgets trickled down to slums, and their inhabitants’ lives were made more interesting, if not easier. A new generation of readers was drawn to the glass beacons that never turned off the lights of their office floors.

What was originally pictured as dystopia became something desirable, especially the jobs which allowed legal access to the new technologies. As the influx of technology in the workers’ daily schedules became more pronounced, dark towers became well-lit skyscrapers featuring monthly teambuilding schedules and employee discounts pinned to communal boards. For better or worse, fiction became familiar.

Out with the Old, In with the Hip

Turning his gaze inward, Philip K. Dick dealt with the collision of our perception with the digital world. He knew that our brain is a malleable thing, forever adapting to the new environmental circumstances. It is no wonder, then, that his narratives outlasted the often anachronistic depictions of technology; focusing instead on our cognitive functions, and the meaning of being human.

Young people entering today’s workforce have not had the chance to turn the rotary dial or trip on a telephone cord; the Internet has changed as well. Once, its users prided themselves on the anonymity it offered: vast and limitless, it was a form of media that offered a level of freedom never seen before. Then the world caught up with it, and the narrative changed. For a business, personal data is a valuable asset, and if one wants to be a consumer – which is hardly a choice – privacy has to be relinquished. The online world has become regulated by the demands of a real one: another merger that has gone unnoticed by most, many of whom weren’t even around to know any different.

Accessing the Opportunities

Much has been written about the vision a CEO needs to have in order to successfully chart the course a company needs to take. Rather than treating it as a buzzword, it can be taken at face value instead: as a vantage point. Proper verticality requires a business to adopt a top-down structure which flows both ways. If the input does not match the output, stress accumulates fast and discontent increases, leaking into social networks. Top talent becomes harder to recruit: gadgets and apps can increase productivity quotas, but without calculating in their effect on employees – intangibles of every formula – productivity will suffer. As technology marches onward, we have no choice but to follow; we can, however, choose our role carefully.

Not questioning the demands of a new paradigm would mean to neglect the core quality which makes us human: the ability to shape our own destiny, and take accountability for our past decisions. Making sure that the terms we set are congruent with the qualities we share with one another can help us make an informed choice at every intersection.

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