AS YOU’RE PROBABLY reading this article on your digital device of choice, you don’t need to be reminded of the omnipresence of all things digital in human life today. Instead of going to a book shop and taking tips from fellow bibliophiles on our next read, we check online reviews and order books digitally.1 Automated checkouts allow us to circumvent small talk and eye contact with the cashier. We “like” our friends’ posts on social media rather than telling them in person that we like them. And autonomous vehicles will one day likely let us literally fall asleep at the wheel.
Indeed, digital technologies can make it easier for us to navigate through our busy lives, but they also can erode the fundamental elements of human connection. Despite efforts to replicate human behaviour and gestures through automation and AI, the essentials of human connection—eye contact, personal touch, empathy—remain irreplaceable by technology. So, when digital connections—personal and professional—lack a human touch, it can create an environment where people feel isolated, underrepresented and unfulfilled. This can result in people opting for quick answers to narrowly defined problem sets versus more sustainable solutions that take into account what it means to be human. We believe that the rapid pace of digital change is adding to a buildup of these unintended consequences, which we call experience debt. Why is this? As many behavioural psychologists will tell you, humans are inclined to trade the hard choice of tomorrow for the easier solution today. This is evident in the £1,821 billion debt of the UK government, the trillion dollar debt of the US government and the United States’ collective personal credit card and student loan debt—$423.8 billion and $1.5 trillion, respectively.
In the realm of technology, easier choices made today by companies can result in a heavy technical debt for them later (think cutting corners on an IT project to meet mounting business pressures or lack of stakeholder understanding of the technical implications of launching a new ERP system). This innate human tendency to put off hard choices makes us wonder how often businesses are making easier choices about the digital frontier that do not factor in the human.
Despite our innate desire for greater and deeper connections, the pace of digital change can make it very easy for us to disengage and disconnect from what makes us human. However, connected technology is likely here to stay—for good or for bad. Now it’s upon us—individually and at the organisation level—to help ensure technology connects with the human spirit and elevates the human experience rather than dampening the spirit and breaking down human connections.