Editor’s note: Ben Jenkins is CEO and co-founder of Sympler, a New York-based research services firm.
In December of 1847, the United Kingdom officially adopted Greenwich Mean Time after years of groaning debate, confusion and mishap. GMT provided order and standardization for another much-lauded system: the railways. In fact, it was originally known as “railway time.” When all clocks finally agreed, nobody missed a train. The marriage of these two systems may have been pivotal in supercharging the second industrial revolution. Imagine lumbering into a 20th century where Bristol is 8 minutes ahead of London, or with infrastructure unfit for the machine age?
Today we’re preparing for another kind of machine age, but this time we need to pair it with a much more human playmate. Today’s machines learn, so we’d better spare a thought for what we’re teaching them – the psychological infrastructure we’re building on.
The 20th century was obsessed with scale: mass media, mass production and massive audiences. This scale demanded rigid systems to categorize, count and coerce. Demographics was born. Data was collected on everything and everyone and then segmented into crude brackets so governments and businesses could efficiently communicate with them. But they weren’t really communicating with anyone. Not in a human sense. The 20th century jettisoned talking for broadcasting, and then zealously mechanized a whole bunch of other human functions too (like empathizing, but we’ll come back to that!). By the year 2000, a cold and militarized lexicon was being deployed to engage and execute against global consuming targets.
In one century, we successfully dehumanized huge swathes of human interaction, both in the commercial and social spheres. We turned citizens into robots in the name of efficiency and growth.
It’s no surprise our empathy levels plummeted in the last 40 years. The pipes are broke...