May 8, 2019 | 2 min read

Podcast #57: Left to Their Own Devices – A Conversation with Dr. Julie Albright

Dr. Julie Albright, Ph.D Digital Sociologist at the University of Southern California and a Board Member of Infrastructure Masons is our podcast guest this week. We discuss her new book, Left to Their Own Devices – How Digital Natives are Reshaping the American Dream. The central thesis of the book is that the rise of the Internet and digital technologies is causing people to become untethered – from relationships, work, institutions, even society itself. This phenomenon is manifesting among millennials most prominently, though the impact is touching later generations as well. We discuss what it means to be untethered, the emerging values of the untethered generation, how these changes are affecting how people work, live and relate to one another. Digital technologies are “recoding our operating systems” as people become increasingly disconnected from nature and traditional ways of learning. We also explore the impact on businesses such as retailers, along with ramifications of increasing AI-driven automation. Lastly she shares some of the positive outcomes of a connected society and provides a call to action.  



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Good day and welcome everyone, this is Ed Maguire, Insights Partner at Momenta, with another episode of our podcast, and today we have a very special guest, Dr. Julie Albright, who is a Digital Sociologist at the University of Southern California, Dornsife, Applied Psychology, and Viterbi Engineering. She’s also a board member at Infrastructure Masons, and she is the author of a new book, ‘Left to Their Own Devices’. A little bit of context here, I’ve known Julie for a few years, we actually have become friends in an untethered way, which we’ll get into, but we actually met through a mutual friend online and have become friends in real life.

A couple of years ago we’d been observing what’s been happening in society with the adoption of technologies, the impact on business, on society, on the economy, and it made me remember that back in 2016 I went to see a movie by the director Werner Herzog called, ‘Lo and Behold Reveries of the Connected World’, which is a look at the impact of the Internet on humanity. I was talking to the producer after the screening, and he mentioned, ‘Somebody really-really needs to write a book about this’. Of course I was very excited, and I relayed this to Julie, and well, lo and behold the germ of the idea was already there.

The recording today is just before the release, but expecting that by the time people hear this, the book will be out. I’ve just finished reading it, it is truly superb and the amount of depth, the amount of detail, the level of insight just addressing so many different angles of the impact of technology on work on society, on relationships, on organizations. It’s really tremendous and it goes without saying that I do recommend it. But Julie I’ve got you here, so let’s talk about it.

Thanks for joining us. Julie, how did you decide to write this book, and what was the background that really inspired you to look at addressing so many of these topics, this impact of technology?

Well, I started out with a counselling degree, and ended up with a dual doctorate in Counselling & Sociology over here at USC. During the course of my studies I started noticing people meeting online, they were chatting and starting romantic relationships in these chat rooms, and I showed it to my dad. I said, ‘Dad, this is going to be huge’, and there were less than three percent of people on the Internet at that time, my Dad saw these words scrolling up on the screen, and he said, ‘Why would anybody ever want to do that?’ But I knew by the connections that people were making and what I was seeing, that it was just going to be gigantic.

Since then, over time I’ve studied this, I’ve written a number of book chapters and professional papers, conference presentations and whatnot on the topic of online relationships, really looking at how digital culture is changing society. And now all you have to do is walk out on any street corner, you’re going to see people with their heads bent looking at phones, on social media, texting or whatnot, it’s really become so much more than even I imagined at the time, it’s even more than mainstream, its reshaping society.

Let’s talk about this concept of being untethered, this is a word that you use a lot in the book, but what does it mean to be untethered?

The book is centered on this notion of coming untethered, and the idea is that digital natives now compared to prior generations, let’s say baby-boomers and before, are unhooking from traditional social structures and processes, things like getting married, or buying a home, or buying a car, or being in a long-term career for years, and years, and years, things that other generations might have done routinely, going to church, joining a political party for example. Younger digital natives are unhooking from these things in droves, and are hyper-attached to digital technology, and that’s the concept of coming untethered, and that’s the idea that’s read throughout this book. I look at various sectors of life to see how its changing.

What does it mean to be untethered say from relationships, what are the implications of becoming untethered in the way that people interact with one another?

In terms of coming untethered from let’s say marriage and family, for example. These are stabilizing structures, and one of the things that really prompted me to write this book, I’m on the front lines here at the university, and I have noticed over the years that we have this escalating mental health crisis if you will, anxieties are up, depressions are up, and things like that, about a quarter of young people are on some kind of psychotropic medication now, and I thought, ‘What is going on here? Obviously things are changing’, and if we look back at the early sociological studies back to  Durkheim,  which is one of the cornerstone thinkers in sociology, the idea is that these kinds of social structures, be it church, or be it family and marriage, are stabilizing, and they contribute to people’s emotional and physical health in ways that would shock you in fact.

There’s this notion now I think that people are free, for example, online offers you this seemingly unending pool of possible romantic partners that you might choose, but paradoxically in the face of unlimited choices no one is choosing, you end up with this thing called choice overload, which consumer psychologists talk about, that the more choices people have, the less willing or able they are to choose anything. That’s what’s kind of happening, we have all these dating apps, we have all this social media, a myriad of ways to meet a romantic partner, and yet digital natives are the most likely to be unmarried, and in fact are on target to be the most unmarried generation everby age 45.

Well this is also playing out in the way that people structure their work lives, and the way they organize how they live as well.  You’ve written about some people, you call them digital nomads, they find these jobs that allow them to work anywhere, and that’s becoming certainly more than a passing phenomenon. Could you talk about how that’s evolved, and how the relationship between say employers and employees has changed too, because I think you could point to the fact that over the last several decades very few people count on working for one company through their entire careers, but I think what you’ve identified is that the digital technology is also having a big impact on us as well.

Right, that’s exactly right, and if you think about it, these digital natives becoming untethered, they’re pulling up roots. If you go back to say the golden age of the family which sociologists point to post World War II for example, the big goal of these folks coming back after the war with the GI Bill and all, was get that stake in the American Dream, put down those roots, buy that home in the suburbs, start your family, have a family wagon out in the driveway that you proudly showed off to the neighbors, have a dog, and go to that job every day that maybe you were there for 35 years. This was the routine way of living.

But now, think about it, pulling up the stakes of first of all not getting married, pulling up the stakes of not buying a home, pulling up the stakes of not having children. You suddenly are free to float about, or to live untethered, and that’s also then impacting the workforce, because there’s notion of, ‘Well, I can work on my laptop at Starbucks, why do I have to come into an office?’ And the thing about that is, it’s really posing some serious challenges for managers, because they don’t know quite how to manage this untethered generation, and managers are having different reactions to this. They’re saying, ‘You need to get back in here’, like IBM, they’re saying, ‘Get back in here and work shoulder-to-shoulder with your comrades here at the workplace, or you’re going to be fired’, that’s one approach.

The other approach is the folks that are on WordPress Automatic, they’re saying, ‘Well nobody’s coming into the workplace here so, we’re going to sell the office’, and they sold their building, and now everyone is working remotely.

This is really a liminal period where we don’t quite know how to handle these things yet, and managers are struggling with keeping team cohesion and things like that, amongst the remote untethered workforce. Some people are going fully untethered working for example in Valley or other places, doing gig work via their computers and laptops, and an entire infrastructure is cropping up around that, for example co-living spaces that you can go live for a week in Valley, or you can live in Tuscany, Miami, or New York, and you can sort of come and go, bring your backpack or your duffle-bag, drop it on the floor, you’re moved in. So, this idea of coming untethered from these traditional relationships, and home, and heart, and family, also have important implications for the workforce, because it means that people are more mobile, and are more willing to go and work outside of the traditional office confines. It’s really going to pose some interesting challenges for managers of the workforce, in the years to come.

I think you’ve really hit on a couple of unique dynamics, which is that you have people that are designing what I guess you’d call micro-lodge, or micro-careers, where the expectation of flexibility has changed, but also this is changing the whole concept of what it means to be in an organization. This idea of coming untethered is really interesting, because it goes back to the anchor here, which is you go back a couple of generations and there were a lot of common values and common expectations. You use the term, ‘synchronization of time, and harmonization of values’, around that when you were talking about media and messaging. Could you talk about the implications of what that meant in the past, and how that’s changed?

Well, we can look at that, Marshall McLuhandoes a good job talking about how the media that we grow up in, and are immersed in, changes us. That’s really what I’m talking about in this book, about coming untethered, and when we look back at for example radio or television, these were sort of tribal in a sense; early radios and televisions were expensive, not everybody had one, so the families would gather around to listen to a show, or to watch a television show together, there was the Friday night fights for example, or the news would come on at 5:30 or 6 o’clock, and everybody would gather and watch that same show together. So, its synchronized time, people would come together at a certain time to watch a certain broadcast, and there were only a few channels. These channels were regulated by the FCC, particularly news media but also entertainment, in terms of what they could show, what they could talk about, because they were considered common.

If you look at this idea of the tragedy of the common, it’s this notion that there’s certain things we can use in common and if somebody’s individual interests are allowed to sort of run amok, then that ends up in a tragedy for everyone. So, the notion is that an unregulated common lead to tragedy, it’s not that there is a common. So, because the media reached out across our country, for example early television, the FCC saw this as a kind of common and particularly news media. They had regulations in place, for example the fairness doctrine, which said… so, let’s say you had a political candidate that would come on, and you gave them 20 minutes of time, you would have to give 20 minutes of time to the opposition candidate, or some issue that was going to be on a ballot for example, maybe something controversial, you had 10 minutes on one side, you’d have to have 10 minutes on the other side.

This idea that you wanted an educated population, and that they were going to see both sides of the issue, that harmonized values in a sense, because everybody was seeing the same thing, everybody was watching the same shows, everybody saw both sides of the issue, that’s how it was. But since the eighties or so, we started to see deregulation in the media and the outcome of that I think was kind of unintended by the folks that deregulated. I think they thought that the market would correct as often as people will say, but we ended up in a kind of unintended tragedy of the common situation. What’s happened is, the news media has become branded, and so people end up in these information silos only hearing one side of an issue, or one candidate, and with the advent of social media we have also now been able to self-select into these informational tribes that have similar beliefs, and similar values to ourselves, it’s kind of the old notion of birds of a feather walking together.

The same information then is passed around and shared, the same news stories in social media, and what that does is it starts to create these larger divisions, particularly between political points of view, and the Pew Internet has done some research on that, that showed years ago for example that Republicans and Democrats were more closely aligned in their beliefs and values, and now they’ve moved further apart. It’s easier now to drive wedges in between people, because if someone has a different point of view, you can simply unfriend them, or block them, or not have to have that point of view. In psychology we call this, ‘Group think’, it’s the idea that a descendant voice is kind of silenced or not in the conversation, and we know that leads to very poor decision making, not having the full picture. The fact that now we’ve moved away from that harmonization in a sense by hearing the full story in the news, it has allowed this sort of splintered off opinion or belief groups online that for example, outside forces have been able to drive wedges in-between, because we don’t have the cohesion we had some years ago.

So, social media in effect, we’d already been seeing fragmentation from news media being deregulated, and then the rise of independent media sources on the Internet, but you’ve also observed that social media has amplified these divisions and created a lot more alienation, or undermined that sense of commonality and common purpose, that’s a point that you highlight quite a bit in your book.

Yes, I think that’s very important, and the other factor is, and this goes back to some of my earlier research as well online with relationship, is that the Internet gives you a sense of relative anonymity, you’re not standing there face-to-face with someone, and this kicks up flame wars, people will say things online to someone that they would never say for example if they were sitting next to them in a bar or something. That relative anonymity enables these flame wars, enables people to say really ugly things because their perceived consequences are lowered. That’s part of what’s creating that fragmentation and alienation. And that by the way is another issue that’s happening with these untethered workers as well, when people are communicating online things can flame up very quickly because of the perceived anonymity of communication.

Right, you’d lose the context. Even a phone call you get a tone of voice and can tell when somebody might be sarcastic, or joking, or just making an off-hand comment, rather than being hostile.

That’s right.

One of the topics that you explore is this concept of emerging values of the untethered society, and I’d be interested to get your thoughts on a couple of them. You do talk about this concept of a mediated world, and experience versus acquisitions, transactors versus owners, and there are a few others. Could you share a bit of your insights on these emerging values, and what sticks out as really important to think about, in your view?

Well, these emerging values of the untethered generation are very important because they really impact everything, particularly business and commerce, and it’s really a shift around wanting a digital interface, and wanting to be connected online, and it’s really changing everything. So, this desire for a digital interface is one of the emerging values, and we start to think by the way… I know yourself and I we use phones, we use social media, we text, but this is generationally uneven, and I think that warrants being noted here that the younger folk that grew up in a world, we call it digital native, the world where there always wasn’t Internet, are more intensely involved in the shifting values set, the shifting behaviors of becoming untethered than let’s say older people in their 70’s and above for example. So, this is generationally uneven, yet these changing values are affecting or seeping into other generations.

So, the desire for a digital interface for example is one. I talk in the book about where people are seeing lines for a kiosk for example, for order in a fast-food restaurant, whilst some human being is standing there as a cashier with no-one in line; they would rather deal with some kind of a device than a human for example. It’s also shifting other things, for example transactors versus owners is another value shift that I talk about, the idea that younger digital natives are less likely, as I mentioned before to buy a home, or to buy a car, why buy a car when you can Uber or Lyft? More and more for example in my classrooms, I’ll say, ‘How many of you have a car?’ We had a classroom with about 40-45 students in it, two students raised their hand, and more and more people, young kids are a lot less likely to even get a drivers license now, compared to let’s say baby-boomers when they were 16, that was a step toward autonomy getting that learners permit, and then a driver’s license. That was a step from moving away from your parents, becoming an adult as it were, starting to develop that moving away on your own.

Think about it, now young kids can socialize from their bedroom, and a lot of them are. This idea that you can transact, you don’t have to own a vacation home, you can just go Airbnb, that kind of thing. More and more things as they’re coming this transactional thing, Rent the Runway, you can rent clothes, you can rent bags, so all these kinds of symbols for example of success can be rented now, or borrowed as opposed to owned, and that’s one of the emerging values that’s really key here.

One more that we might want to mention too is this, ‘I want it now’; digital life spins very fast and you can push a button and get information, you can chat with anybody at any hour of the day, you can order things online on Amazon any hour of the day or night, so this idea of, ‘I want it now’, or what I call a no latency life, the idea that people expect things so quickly. For example, if a film doesn’t download you’ve only got a couple of seconds before these kids will move onto the next thing. So, the idea that life spins so fast is starting to seep into other areas, for example I’ll get an email from a student, if I don’t answer that in an hour they’re going to send two or three more emails, so they expect this instant gratification, ‘I want it now’ society, and again that impacts a lot of different sectors.

Well you’ve brought up a couple of really interesting points that have deeper implications for the economy, for the market, for investors, for business, just the concept of not getting your driver’s license. You’ve cited the data, the dropping percentage of 16 & 17 year old’s that buy cars, now if you extrapolate this going forward and say, you start introducing self-driving cars, and a portion of that what would have been future customers for the auto companies goes away, that has big implications for some of these businesses. But I think another area you’re highlighting is, Rent the Runway, and these other types of services where you rent and not own, that has implications for things like retail. I would love to get your thoughts on what we’ve been seeing happening to retail more broadly, because this affects all of us.

I’ve been posting things about the retail apocalypse, and I think that ties into another one of these core changing values, if you think again about post World War II and people flush with money again, had the GI build-to-buy homes, go to college and things like that; there was this acquisitional value of showing off your new found wealth, buy that house in the suburbs, or buy that car you had, or maybe you were going to wear some designer thing that had a logo to show your wealth, or a Rolex watch, or something like that. Those kinds of values are changing a bit amongst younger folks where its more about attention, and likes, and going viral, and being an influencer on social media. It’s moved away from this acquisitional world and more towards an attentional economy if you will.

I think that has huge implications, and as you mentioned businesses are struggling with how to reshape themselves to keep up with that. I know for example that Cadillac has experimented with doing a kind of subscription-borrow type of model with their new cars, saying, ‘Well, would you like an SUV this week? That’s great. Hey, come back and get the convertible next week’, or maybe you’re going to take a trip and you want a sedan the week after that, ‘That’s fine, just bring it in and you can switch any time’. So, this idea of transactors versus owners is going to have some really serious implication for retail, and you’ve already seen the sort of retail apocalypse that’s happening where malls are closing, and stores are closing across the nation. There has been some talk that maybe we had overbuilt malls over the years, and that may be true, but there’s a change in behaviors and values underway that is also undermining the retail sector.

I think it’s interesting when you look at this concept of digital transformation, or digitalization, where traditional businesses look to transform themselves. I think what you definitely highlight in your work is that there is a social component, it’s not just business, it’s not just supply and demand, and economic laws at play, but there’s also this underlying tectonic shift that’s being catalyzed by this combination of technologies, of compute and connectivity as well. You mentioned that there is a distinct generational shift, but do you think that what you’re observing, this becoming untethered is it purely a matter of the technology or is there something else in the zeitgeist that happens to affect this cohort. Or, do you see a broader impact of these technologies that go beyond just the generation where the behaviour changes are most obvious?

Well, I think you have to look at a couple of things, obviously there’s the backdrop going on, I don’t think it’s only the technology. In some cases, the technology is driving the behaviour, and in some cases the technology is the response to other factors that are going on in the world. If you think about millennials for example, they grew up in a scary time really, if you think about 9/11, if you think about the financial crisis that was going on, the housing crisis. They watched a lot of their parents leaving their jobs, leaving home, things that they thought were stable weren’t, so, it’s this kind of a risk society that they grew up in.

You’ve got this backdrop in other words of an economic reality that they came to understand where things that maybe other generations thought were stable, they grew up thinking they weren’t as stable, divorces were high as another factor. So when the technologies came about, I look at it as a double-helix of DNA, that you’ve got these two strands, you’ve got behaviour and you’ve got technology, and they’re intertwined, and that technology is shaping behaviour, and behaviour is then also shaping technology and how it’s used.

For example, when the Internet first came out, everybody was saying first of all it would be impossible to form a relationship online, and they were saying that people were going to use the internet for checking stock prices, or information seeking. What really drove it was the social aspects, and of course with social media that’s just exploded. At the bottom line, we’re social creatures, we have to be involved social creatures or we would have died out as a species, so we have this tendency towards wanting to be social, wanting to be together, wanting to see what other people are doing, wanting to be involved in each other’s lives. That’s just our nature, and the technology enables that, it enables to view into people’s lives that prior would be kind of sight unseen, you can peek behind the curtain now on people’s lives.

In a sense the technology stepped in when the uncertainty was already afoot for those growing up as digital nomads, and its stepped in and filled a different kind of void. But again, the new behaviors, the new values that we’re talking about that are emanating out of this digitally connected world, are not solely contained within the millennial generation, they’re also starting to impact older generations, and of course younger who are growing up immersed in a world where not only is there always an Internet, but there always was mobility. Now we have babies growing up with iPads, and smartphones, and acquiring digital skills before they acquire language, which is reshaping and orienting their neural pathways, this is creating a whole new brain for these kids for example, and the outcome of bringing kids up on digital will still remain to be seen.

This really ties into this concept that you explore in the book, that digital technology is recoding our operating system. Could you expand a bit on that, and share what does that mean? What are the implications of this?

Well, there’s an idea that neuropsychologists call neuroplasticity, the idea that the brain is sort of plastic amongst young people, amongst infants and children, or malleable. So, the idea that the earliest experiences that you have reshape who you are, the idea that we’re now giving infants iPads, if you go for example on YouTube and look up ‘Baby with iPad’, you’re going to get tens of thousands of videos of little children that have not acquired language yet, that have better digital skills than some of our senior citizens, it will just blow your mind. But what this is doing is, this is changing the pacing of information, the stimulation that they’re getting, and its causing changes in perception, its causing changes in attention, its causing changes in learning, and as we go we’ve integrated these devices into our educational process for example, kids used to learn… you may remember Ed learning cursive writing for example, and now they’re not learning cursive writing. By hand they’re keyboarding instead.

What we’re doing here is, we’re severing the tie between our body and our brain, and the environment, and that’s something called embodied cognition. It’s the idea that we kind of think that learning just takes place ‘in the brain’, but it doesn’t, it takes place as a system between the brain, the body, and our environment. So, people say, ‘Well, we’ve always had digital transformation. We’ve always had this, if we go back to the industrial era’. But if you take the agrarian folks, the farmers for example that then went into the cities and began to work in the factories, the learning process was still analogue; if you turn a wheel on a water spigot on the farm for example, it’s the same as turning a wheel by hand in a factory setting, so the learning feedback mechanisms are the same, mind, body, environment. But now we’re severing that tie by digitizing that learning, so kids are growing up in this environment, it’s changing how they learn, it’s changing how they remember, it’s driving things like partial attention or that multi-tasking, but what we’re finding is that when you’re not really paying full attention to something, you’re not really paying full attention to anything. So, this idea of multitasking is a bit of a myth. So, that’s kind of where we’re at.

Yes, I think you’ve really hit on a key point, and Nick Carr I believe had written a book called ‘The Shallows’, what the Internet is doing to our brains, where he’s talking about how there was plane accident that happened, because professional pilots have come to rely on the autopilot so much that they’ve lost the skills to be able to navigate on their own when the systems fail, or navigation systems among the Innuit up in Northern Canada and Alaska, the generation that grew up navigating by the stars and the sun was able to come back from going out on hunting trips. But when you had a younger generation that was relying more on GPS it really impaired their ability in life or death situations, it’s had a big impact and I wonder what this does mean for everything.

I think you’ve identified this concept of becoming untethered, the impact of becoming untethered from I guess the physical world is quite consequential for learning intention, but you also talk about nature which I think is another essential part of living in the world, and I’d love to get your thoughts on how important nature is to creativity, art, and happiness, but also how digital technologies are changing this relationship.

Well, I think that was one of the biggest surprises that I came across, obviously I looked at how coming untethered impacts our various aspects of life, and one of the findings that knocked me over was that digital technology is really helping to drive life indoors now. One of the big mega trends that’s going on, not only in the United States but globally is urbanization, the idea that we’re moving from the rural areas towards cities, and this is the trend that’s going to intensify around the globe. So, we’ve got more people living in cities, and more people living indoors, and the stats that just knocked me over was that 93 percent of adults now spend all their time indoors, 93 percent; and only six percent of kids are playing outside now.

So, once again this is one of the generational changes, baby-boomers would have gone out as kids, looked down the street to see where the bikes were, where all the kids were playing together outside, a lot of kids played outside until the lights came on, and then that was their sign to go home, parents had no idea where they were. But that also created something that’s very important, and that’s the idea of resilience, and people have mapped now that kids are wandering out into their yard, where years back they would have wandered perhaps miles away, perhaps gone to some local pond, lake, or out on their bikes, or walking around somewhere out in the nature, but kids aren’t doing that now. And because we’ve moved so far away from the farms, or from life on the farms, or outdoors in nature, we’re starting to see some real deficits going on in terms of people’s happiness and physical health for example.

If you look back at some of the early writers and composers, there’s this notion of the pastoral which I talk about in the book, the pastoral was taking leave of the city, going out into the countryside, going for a walks, absorbing nature, seeing the birds, the clouds, hearing water, wherever it might be, and the idea is, the pastoral is in three parts, so you take leave of the city, you spend this time out in nature, and then you return back to the city somehow changed. Now scientific studies are bearing this out, that this experience of what’s called the sublime, things that create awe in ourselves, create this sense of wonder that things are bigger than us, for example looking up into the sky at the firmament of stars and seeing how vast it is, really sort of makes you feel small, and it makes your problems feel a lot smaller as well. Because the idea of this pastoral that you’re going to take leave of the city, and get this creativity, spark these ah-ha moments, also happened because you’re reducing focused attention.

When we’re looking at our devices, or we’re reading social media, or texting, we’re focused on something. But when you’re out in nature, your eyes are wondering, ‘Oh, look at that bird’, ‘Oh see the clouds here’, ‘Oh look at that over there’, your eyes are just wandering around without that focused attention, and that’s called diffuse attention. That enables our brains to relax and rest a bit, and that allows us to have these sparks of creativity, these ah-ha moments, to go back to the city with new fresh ideas. So, that’s something that’s missing in a lot of urban dwellers lives now, where the closest they’re coming to nature is what I call fake nature, on the treadmill in the gym where it looks like they’re walking through the Grand Canyon, but you’re not walking through the Grand Canyon because the embodied sensual experience of that has been stripped away, where you’re only basically seeing something, you don’t have the tactility or the body, the crunch of sticks under your feet, or dried leaves, or the sun on your face, or the wind, all these embodied physical yet pleasurable experiences are stripped away, listening to a nature sound tape for example to try to help you sleep at night.

So, a lot of urban dwellers are missing out on the relaxation, but also sparking the creativity and new ideas that forays out into the natural environment in brains.

What’s funny is, you also talk about this concept of the mediated sublime where digital technologies actually spoil the benefits that what people might be experiencing when they go out into nature!

That’s so true! Yes, and again the devices are reshaping our relationship with our surroundings. Some people are bringing devices with them, and that’s really a challenge, for example the National Park system which has been called our greatest idea, younger millennials are not going out to the National Parks it turns out, aren’t going out to these places, and when they are going out they’re bringing their devices with them, so the National Parks for example are saying, ‘Well gee, how do we get these young people out here? Do we need to wire the parks, so that we have wi-fi and charging stations and all that? Or, is nature kind of a respite, a place to unplug from all these devices?’ So, you can see its real problem and as people are bringing these devices with them into nature, of course they’re driven by social media, and what’s social media driven by? Well, again, likes, and getting attention, it’s an attention economy.

So, what gets the most likes are the most unique things. People are trying to grab birds, there’s examples of people grabbing swans out of a lake to get a selfie with them, or grabbing peacocks, and then the peacocks die of shock. Or, there’s pictures of people knocking over boulders, or defacing by painting on the National Park, so they can get a shot for Instagram. So, this idea that you’re taking your device and sort of destroying nature, in order to get that shot for Instagram or for social media for example, that’s going to get more attention, is what’s happening. It also does a second thing, it brings in directed attention again, that idea that focused attention, getting that shot, getting just the right shot, you’re not enjoying the diffuse attention which is one of the hallmarks of spending time in nature, one of the benefits that it brings you, you’ve now erased that by having that device there.

It really is amazing too when you see these stories about death by selfie, clearly these are Darren Ord candidates, but it is quite remarkable how compulsive it’s become too. Even when you go to a concert, I recall there used to be this ritual where you would go hear musicians, and I guess it doesn’t really happen in all performing arts, but it was about 10 years ago when I first went to a concert and the band comes out on stage, and this is a pretty well-known band, and the only thing you can see is this sea of phones that are taking pictures, and that did not exist 15 years ago.

If you look at old music videos, maybe from the sixties, that’s what’s most startling is they’re looking, they’re dancing together, and now you’re one step removed from the experience, because again it’s that desire for immediate experience. So, you’re seeing it through the small screen, trying to capture it through elicit phone mode, this fear of missing out, or jealousy or envy amongst your viewers, like ‘I’m at this show, I have the best seat in the house’, my students have talked about that, one said he went to a concert, he said, ‘I was so busy trying to get the right shot and the right video, that I missed the whole show’.

Yes, it’s true, you can see that it’s become compulsive, but it’s also learning how to use these technologies effectively is also giving rise to a whole range of new types of jobs, and as you had alluded to earlier, people are designing different types of lifestyles that are more flexible. I don’t want to bash on these technologies forever, I do think what’s interesting is the opportunities now that these technologies have given to people who are creating new types of jobs, using these technologies. I’d love to get your thoughts on some of the creative ways that people are carving out new opportunities, and designing new careers for themselves, and then after that we can talk about the downside!

Well, it certainly creates new opportunities in that… well, let’s say it this way, one of the assets that people might enjoy is their social network, and people have had a network to help them get jobs, for example here at USC we call it the trojan family, you have that network that can help you to get jobs, or get opportunities. What all this connectivity has done is its expanded people’s social network, sociography, outside just this friends and family network of old, and its vastly increased people’s availability to reach out to new people, to make new connections. For example, they can join a group of interests, I see groups on marketers, moms, digital nomads, they help each other, they help each other to find gigs, they help each other to create these new opportunities, so that’s one thing that this connectivity has done.

It’s also as I alluded to before, enabled people to work untethered from a particular location. So, those entire groups of digital nomads that are working, teaching English over the Internet for example, or doing marketing, or social media search engine optimizations for example as a gig. People are doing that from all around the world, and are able to travel, it’s opened up and created an infrastructure for them to do that. For example, think like couch-surfing, you can go stay for free on somebody’s couch or home and be part of this community, but also interestingly, things like HelpX is an interesting site where people might have a farm in France, or a sheep farm in Philadelphia or something, and they need help. So, they just put an ad up on HelpX, or Workaway is another one, and people can go stay for room and board, and learn how to work on a farm, or learn how to run an Airbnb.

I saw someone who had bought a big Chateaux they were remodeling for an Airbnb in the Loire Valley in France, you could go live there, help run it. It’s kind of fun to think about doing all these little gigs, I call this kind of a patchwork career, people are patching together all these little gigs to create something, but it really does enable more flexibility, more experiences, the idea of travelling, doing different things, meeting different people, outside of the little box of where you were born for example, or your neighborhood.

The fact that we’re having this conversation today is certainly an example of people with similar interests that can connect and create a whole group. You have whole groups of people that have common interests, you have virtual clubs that you couldn’t have before.  What I’d be interested in though is to get your views on the impact of automation on the economy, and I know you’ve got pretty strong views on this, and I’d love to have your share insights. Because we do see with digital transformation, automation, its coming here and AI is accelerating process automation in a lot of ways.

If you think about businesses, they want to be more efficient, they obviously want to make money, and if you look at things like automation, robotics and artificial intelligence, there is this idea that eventually and over time that they will exceed human capabilities, in terms of knowledge, in terms of speed, in terms of accuracy of work, so looking at that from management standpoint or business strategy standpoint, why wouldn’t you want these tools to be more efficient, faster, cheaper, better than your competitors.

From a business standpoint it makes sense, but when you think about it, I talked about coming untethered from the workforce by choice now, you’ve got these digital nomads travelling the world doing these gig economy things from driving for Uber to again consulting for social media, marketing, or whatever they’re doing. At this point they’re untethering by choice, but over time as automation and artificial intelligence becomes more sophisticated and better, workers are going to be forcibly untethered from the workforce, and this is going to be a problem when you get to a certain scale, and I don’t think we’re having enough conversations really about what to do about that. The idea is that we’re going to provide a universal basic income, a UBI for these people that are displaced by technologies, that are forcibly untethered from the workforce.

But in my view that is sort of an instrumental solution, for example, ‘Well, we’re going to take away your paychecks, so we’ll give you a paycheck’. But think about this, a job or a career is much more than a paycheck isn’t it? A job is your identity, ‘He’s a dentist’, ‘She’s a judge’, ‘This person’s a teacher’, ‘Well, what do you do?’ is often one of the first questions people ask you, it situates you in our social world in terms of prestige, in terms of social class and things like that. It also organizes the time of your day, it organizes social interaction; you go to the workplace, it’s a social place to be, you work in a team for example. So, all of these things, the time, the social aspects, the sense of meaning and purpose in life, the sense of accomplishment, the sense of identity, the sense of belonging, all of these things are wiped out when you forcibly untether someone from the workforce, and yet the replacement is income. Do you see the problem here?

To me, income is the smallest portion perhaps of what a job is, and what a job means. So, I think that as we go, this is going to loom up on our horizon faster than anybody imagined, and I frankly don’t think in terms of the social or psychological implications we’re anywhere close to understanding, or really thinking through or having a plan, for those that are untethered from the workforce via automation.

I think you make a great point there, and that’s why the work that you’re doing to explore this, so that people can understand the dimensions is so-so important. Now, I don’t want to hit the negatives, as you look forward from the work that you’ve done in the long process of writing this book, and diving into so many aspects of society, technology, and implications, what are you optimistic about? And conversely what keeps you up at night?

Well, a lot of things keep me up at night, mainly I think we’ve got this sort of health crisis, we’ve got this adrift crisis that’s causing a lot of anxieties and things like depression again, and I think we’ve come out of the box with technology like a horse race, the doors flew open and boom we’re off an running with the excitement of having the iPhone for example, these Internet connected devices. I think just now as we’ve been in this digital era for a little while now, I think now we’re starting to see some things that are emerging. So, that’s what I’m trying to look at is, I’m not an anti-technologist, I am not trying to advocate us going back to the day of the horse and buggy, but what I’m saying is, life is about balance isn’t it? Moderation, that’s what they say can be healthy, too much of anything is not necessarily a good thing, and I think that’s where we’re at now, we’ve got a little too much digital technology in our lives. We’ve got a global sleep crisis going on for example, young people are checking their phones all throughout the night, well you know what sleep deprivation does, try doing that for a while, obviously you don’t deal with emotional things as well.

So, I think we have to develop better digital hygiene if you will, better ways of balancing our digital lives with our analogue embodied experiences, hands-on learning, hands-on creating things, or being out in nature. So, somehow, we need to swing the pendulum back, so we create more balance in life. I think that’s the main thing that we want to think about here. Of course, there’s all kinds of new and exciting things happening, this has created opportunities for citizen journalism, for getting messages out that we never would have seen, to creating social justice, there’s all kinds of new business opportunities emerging. We’re just at the beginning of this, and with IoT developing, and there’s Internet of Things, there’s going to be all kinds of things happening.

But I think on the flip side we still need to consider particularly, I think the problem ahead is going to be anomie, what are we doing when our smart home for example is doing everything for us? What’s our role? What’s our job? We need something to do in life, so that idea, ‘Idle hands are the devil’s workshop’, what are we going to do when everything’s automated away for us? We really need to think through these issues, it’s easy to look at the technology and get excited, the gee-wiz of the new shiny we could call it, but we need to think about some of the social and psychological ramifications for our long involved natural ways of being, you could say, and psychological and sociological needs still exist despite the emergence of all these new technologies.

Yes, you make some really great points there, and this idea that our fundamental humanity is driven by sense of mission, sense of purpose, and sense of meaning is just critical to happiness, and having a civil society, and having a forward-looking sense of hope in upcoming generations, because that’s what we want for our future.

I know we could continue here for hours here Julie, it’s an amazing work, ‘Left to Their Own devices’, I spent the last week reading it, and I heartily recommend it. But I also want to thank you as well for helping us scratch the surface of the rich trove of insights here that you’ve been working on and sharing with us. So, thank you.

Thank you so much. Well, hopefully we can start a national conversation about these things, about how to achieve some new balance, about how the workforce can step in to maybe re-stabilize young people, and we can start to deal with all these issues that are the unintended consequences of technology to digital transformation.

Absolutely, Dr. Julie Albright from University of Southern California has been our guest. Again, this is Ed Maguire Insights Partner at Momenta Partners, and we thank everyone for listening. As always, if you have any comments or questions please share them, and the book, ‘Left to Their Own Devices’ should be available wherever books are sold.

Thank you, Julie.

Thank you, Ed, for having me.