Arianna Huffington: let's focus on human-centred technology

Written by
Mary Appleton

05 Jun 2018

05 Jun 2018 • by Mary Appleton

For Arianna Huffington, an inclusive digital revolution must include protecting people from the addictive nature of phones and social media in an 'attention economy'. Speaking exclusively to Changeboard, she tells us why.

What do you mean when you say the future is going to be about human-centred technology?

One of the biggest stories of the past few years in technology has been our awareness of the impact of the attention economy on our lives. Increasingly sophisticated technology has been used to exploit our vulnerabilities and essential human needs in order to hijack our minds and mine our attention.

It has been very successful, which isn’t surprising, given the amount of money at stake. The rise of the attention economy has also made technology one of the primary drivers of our stress and burnout epidemic, accelerating the pace of our lives beyond our capacities to keep up. But 2017 was the year we began to realise this.

For a long time, the tech conversation was largely about just celebrating new advances. Now, increasingly, it revolves around revelations and new studies about what our technology is doing to us. So that’s led to a demand for technology that enhances our lives, instead of consuming them. It’s technology that puts our needs ahead of the revenue of the attention economy.

You’ve said consumers are looking for technology infused with humanity that can be used in productive ways. How can technology be used as a force for good?

There are an incredible number of ways – especially in health. Technology is creating treatments that are evermore effective and have fewer side-effects. It’s allowing us to track our health and empowering us to make decisions about health and wellbeing.

One example is Forward, a medical start-up that uses cutting-edge technology and design to reimagine the primary care experience. Technology also allows us to connect with family members and loved ones.

We’ve just released the THRIVE app, which helps you recalibrate your relationship with technology by giving you the tools to take a break from your phone to do whatever it is that makes you more human.

When you put your phone into ‘thrive mode’ it limits all notifications, calls and texts except for those from people you’ve specified on your VIP list. It’s bi-directional.

So if you’re in ‘thrive mode’ for the next hour, and I text you, I’ll get a text back that you’re in thrive mode until 11am, which makes me wonder “what’s she doing while she’s disconnecting? What am I missing?”

We want the app to have a multiplier effect that begins to create new cultural norms about what we value – from valuing ‘always being on’ to also valuing unplugging and recharging regularly.

Finally, the app’s dashboard provides you with a mirror of your app usage and makes it easy to set goals and limits for specific apps.

There are also other apps, such as Calm and Headspace – which was a pioneer in making mindfulness meditation easily available.

What are employees looking for from their organisations, and are their employers recognising this?

There is an increasing alignment between employers and employees. More and more business leaders are recognising that what’s good for us as individuals is good for business, which is to say there’s a direct connection between the long-term health of a company’s bottom line and the longterm health and wellbeing of its employees.

And on their part, employees are increasingly taking company culture around wellbeing and burnout into account when deciding where to work. This alignment is accelerating the culture shift.

What can we do together, as a business community, to ensure no one in society is left behind by the digital revolution?

That’s a very important question because marginalised communities, and those that are economically challenged, are obviously the most vulnerable to the disruptions the digital revolution continues to bring. And the business community has a huge role to play here.

We need to continue to shift our thinking and widen our definition of success, so that creating a workplace culture that’s both sustainable and inclusive – for everybody and in every way – is considered a primary responsibility for business.

We need to accelerate the shift away from a business culture that is obsessed with short-term profits. And it’s already happening. CEOs such as Marc Benioff, Richard Branson, and Howard Schultz have been speaking out about this for years.

Just recently, BlackRock CEO Larry Fink wrote a letter to CEOs urging them to stop chasing quarterly results and focus more on a wider, more sustainable notion of success.

How can employers who haven’t traditionally needed staff with digital skills position themselves as an employer of choice?

As technology continues to penetrate deeper into every aspect of how we live and how we work, the line between digital and non-digital is blurring.

And as we approach an age of increased automation and artificial intelligence, there’s going to be a premium on uniquely human qualities such as creativity, empathy, wisdom, intuition and the ability to connect and collaborate with others.

So for sectors that are less digitally advanced, what will make them attractive to employees isn’t showcasing their digital side but demonstrating their human side.

That’s something that even the most advanced digital and tech companies are realising.

What advice would you give to other leaders on driving the digital inclusion agenda within their organisations?

While we want the digital revolution to be inclusive for everybody and to leave nobody behind, we also want to take steps to protect everybody from the worst elements of the digital revolution and the highly addictive nature of our phones and social media. We should want everybody to enjoy the many benefits of being connected, but at the same time everybody should be empowered to control the technology in their lives and have the ability to unplug and recharge regularly