What Does it Mean to be Human in the Digital Age?

Over the last two weeks I’ve facilitated three design thinking workshops around “what does it mean to be human in the digital age? (I would like to thank Kristen Eshleman for her time, guidance and expertise on this topic and the design thinking process). In each case the group seemed somewhat apprehensive. What is this design thinking anyway? What could we possibly learn from a question like that?

The question of “what does it mean to be human” is not a new question. A very natural part of being human is wanting to fit in, have relationships and feel connected. We try to make sense of our role within the social hierarchy, understand stereotypes and for some struggle to have our voice heard. To be human means to struggle with inequality, have a never ending desire to love and be loved, and to be recognized and valued for who we are.

PBS posed the question and collected stories back in 2010. In 2010 what were the questions posed? Concerns about texting and driving and spying on your children’s social media (sound familiar?). Read the stories here http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/digitalnation/participate/ . More recently Yann Arthus-Bertrand created a movie called HUMAN based on the stories of 2,000 people across 60 countries. His goal was to understand “What is it that makes us human? Is it that we love, that we fight? That we laugh? Cry? Our curiosity? The quest for discovery? “

The workshops I led were one hour “crash course” sessions so we moved through each stage at a rapid pace.I spent a short amount of time going over what the Design Thinking process is, instead placing most of my emphasis on the importance of listening to the story and gaining empathy.  Empathy is “…not just sympathy for someone else’s circumstances, but the deep intuition for what it feels like to live their lives”. What is the person feeling? What scares them? Frustrates them? Brings them joy? I advised people to ask “why?” a lot and think of it as a conversation. The energy in the room once people got talking was amazing. They were deeply engaged in the conversation and truly interested in the other person’s story. Yet, there were still questions and reservations as participants asked, “I don’t understand the purpose of this.” “We’re having a great conversation but what am I really learning?” Be patient, you’ll see, is all I said. When we got to the POV (point of view) step it all started to come together for people. They began to “break down their findings” and “unpack the juicy parts” of the story. What does this person need? What surprised you? What are your hunches? Crayons and pencils filled sticky notes as people made meaning of what they heard, thought about what it feels like to live this person’s life and created radical prototypes.

During the entire hour the room was filled with positive energy and you could feel how excited people were to have been given “permission” to break “the rules”. That is, space, place and time to ideate in a world with no budgets, no policies, no limitations and most importantly the lack of the word no. The majority of these people were in the technical field and problem solvers. It was initially hard to get them to shift their mindset from problem solver to explorer.  By the end of the hour they were amazed at how much they not only learned about the person next to them, but how quickly they could gain empathy and develop prototypes (four in four minutes!). In listening to their partner’s story they had gotten to know this person in a way they would not have otherwise.

It turns out what it means to be human in the digital age is, in many ways, no different than what it means to be human in any age. People value meaningful relationships, feeling connected to other people, and having opportunities to learn and share from others. What do people need?

A way to sort through all the information and find what is most important to them in an efficient and easy way (some great prototypes were developed as solutions to this).

To feel safe when sharing their opinions and ideas.

What surprised people?

That the world of social media closely replicates the face to face world:

“There are cliques online, it is just like being in high school”

The fear in having what you say be out there forever:

“How can I be sure that what I say won’t offend anyone or come out the wrong way, there are no do overs.”

How can we make the idea of design thinking a part of our daily life? Taking the time to have a conversation, truly listening to another person’s story and gaining a deeper understanding of who they are and what they value, allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and sharing our story, and feeling we have a safe space to to plant our ideas, fertilize them and watch them grow.

What impact might a day of empathy have where you work? If school leaders or professors at your university walked alongside a student for the day or those in support staff positions walked alongside those who we support?

How might we reimagine a digital age where to be human means to strive to eliminate inequality; value care work, and be vulnerable without fear?

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