Technology and being human: insights from SXSW

A couple of weeks ago, I caught the IPA’s wrap up of SXSW Interactive with their Head of Emerging Technologies, Nigel Gwilliam. One of the key themes he took from the festival was the convergence of technology and being human.

Below is my summary and thoughts on the subject.

Human technology

For years we’ve had a dubious relationship with technology but now we’re getting closer to it.

Our screens have evolved from TVs to desktops to tablets to mobile, and now to wearables. Technology is enveloping us. We no longer own single devices; soon we’ll be running our own ecosystems of connected devices. Our relationship with technology is becoming ever more intimate, from the data we share to the proximity of devices. Technology such as the Apple Watch can now record your heartbeat to send to your friends. Lovely.

But how can technology get even closer than next to your skin?

By getting UNDER your skin.

That’s right. We’re starting to see the development of technologies such as Myo, which measures electrical activity from your muscles for motion gesture control. And just like you can have a microchip put in your dog, you can now have a chip put under your own skin that monitors diabetes or a pacemaker and sends information to your phone.

Myo gesture control armband by Thalmic Labs

We’re becoming so accustomed to having technology in our lives that “like air and drinking water, being digital will be noticed only by its absence, not its presence” (Nicholas Negroponte, founder of MIT Media Labs).

This can also be described as FOBO — fear of being offline. See the revised Maslow’s hierarchy of needs:

But what does this increasing dependency on digital mean?


Gwilliam referred to the concept of neutroplasticity: that technology and multitasking is bad for our brains. We watch TV with tablets on our laps, text while we’re walking across the street, catch up on email while standing in a queue — and while having lunch with friends, we sneakily check to see what our other friends are doing.

Research has found that being in a situation where you are trying to concentrate on a task while you’re aware that there’s an email sitting unread in your inbox can reduce your effective IQ by 10 points — the equivalent of smoking a joint!

Artificial Intelligence

And it’s not just multitasking with our connected devices that’s depleting our brain power; the next step will be technology that uses anticipatory computing to make suggestions, and robots to replace human work.

We are already starting to see the emergence of artificial intelligence to replace humans. That eerie Black Mirror episode has become reality with robots such as Bina 48 being developed. This humanoid robot is based on the digital presence and memory database of the real Bina Rothblatt. Bina 48 is so sophisticated, she can even hold a conversation with her real self. Scary!

Bina 48 robot

What does this mean for us?

We’re not all going to be talking to an AI version of ourselves anytime soon, but this technological advancement will see more human tasks replaced by machines. This shift will have a huge effect on our workforce and strengths as an economy.

But no matter how advanced this becomes, robots will never be able to be truly creative in the way that us humans are. Therefore to thrive in the future we must focus on our creative selves and work with this technology to our advantage. The power of human + technology will always be greater than that of technology alone.

What does this mean for brands?

So if this ‘digital world’ is changing people’s brain structures, how can brands take advantage of this?

Our multitasking consumer has a limited attention span, so clear, simple messages are what’s needed. It’s also crucial that messages are considered in the context of where your audience is; considering contextual relevance in regards to where they are and the mindset they’re in will help you cut through the clutter.

I’m a big believer that brands should help add utility and benefit to the lives of people they’re trying to reach. We’re all overloaded with data nowadays, so providing your audience with the tools to help reduce their cognitive load will only help increase positive sentiment towards your brand.