"What does it mean to be happy in a digital world? Our lives are increasingly mediated—but are we happier?" asked NYU professor and entrepreneur Anna Akbari, at the recent TEDx Silicon Alley event.
The talk, organized by Chris Grayson at Humble.tv, was intended to spark thought about the ways that technology affects our lives and the tremendous opportunity it delivers to inspire change and progress. Grayson curated a diverse (and gender-balanced!) group of speakers to explore the creative use of technology and its unexpected outcomes.
Akbari suggests that technology has transformed our lives for the better. Most notably, it helps us to identify networks, relationships, wants, and needs and then to connect with others based on our desired alliances and relationships. She points to a 2005 study by happiness researchers at University of California, Riverside; University of Missouri, Columbia; and University of Texas, Austin that studied the correlation between happiness and genetics (explaining 50% of a person’s long-term happiness), circumstances (10%), and activities and practices (40%). Noting that "the 40% includes our habits and rituals around technology," Akbari’s framework is a fitting introduction to the ways that technology has transformed our lives to be more productive, meaningful, and ultimately, happier.
Here are a few of my favorite examples:
Goldrun founder and CEO Vivian Rosenthal discussed how augmented reality (AR) is changing the way that we interact with the world around us. From a digital pop-up store for Airwalk to a world-wide virtual toy scavenger hunt, Rosenthal touches on AR technology’s potential for good.
In her upcoming project "Visualize the Vote," Goldrun is designing a tool that uses AR technology to give young people a voice in the political process. Meant to mobilize youth engagement in politics, Visualize the Vote allows users to take a picture with their favorite political candidate, geo-tag photos, and then share them within their social networks. Another project creates AR "hot zones" within a one-mile radius around animal shelters. When users enter a hot zone, their smartphones will display an image of a cat or a dog telling passersby that they need a good home.
The opportunity to interact with an additional "layer" of reality not only places greater power and agency in the hands of the viewer, but also shifts emphasis on the importance of participation in increasingly socialized interactions.
Max Haot, cofounder and CEO of Livestream, shared that the "Occupy" movement has been the source of 11 million unique Livestream views, 65 million streams, and over 1 billion viewer minutes. In fact, it appears that the entire global movement has been continuously streamed.
The impact of a billion minutes in viewer time is unprecedented in history. Video has been used to spread messages and propaganda since the 1920s, but Haot explained how streaming live video has enormously shifted the balance of media power. First, technology is now cheap—smartphones, wireless cards, and laptops are a mainstay in many American homes. Second, television (and visual narrative) is the easiest form of media to consume—it requires no education and few analytical processing skills. Finally, livestreamed video integrates with other channels of social media seamlessly—allowing messages to spread instantaneously.
This point is illustrated through the story of Vlad Teichberg, a former derivatives trader in Spain credited as the father of the Occupy movement. At Plaza Del Sol, in Madrid, Spain, Vlad staged what turned out to be the first Occupy event in May 2011. Within hours, the broadcast was picked up by Twitter and smaller TV stations—and soon, millions of people tuned in. Vlad and his followers believe that they are giving people an alternative to the point of view of media conglomerates literally democratizing media consumption and ultimately, the political process. "When people say the whole world is watching, technically, we can make that happen using Livestream," explains one livestreamer.
Our ability to participate in events virtually (by tuning into movements like the Occupy Wall Street Global Revolution channel) marks a shift in how we identify and relate to causes, campaigns, revolutions, and even the real spaces that we occupy. We can form life-altering bonds with a virtual pet summoning us to offer it a real home, spread a message to millions of people instantaneously, and participate in revolutions from afar.
Technology has not only empowered us to construct new identities or networks of desired affiliations, it has transformed every facet of our interactions with the world around us. As Akbari so aptly questions, "Where do we end and technology begins, and vice versa?"
In our augmented lives, the boundaries are increasingly blurred. But with our new cyborg identities come the potential for technology to change our world for the better.