Technology's impact on humanity poses a major question for modern philosophers: does the world benefit from our discoveries and modifications, or does it suffer?
Unpacking this central conundrum is at the heart of Alex Wolf’s work – the self-described “consumer-facing anthropologist” has made a career by thinking deeply and talking widely about issues related to the pervasive role of technology in modern life. She asks what are the risks involved in “outsourcing” so many of our skills to technology. She wonders how do we design tools that complement rather than overwhelm our innate humanity.
Both her book Resonate: For Anyone Who Wants to Build an Audience and her documentary short Attention for Sale offer insights into how we are changed by ubiquitous technology, both individually and collectively – social media has transformed how we engage with one another, and that widespread, constant engagement is harming our focus.
Alex’s projects, including founding members-only entrepreneurial community Bossbabe, have earned her some serious clout – Fast Company found her ideas so promising they named her one of their “Top 100 Most Creative People in Business” in 2016.
We caught up with Alex for a chat that ranged from how social media affects the human condition to why it’s important to build tech that contributes to our existence.
Short on time? Here are five quick takeaways:
- While we try to designate value, metrics can be misleading. From public events to social media likes, the way we measure success can often be deceptive, and indeed outright harmful.
- “Obsessive blind technophilia” is Alex’s term for what happens when we adopt tech without analyzing its consequences. There will always be unintended consequences with technology, but we can start to ask questions that begin to resolve them.
- In the 1990s the internet was presented as a physical place: a corner of your home where you could log on and log off. Once the internet became a mobile experience, it was ever-present. Most of the friction we have with our technology and the products we build is because they’re still being built under the conception that the internet is a separate place.
- If you’re an engineer or responsible for managing a team of engineers, you must build features that nurture or enhance the human senses – not exploit them.
- An important thing to consider in the adoption of new technology is the “tech to technique” ratio – what is the balance between the utilisation of a technology and the skill required to operate it, and how are older techniques preserved?
If you enjoy the conversation, check out more episodes of our podcast. You can subscribe on iTunes, stream on Spotify or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the episode.
Dee Reddy: Alex, we are delighted to welcome you as a guest on Inside Intercom today. You’ve been described as a tech philosopher, an author, an economist, an entrepreneur, an artist and even a digital anthropologist. What title out of those, if any, sits most comfortably with you?
Alex Wolf: I mean, that’s a lot, and that’s a result of being someone who makes content on the internet. You can be described as many things. You know, what I’ve been really feeling is a mashup of a few of those titles. What I tell people – particularly when it comes to brands – is that I see myself as like a consumer-facing anthropologist. I say that because I really make it a goal to try to make the content digestible to an average person scrolling on YouTube, whereas traditional academic anthropology can sometimes be very book heavy and academic. So it’s very important to get these types of themes out in a snackable, digestible, consumer-friendly way.
Social media and the human condition
Dee: For people who aren’t familiar with your career to date, can you tell us a little bit about how you’ve arrived at where you are at today?
Alex: I was raised in New York by a father who is really into technology. He decided to pursue IT work compared to doing law. He went to law school and decided not to practice because there was actually more money in being an IT person in the ’90s. I say that because it’s proper context to the environment and the inspirations I had growing up, as far as having proximity to new gadgets, new software, and seeing how the internet went from hobby into a way of life.
“I was very much inspired to use the internet as a vehicle for pretty much everything: business, empowerment, socializing. I’d say that the computer was kind of my sibling”
I was very much inspired to use the internet as a vehicle for pretty much everything: business, empowerment, socializing. I’d say that the computer was kind of my sibling. By the time I turned 18, I started to build different internet companies online. I ended up dropping out of school to pursue one that really took off called BossBabe, which was basically a lifestyle brand for female millennial entrepreneurs who didn’t want to sacrifice their professionalism for their aesthetic just for the way they dress – particularly very feminine women.
The brand was very popular on Instagram and went viral around 2014, before there were many brands on Instagram. Instagram was still very much people uploading their lunches and things like that. It taught me so much about the relationship between social media and human nature. It taught me about just how swiftly technology can change economics, media and telecommunications. About after two and a half years of running the company, it was a success, but I still wanted to leave it to pursue what I’m doing now, which is talking about how innovation – particularly with telecommunications – affects economics and relationships. So in 2018, I finally was able to sell the company. It’s still up and running under new management, which is great, but I have since then pursued this type of tech anthropology work.
“We tend to try to find a metric that can represent some type of value. But oftentimes, particularly in social technology, these metrics don’t represent what we think they do”
Dee: What an incredible story. So one area in your work that you’ve written and spoken about really compellingly is the sometimes disturbing effects that technology and social media have had on really the human condition. Could you break this down a little for people? And maybe you could share your ideas about technology and visual stimulation in particular.
When a like isn’t a like
Alex: I started to notice how people would get treated differently depending on their social status on the social platforms. I even started to notice the nature of an event was very much changing, where what mattered more was how the event translated into KPIs and into these digital metrics – as opposed to having a good time – and how those things don’t always match up. We tend to try to find a metric that can represent some type of value. But oftentimes, particularly in social technology, these metrics don’t represent what we think they do.
A “like” is a very everyday example, but it doesn’t always mean a like. Once I started to see these nuances, I very much had this feeling that we were fish that didn’t know we were in water. Things are changing so fast, and I feel that most people are not sensitive to how fast those things are changing. Again, with language and with millennials communicating and how most of our communication was being done through text messaging, it’s very different from how our parents and our grandparents grew up socializing. So I just couldn’t help but wonder and be fascinated about how these differences in our social landscape and in our relationships are going to affect us as people – and how much is it going to actually negatively impact us.
“Research is pointing towards the fact that a lot of the reason why people are having a difficult time reading is because their eyes are so used to the stimulation of moving images”
So I wanted to write and write and write about it. The more I did research about writing, the more I figured out that people were having a difficult time reading. Research is pointing towards the fact that a lot of the reason why people are having a difficult time reading is because their eyes are so used to the stimulation of moving images. And if you compare that to words on a page – which are complicated, little, dark characters that your brain has to take extra effort in to interpret – it’s not really a fair race, right? The eyes will gravitate towards the moving image, the spectacle, if you will.
And I realized: How is this going to impact politics? How is this going to impact the ability to have deeper conversations and reflection? How does this threaten intellectualism? I ended up being so worried and concerned about it. I made a 15-minute documentary that was supposed to be a book, but that’s the irony of studying mediums. You have to be just as clever about which medium you deliver the material in. So I realized that unless I try to say this in 15 minutes or less through a visual medium, there’s a closing door. In my opinion it’s the attention span, which keeps shortening every year.
“How is this going to impact politics? How is this going to impact the ability to have deeper conversations and reflection? How does this threaten intellectualism?”
All of these are effects of technology. For the most part, once we do realize we’re fish in water and this water does have an effect on us, I’ve noticed that people are very interested and want to learn more about it, which has been nice.
Dee: It’s interesting you should say that, because one thing I noticed when I was watching the “Attention For Sale” documentary was how often you cut away to short, sharp, moving images. You become more aware of it as the documentary goes on and as you’re taking in the importance of what you’re saying.
Dee: I’ve always been a big advocate for audio as a standalone medium, because it always felt to me that it has a more similar impact on your brain to reading than, say, watching something. Because only one of your senses is being engaged. So your brain is forced to fill in the gaps, and it engages your imagination, which means that you remember it a bit more and maybe have a deeper connection to us.
Alex: Yeah. Audio is a happy medium in the sense that it’s still based on words for the most part. Most of the time when people listen to audio, they are intentionally engaged in some type of activity that is stimulating the eyes. Most people drive when they’re listening to podcasts, or they’re working out, or they’re doing something to entertain the eyes, which takes the burden off of the person who is making the audio, because that burden then goes to the listener.
The fallout from hyperstimuli
Dee: You’ve posited that our relationship with visual stimuli has created a generation, who, because of our mostly digital adult experiences, has a skewed perception of time and reality. How and why do you think this has happened?
Alex: In a nutshell, the more stimuli you’re exposed to, the quicker time feels. You know how they say time flies when you’re having fun, right? Right now, most of our environments within our homes and pretty much in general are filled with not just stimuli but hyperstimuli, especially in comparison to what our ancestors were exposed to. So a lot of our senses have been numbed down into these insensitive receptors that just need more and more to feel something. This, of course, has all types of anthropological effects. The question is: Do we seek to serve it by giving it even more hyperstimuli in an attempt to feel something? Or do we try to restore their sensitivity by refraining from so much stimulation to begin with, so we can feel more by being in an environment with less?
Dee: That makes a lot of sense. Especially with everything that’s happened in the world over the last six months anyway, it’s spread wider than just millennials now, because everybody is engaged with their screen all the time. They’re working from home. In some cases, it’s the only way to socialize. What kind of fallout can we expect from this period where we’re being forced into the screen more and more?
“One of the main ways we can start to not be so negatively impacted by so much screen time is focusing on how to shift this attention economy… into an economy where, instead of trading our attention, we’re trading our dollars”
Alex: It’s important to again consider the context of our environment. Right now, we live in a culture of what I call “obsessive blind technophilia”, basically meaning that we adopt tech with somewhat of an obsession and don’t do much analysis on predicting at least some of its consequences. There’ll always be unintended consequences with technology, but we can start to ask questions. And I hope given where we are now, we incorporate those more.
One of the main ways we can start to not be so negatively impacted by so much screen time is focusing on how to shift this attention economy – which relies on our impulses and our inability to look away and exploiting the fact that our eyeballs want to gravitate towards sensation and spectacle – into an economy where, instead of trading our attention, we’re trading our dollars. Where we’re not relying on a third party to create all the stimulation for us, but we’re seeking quality – whether it be journalism, news, entertainment – and making the conscious decision to actually pay for those things, which I do see happening little by little.
Dee: You’ve said before that you think of the internet as a presence rather than a destination, which is interesting because I always think of it as a place. But that presence is all around us. So surely you must have some tricks of the trade that you do to try and stay engaged in the here and now with all the research that you’ve done. Would you have any of those that you’d like to share with us?
“Multitasking is overrated. We’ll start there”
Alex: Well, multitasking is overrated. We’ll start there. I really tried to switch into trying to do everything at once to doing one thing at a time, no matter how boring it is, and those opportunities pop up pretty much every second of the day. It could be, “Okay, let me untie my shoes before I wash my hands.” There are many, many, many calculations and decisions that we make. And I’ve noticed that we [often try to do] them at once, and it obviously slows down the process. It makes it more difficult and frustrating. Just by literally doing one thing at a time has been really helpful.
And just to give a little bit more background for people who might be hearing that the internet is a presence thing and are like, “What?” Obviously, imagery and the way we conceptualize things are greatly related. And when the internet was becoming a consumer-facing product in the ’90s, it was branded to us as a place. It is a place that you not only go to in the corner of your home, but once you’re logged on, you’re now in a digital environment – a virtual environment – and you had the ability to step away and literally log off. Once the internet became a mobile experience, and we started to incorporate more of the Internet of Things, it wasn’t a destination. I find that most of the friction we have with our technology and the products we build is because they’re still being built under the misconception that the internet is a separate place.
“We don’t say we’re addicted to electricity, because the electricity is so ingrained into our everyday life”
Other technologies that have that type of presence are things like cars and electricity. I make a note in one of my videos that we don’t say we’re addicted to electricity, because the electricity is so ingrained into our everyday life, and it has so many different purposes. A lot of people still interpret the internet as Twitter or Instagram or Netflix. That is just a tiny sliver of what the internet actually is as an invention and as a technology. So it’s very important to have that context because when we think of it that way, we can design more human-friendly technology.
Building tech to enhance, not exploit
Dee: Speaking of that human-friendly technology as you called it there – and I’ve heard you refer to it as “meaningful technology” before – it’s one that contributes to rather than distracts from human experience. What are some examples that you could give us of that? And how do you think people should go about building them?
Alex: If you’re either an engineer or you’re responsible for managing a team of engineers, some of the qualifiers I have spoken about for human-friendly technology include tech that is sensitive to our emotions and implies that we are humans. So technology that doesn’t do this includes things like automated communications that don’t consider the environment that a person is in. For example, financial notifications being pinged to you in the middle of your sleep, or automated messages that are meant to appear as if the person [on the other end] is really there and not disclosing when they’re not.
“One of the others is whether the feature nurtures or enhances a sense instead of exploiting it. So much of our technology right now is exploiting not just our eyes, but – if you think about processed foods – our taste buds quite literally too”
It’s just any technology that implies that someone is a perfect robot who isn’t going to feel, you know, offended by so much automated communication or gamification methods. Obviously, things such as “likes” can definitely play with the human psyche in a way that isn’t totally human-friendly. That’s one. One of the others is whether the feature nurtures or enhances a sense instead of exploiting it. So much of our technology right now is exploiting not just our eyes, but – if you think about processed foods – our taste buds quite literally. It’s important to build things that actually cushion or support our organic nature as it is. So instead of a video game that gets your heart pumping, think more about something like eyeglasses, which are only supporting an organic part of your being versus throwing or exposing your eyes to hyperstimuli that’s unnatural.
Another example that is super, super important – especially right now in the United States and in Western society – is technology that has a harmonious tech to technique ratio. What I often say is that every time we make a technology, we’re also birthing a technique to how to use it. One of the examples I normally give is the microwave and the stove. A child can learn how to use the microwave, and the result is cooked food. A stove’s result is also cooked food, but the technique you need to cook food with the microwave is vastly different from the technique you need to cook with the stove.
“If we burden the technology with the utility and don’t give some of that burden to the human and their skillful nature, it results in a society where people don’t really have many natural techniques”
The reason why that’s important is that if we burden the technology with the utility and don’t give some of that burden to the human and their skillful nature, it results in a society where people don’t really have many natural techniques – whether it be cooking, whether it be maintenance on machinery, whether it be having a conversation on the phone because we’ve been using text messages as a way to take the burden of the utility off of the person.
We want to be really careful with that, because one of the most important ways to preserve the integrity of a civilization is to have a body of people who have various techniques that can support the community whether we have the highest, easiest technology of all. The concern, obviously, is what’s going to happen if one of these technologies can’t work one day. Who has the technique to make things go on?
Then the last one is presence-incorporating technology. You know, one of the beautiful things about the internet is that we can have a live conversation, and it has telecommunication properties that allow two parties or more to be present at the same time and create that feeling of presence. One of the best examples I give is I have a friend, Joanna Montgomery, who started a smart-pillow company for long-distance couples, where one person lies on the pillow and the other pillow glows up, even if it’s on the other side of the world. What that does is it offers an opportunity for that long-distance couple to feel present with each other. She actually just did this deal with a children’s hospital and is going to be contracting those pillows out for children. There’s literal research coming out from the hospitals, that the children are healing faster and with more ease with these pillows, because sometimes their loved ones can’t be there 24/7, but the pillow allows for that presence.
“Research shows that the best communication is done when both parties are present. The internet gives us that capability. We should definitely start seeing more technology that incorporates that”
The irony is that so much of our telecommunications are literally running on the idleness of us being by the computer. If you think of email, if you think of social media, most of the design requires you to dump information in, and you can go idle, and someone will hopefully catch whatever dump of information you had, because it is within a sea of other dumped information, which is an okay way to communicate. The threat occurs when we make it a primary method of communication, as research definitely shows that the best communication is done when both parties are present. The internet gives us that capability. We should definitely start seeing more technology that incorporates that.
Design and marketing for human nature
Dee: For the people that are actually building these, what do you think are the things they need to keep front-of-mind in order to be able to deliver on those different facets you’ve described there?
Alex: What’s really important is incorporating human nature into it. Again, I find there’s a big gap between what engineers are being told to build and what actually makes sense. If you think of Twitter and you think of Facebook – as much as I enjoy both of those platforms – they were built by young men who were notorious for being socially awkward. You’ll always see the psychology of the designer in the design. So it’s ironic that we’re using social platforms built by people who don’t have the proper education or communication skills to build a platform that would be really successful at communicating for people. They were late-adolescent kids. Zuckerberg was 19 when he started Facebook, so that is also important context.
The reason why I say that is, in whatever you’re building, be sensitive to what bias you’re bringing to the design. Don’t throw it away, because it’s a part of who you are, but just be sensitive to it and say, “Hey, if I’m going to build an app for women, should I maybe hire some women before I design it?” We see that happen all the time. Or: “If I’m going to design this feature, is this feature just here to exploit a sense so it can sell an ad? And is that something that I want to do? What kind of costs does that have on the society I live in?” Those kinds of questions are really important, and I don’t think orders should be taken so blindly. We should have a little bit more of that analysis.
“One of the most important and effective approaches is to try to decorate the feed and the lives of the consumers instead of interrupt it”
Dee: You have so much experience, Alex, of working with B2C brands. You’re an ambassador for Dropbox among many, many other things. I’d love to hear what you think are really good examples of B2C marketing initiatives that you think B2B companies could learn from?
Alex: One of the most important and effective approaches is to try to decorate the feed and the lives of the consumers instead of interrupt it. As much as I love paid ads, I think the most successful campaigns are ones that ended up becoming user-generated just because people have a natural social desire to want to incorporate them on their social media, on their Instagram stories. Particularly for older brands, who were burning with the question of, “How do we basically spoon feed this concept, this campaign, to our people, to our target audience?” They now have the challenge of, “How do we surrender but then let it flourish through user-generated content and promotion?”
That can look like a TikTok dance going viral. It can look like a meme challenge going viral. But the point is that you’ll find the best success when there’s a nonresistance to how the user-generated content will grow. So examples are things like when Baby Yoda got really popular, I read an article that Disney was a little off put by it because they felt like their IP was all over the place. Again, Disney’s an old company. That’s something they’re worried about, but it really ended up working for them in the long run because Baby Yoda ended up being a sales funnel – even for someone like me, who at that point had never watched Star Wars. I watched it because I needed to see the cute little Baby Yoda.
“It’s really about just surrendering to that current of influence instead of trying to control it”
Then the next thing you know, I’m watching all the Star Wars movies, and I am now in the ecosystem in which all the intangible value from those stories have more value to me, and I can consider myself a consumer of that particular business. You know? That’s because the internet, again, has these properties where, once something takes off, that’s what really creates a revolution in your business and in the marketing of it.
That was what I felt with my first company as well. The reason why I became successful is because most of the content we were posting were motivational quotes, and people would screenshot them and share them. And it went haywire; it went all over the place. It’s really about just surrendering to that current of influence instead of trying to control it.
Dee: So find your Baby Yoda, then?
Alex: Find your Baby Yoda.
Dee: I never thought of him as a gateway drug to the Star Wars universe before, but it makes sense. One thing we love to ask guests on Inside Intercom, Alex, is whether there’s an individual from your discipline who inspires you?
Alex: A lot of the philosophy I talk about is inspired by Taoism, so that means people like Lao Tzu and Alan Watts. Another big inspiration is Buckminster Fuller. What all these thinkers had in common in their theories were that they interpreted our species as being a part of the natural makeup of the universe and not separate from it, which is really key to building harmonious technology. Technology will never be good or bad. That’s not the right question. It’s about, is it worthy of being a part of our society?
Dee: Amazing. So much to ponder and read up on there. Finally, Alex, before we let you go, where can people keep up with your work?
Dee: Super. It has been such a pleasure chatting to you today. Thank you so much for joining us.
Alex: Thank you.