Lessons on Humanity, from a Cyborg

This month’s edition of New York Magazine has a great article about how podcasts have become an essential form of modern media. It traces the history of the form, noting “Perhaps it’s tricky to pinpoint the exact arrival of podcasts because they’ve spent a decade in a state of perpetual arrival,” and goes deeply into how what once seemed like a medium destined for obscurity has become hugely popular because of the intimate connections that can be formed.

The one constant, though, through all the standout podcasts is that notion of obsession and connection. Freed from the constraints of attracting a mass audience, podcast creators double down on their enthusiasms and invite you, the listener, to come along. It’s a refreshingly democratic medium that, not incidentally, is driven by distinct personalities.

All of which gives a great motivation to talk about a great old podcast. Invisibilia is a show about the invisible forces that shape human behavior–things like ideas, beliefs, assumptions, and emotions. An episode from 2015 is a true standout, titled, Computer or Human? + Thad.

The story centers on Thad Starner and the impact of a self-invented technology on his life. Thad was one of the first cyborgs and is someone you can thank for contributing to the invention of Google Glass and other wearables, like the current iteration of your iPhone and Apple Watch. In the early 1990s, Thad was a bit of a revolutionary, or strange mix of human and computer, depending on how you look at it.

Thad had an interesting relationship with “Lizzie,” the name Thad gave to a wearable he invented for himself in 1993 in an attempt to catalogue all the knowledge he was absorbing–and that he felt he might be missing or lose–during his academic endeavors at MIT. He would watch and write while she would project and record everything he learned each day. Thad and Lizzie’s relationship changed his interactions with all of the other people he encountered. Being able to cue his memories at will through Lizzie changed the way he talked with people and how they responded to him in ways that deepened and made those conversations more meaningful. Having full memory access began increasing Thad’s confidence, allowing him to feel more powerful and in control of his life, providing an “information security blanket,” if you will.

The questions that this all brings to mind are myriad: Can we use technology to move us forward and bring us together, without losing touch with the living, breathing human beings we are trying so desperately to understand? Does all this technology–wearables, smartphones, online reviews, check-ins, and Instagramming–enhance our humanity, or cheapen it?

In 1993, Thad’s cyborgification seemed ludicrous and bordered on the ethereal. Twenty years later, many of us can’t remember life without the integration of technology, as we busily record our lives online and on social sites and engage in the collective intelligence we are creating. People are more than willing to share and are comfortable integrating with technology in ways that we, as researchers, can leverage to provide valuable insights into customers’ behaviors and decisions. Incorporating technology into our work is incredibly valuable for collecting “in the moment data,” which is more reliable and trustworthy.

Yet, what the episode about Thad should reminded us is that none of the information that can be gleaned through technology holds meaning in a vacuum. It is our humanness, our intuition, experience, emotions, and intelligence that allow us to make sense of this vast amount of information. For our business, that humanness is what allows us to translate data and research into meaningful insights to help our clients. We can look into the patterns we see forming in these individual data points and provide a deeper level of analysis that helps contextualize and make sense of the humans on the other side of the screen.