Towards the end of last year with conversations about the loss of Net Neutrality, tons of new technology products for consumers, tech start-ups everywhere, people immersed in social media or online shopping, and talk of sometimes frightening new technologies on their way, I began to mull over where I want to use or forgo technologies over the coming year to grow our community. At the National Retail Federation annual trade show in New York, technology was everywhere, tracking customer habits, tracking the shelves, helping to create a completely personalized customer experience, sell more stuff. The BIG question I have been turning over in my head as I think about what I want to accomplish with my company in the year ahead: Where will technology be beneficial, and where does it detract from our mission?
At its worst, technology causes us to be distracted, perpetually connected but thoroughly isolated, constantly “on”. Immersed in technology, increasingly mobile, perhaps less rooted, many of us are loosing the connection to a community and becoming more isolated. And while the technology can help us find community, it can also make us too distracted to connect with what really makes us happy, and to achieve the sort of cohesiveness to take the big and little actions needed to make the world better. This is not at all to dismiss all the great work occurring out there, but only to wonder – when does technology help us and when does it detract?
Our mission is bigger than - sell more stuff. Connection is deeply important. The Wendell Berry film “Look & See” helped me understand that, deeply rooted in our company mission is a desire for people to better understand their connection to the craftspeople who make their garments and the natural world that supplies the materials (link to full post here).
[An aside – while there was no mention of incorporating social or environmental missions into the shopping experience in the NYT article about the National Retail Federation event (link to article), yesterday the major investment group BlackRock signaled a potentially monumental shift in business – writing a letter to the world’s largest public companies stating that they need to do more than just make profits – they need to contribute to society. Link to full article here.]
So I came up with my litmus test for what technology I want to employ, and what I will pass on to further our mission: technology that creates connection between people and our natural world. By definition these are not tools designed to distract us, pull us into an internet time warp that has us going to bed at 1 am with screen neck. These are tools that allow us to share our experience, create and share beauty, move others with words, videos, commiserate, laugh or share joy about that wild ride that is the human experience. Give power via money or attention to businesses or causes that are important to us, that are forming the world we want to live in.
And the goodness of this technology means that it does not replace in real life work, only supports it. It does not keep us from experiencing nature, but helps us access it or learn about it. Social media or digital marketing will never replace in person events. Those events are where real connection happens. We can use social media to share them, but if we are on social media so much that we don’t leave our house to show up in real life, the connection is never made. I really believe that. We can tweet all we want about women’s rights, but if we don’t show up to the march, we never really made the connection.
Getting clear on this is helpful for sorting through the maze of digital advertising technologies and big data informed digital marketing strategies. It is helping me clarify that just bombarding people with ads, combing the data and bombarding people with more ads, or having a live chat feature that doesn’t actually have a real human being, or thinking about how to automate comments on social media are not tools I am interested in.
And yet, with the right intension, there is a real opportunity for connection and community building supported by digital tools. In an age where we are so far from the farm where the sheep were raised, or the cotton field, or the sewer, technology can help us reconnect, share photos and videos, see what the animals look like. Rather than disconnect or isolate, it can help us reconnect, so long as we remained focused on the world we are building and do not get lost in the technology.
I am pleased to announce that I will have a whole team of awesome Duke business students investigating novel ways to expand our community digitally and IN REAL LIFE, to formulate real strategies for creating connection. More on this to come as we finalize our team!
So I return to our intension here: Connect with ourselves, to each other, to the land & animals, and the energy that moves us all. Green light technologies that assist us with this and let the others fail.