Convergence Conversation: Thinking at the Nexus of Technology and Humanity with Pat Scannell

Patrick Scannell is one of those people you want on your team. He brings decades of experience in scaling emerging technology for mass-market adoption. More importantly, though, Pat is a deep thinker and ‘connector of dots,’ many of which reside in the shadows, hidden from most strategic observations and decisions. He has spent much of his professional life creating buy-in for vision and strategies among key stakeholders across complex business functions and external ecosystems.

For the last several years, Pat has been researching and writing about the effects of technology on human cognition. The intersection of his professional work and research has given him an appreciation of these effects, and he uses his experience and voice to call leaders to understand that the very process of how we think is changing.

I have had the privilege to work with Pat on several occasions and have witnessed his passion and intellect and how he has used it to create a better future for all of us. In this Convergence Conversation, we discuss how the evolution of technology is shaping how humanity thinks, communicates, and solves problems.

Decision-making in a Complex Environment

Deb: The world is getting more complex. Do you perceive that decision-making is getting harder?

Pat : I would argue the world is beyond complex. Things are chaotic. Numerous data sources are pointing to a growing network of interdependencies that already exceeds our understanding. On the other hand, while it’s hard to see the unintended consequences of decisions, I believe we can find some predictable outcomes if we look in the right places. The increasing interdependencies between critical systems create fragility in our world. This means we’ll have a rising number of events that are foreseeable, significant, with major negative impacts across multiple areas of human life, affecting a large number of people.

These are not Black Swan scenarios; because they are foreseeable, I call them black spots. They will shape our future, but we can’t see them. The information is there but obscured because we aren’t looking for them, or we’re trapped in an old paradigm and can’t see or know how to see the new threats. For example, climate change is clearly predictable across time and across industries. The data has been there for a long time.

The pandemic was out there too, hiding behind these black spots. Our reactions to the pandemic will have unintended consequences. For example, our obsession with cleaning and sanitizing may have unintended consequences. The research is clear that kids who grew up on farms have stronger immune systems than kids who aren’t exposed to all the germs on a farm.

One consequence of a future of more black spots is we need to become antifragile, not just resilient. We think we're going to get through this crisis and then it's over. But our ‘hunker in the bunker’ responses to the pandemic will deplete our reserves as we get through it. What we need to be doing is building up our reserves and becoming more risk-tolerant, so that when we exit this phase, we're ready for the next thing that comes.

System of Systems Thinking About Paradigm Change

Deb: What you seem to be talking about is systems of systems thinking. What are you seeing when it comes to thinking about the pace of technology in those terms?

Pat: I've been talking to a number of people in the course of doing research for my new book as well as spending a lot of time thinking about disruption. I've got what I hope are practical insights about a paradigm change. We have always had change and disruption. But I think what we are going through currently is different. I would argue that we are entering a paradigm change in the fundamental ways that we think.

According to the intelligence scholar James Flynn, IQ has gone up an average of 30 points in the last 100 years. It didn't go up because of technology, per se. It went up because of advances in areas like nutrition, education, and medicine that made people healthier. In turn, smarter and more educated people are advancing technology by creating feedback loops that push the acceleration of technology development. The positive feedback loops between technology and the way people think are invisible to most people because they can't see the systems of systems. We've become so hyper-specialized that we’re seeing a smaller and smaller piece of the elephant. The pace of change is so fast, it's an algorithmic expansion.

The adaption to a paradigm shift includes what I call ‘scouting the fringes.’ Basically, it means we need to become much more experimental in our thinking. We should be talking to people outside the normal dominant paradigm set and researching areas beyond normal boundaries. It gets us outside echo chambers.

In the past, we had top-down power structures where nation-states managed business, which controlled social movements, with individuals at the bottom. The technology was progressing, managed by these structures. Over the last 100 years, technology uplifted people’s well-being, IQ, and nation-states’ prosperity. Technology is now changing so fast that no human institution manages or even understands it. Technology is now at the top.

One consequence is power becomes adapting quickly. This inverts power structures: individuals can adapt fastest; governments the slowest; this will have a number of predictable and unpredictable consequences. Technology will continue to drive cognitive change — and that can be in a positive direction. That includes individuals using technology more powerfully than ever before.

Deb: What do you believe this means for our future?

Pat: Our current technology adoption is largely unintentional. We’re not planning out what technology we want in our lives; we are simply adapting to technology that shows up. We do this individually, yes, but collectively it creates lock-in. Most of us kind of suffer from it. Across a range of values, it leaves us generally worse off across all of the technologies and how they affect our life.

For example, we watch television or use the internet for social media. We haven't really thought through the implications of doing either, and it generally leaves us worse off. The argument for some people is to unplug. We’re trying to solve the problem with negative use. But the more relevant and sustainable question is, how can we create a pro-technology space that leaves us all better off, across the range of our individual values? If we unplug, we won’t have the negative effects of technology, but we also won’t have its potentially powerful positive effects either. There is a potential to create a new set of haves and have nots. The challenge for us societally is to develop visions for how we can use technology that leaves people better off.

Designing and Adopting Technology

Deb: I'm curious about what you just described because technology has been with us forever. Humans have created technology to better our lives. As technology then gets out in front of us, as it tends to do, we start to question the very technology we developed. We feel like it has been thrust upon us. It seems to be a cycle. What I hear you saying is that we’ve been designing technology with the idea that it's going to better our lives. We just haven't adopted it to better our lives.

Pat: I agree with the thrust of your statement, but I would make some nuanced tweaks to it. First, I would say you're right about what I think the problem is, but I don't think it may occur; it's already occurred. I don't believe technology is autonomous. Technology is not developing itself. It isn’t being thrust upon us. Technology is being developed to address what we believe are our needs. In many cases, that’s a culturally driven set of needs. I watch action and murder shows on television because they excite my brain. But if I watch these shows before I go to bed, I have insomnia. It’s not Hulu's fault that I’m stressed out and can’t sleep, it's my fault.

"If humans can learn to develop a better understanding of what we actually need, we won’t feel like technology is being thrust on us. We ask for technology to do the wrong things for us and end up rolling it out not knowing what we really need it to do and not understanding unintended consequences."

- Patrick Scannell

We should be focused on how we think individually and collectively. In doing so, we could improve technology markets and products. Remember, markets aren't just about profit and loss. They are about people and the aggregate of the peoples’ values. If you went into a grocery store in the 1980s, looking for gluten-free bread, there's nothing there, right? People weren't asking for it. You can go into even a small grocery store today and find gluten-free options all over, along with low carb, keto, and other choices because people began to ask for them.

We're at a transition phase for humanity, where if we begin to understand that what we ask for is actually not good for us and we start asking for what is, we might be better able to create technology that makes us better off. My worry is not that we won’t. Some people choose to hold on to traditions or beliefs that are no longer useful.

Shedding Unnecessary Concepts

Deb: You pose the hypothesis that technology is changing the way we think, or it should change the way we think, as individuals and collectively. Please expand.

Pat: My model of thought is we think on three planes, with our brain, through social constructs, and through the things around us. Social constructs include language, learning, mythology, and interpersonal relationships. We use words and share stories that shape our brains as we grow from an infant to an adult. As a baby, my brain wasn’t different from a baby 200,000 years ago. But as an adult, my brain is very different from an adult 200,000 years ago because of the differences in inputs, including how we use language now compared to how we used it then.

50,000 years ago, we had the advent of language and the first phase change of humanity. The next phase change of humanity came just several thousand years ago with writing and encoding our thoughts into things. We stored ideas externally, outsourcing ideas from our heads to things around us. This freed us up, allowing us to contemplate those ideas. It also allowed us to share ideas so we could contemplate others’ ideas as well. The consequence of this is it gave rise to the things we treasure most about humanity: science, law, reason, art — the higher-order thinking processes.

Fast forward to today. We can use the material constructs around us to help us think. We do three things: think with our brain, think with people, and think with things, including algorithms and software. Thinking with the brain is individual thinking. Thinking through our relationships is thinking with people. And thinking using material things is doing things like sitting down to watch television because it'll help us to zone out.

As soon as we consciously select something on Netflix, we’re interacting with Netflix algorithms. Behind the scenes, there's a bunch of unconscious things happening, like Netflix looking at how people like you watched shows like yours, what they liked and selected most often. Thinking with things is an opportunity, with an opportunity cost. If you have a self-driving car, it does the ‘thinking’ you used to have to do to drive the car, freeing your mental resources: do you use those extra mental resources to be better off, or do you cram your brain with information that leaves you worse off?

Technology Adoption Impacts Our Future

Deb: So what is the future of humanity if we’ve got this blend of thinking going on now?

Pat: Let me give you a couple of examples of what I am trying to describe. First of all, my current take on the disruption of thought is purely problem orientation. If I came to you in the late 1970s and presented a carbon credit trading scheme, you wouldn’t understand what it is or why you need it. I’d have to explain climate change and that it’s anthropogenic. The issue originated in our human activity 20 or 30 years before, but to address it, we first have to create awareness, and then a public appetite to address the problem. This creates an Overton Window when we have a chance to make policy changes if there is sufficient social awareness.

There’s a problem with technology development and adoption and it's going to take years before we have enough incentives to address it. As I look forward, things are going to get crazier because people aren't aware of or understand the problem. The question continues to be, how can we affect technology change and use it in a way that leaves people better off? The beginning of understanding is dialogues across multiple disciplines and recruiting many different people to think about and work on this idea of ‘thought is being disrupted’, like the kind of conversation that you and I are having. Many are asking how do we change technology to do that?

Sometimes in problem-solving, you just must deal with big problems, one piece at a time, but within a big picture. I see a potential for regression in human civilizational structures because of growing fragility and unequally distributed technology benefits. Massive change can be a threat if people see their culture and tradition being ripped away, but it is also a massive change to architect a better world that leads to a more flourishing future for everyone.

You can’t predict the future, but you can build it.

Many people say that we are in the midst of a technological revolution. They argue that technology is the supreme driving force for change in the world. However, at the core of the revolution, there's a human movement that reflects our need to connect, belong, and matter. No doubt, technology is changing the way we live, work, and engage with one another. It’s also changing how we think, not just with our brains, but through millions of devices and billions of members of society. This relationship is symbiotic and driven by our evolving expectations, hopes, dreams, fears, and desires. In this way, technology is adapting to our influence as much as we are influenced by it.