Everywhere you turn you see the familiar sight, the hypnotized crowds, their faces glued to the screens of their smart phones. Few would dispute the ubiquitous notion that today’s technology has revolutionized the ease with which we communicate, do business, and organize our daily tasks. In the ever expanding world of apps, our lives have been simplified, making us more productive and efficient. Technology, so it seems, is the cure we’ve been looking for to bring order and control in our lives. Yet could it come with unforeseeable side effects?
Psychologists have argued that occasional uncertainty and lack of control in our lives is not so bad. In fact, not being in control frees us from social constraints and pushes us to think of new insights and ideas to solve old problems. Over-reliance on technology to simplify our lives could make us more efficient in the short-term but it could stifle our creative capacity and therefore our ability to come up with grand ideas. Consider the case of the so-called big data revolution. In their quest to bring efficiency, companies have been collecting large amounts of data on anything from consumer spending habits to their socio-economic background. Data analysis is then used to predict consumer tastes and assist with product development. Brian Bergstein of MIT Technology Review argues that extensive reliance on big data is breeding the culture of overconfidence among companies. Overconfidence is often linked to having a strong sense of control. This may help with incremental change, but bringing innovative, revolutionary ideas increasingly requires that we step outside of clearly defined boundaries of big data collection and engage with people directly to observe their emotions and body language. When companies assume they have a strong understanding of their consumers thanks to the data they have collected about them, they may stop there. Big data reinforces, often falsely, our sense of control.
Being innovative about product development, however, is about unpacking the artificial layers of data to truly understand people’s needs, to bring back the context behind the numbers. We must thus take occasional breaks from our attempts to bring order, predictability, and control into our lives. For all its benefits, the ever improving communications technology may be slowly killing our instincts. Getting lost in a city or talking to atypical consumer face-to-face, however, teaches us to see things in a new way, to rely more on our instincts and to get a feel for the problem from a fresh perspective. Most of all it reminds us the humans and social processes are complex, evolving and thereby necessitating an openness to uncertainty.