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On the VERGE

Harnessing the edge effect for your organization

Just like in ecology, your business community overlaps with others — and that's where it can be strongest.

This article was adapted from our newsletter, VERGE Weekly, running Wednesdays. Subscribe here.

This week, I had the opportunity to participate in a unique event hosted by the Center for Humane Technology (CHT), focused on the urgency and opportunity in evolving a new direction for the tech industry — specifically, reversing the digital attention crisis and realigning technology with humanity’s best interests.

It wasn’t your average Bay Area tech event, to say the least. A trio of string musicians serenaded us as we filtered into the SFJazz auditorium. The audience represented a high-power group of industry influencers representing many companies directly responsible, according to some, for the very downgrading of humanity that was the focus of the event.

Aza Raskin, CHT co-founder and son of Jef Raskin, who invented the Macintosh back in the late 1970s, opened with a heartfelt story about his own journey of how to realize the mission that guided his father’s work: a vision where technology helps, not harms, humans. One that, as Aza put it, is ultimately about extending the very best and most brilliant of human nature.

Of course, the current state of the tech industry — not to mention its social and ecological impacts — don’t exactly align with this vision. We’re far from it, in fact.

Indeed, the fundamental premise of CHT’s mission is that the extractive attention economy — which is behind the rising pervasiveness of social media and mobile tech — is tearing apart our social fabric. Today’s tech platforms are competing to extract human attention and, as a result, we’re seeing shocking rates of increased media addiction, social isolation, misinformation and political polarization. While we’ve been busy upgrading our machines, we’ve also been, as the CHT team describes it, downgrading our humanity.

Empathy, creative problem solving and storytelling will be essential to succeed — not only as individuals in organizations, but for our entire species.
What struck me most is the irony: Here we are, unraveling as a society at a time when creativity, ingenuity and collaboration are needed most. As Geoff Culvin outlined in a recent New York Times essay, the skills of human interaction will be most valuable in the future. Empathy, creative problem solving and storytelling, specifically, will be essential to succeed — not only as individuals in organizations, but for our entire species if we are to avoid falling victim to the sixth mass extinction that has our own pawprints all over it.

That’s why the vision CHT co-founder Tristan Harris outlined in the remainder of his talk left me feeling optimistic about the potential for a different way forward: The vision for a new generation of technologies that will compete not to degenerate but rather to regenerate our collective capacity to focus, build common ground, support democracy, strengthen the development of our children and align our lives with our values.

It’s a laudable mission, and their rockstar team and impressive roster of advisers are promising indicators that CHT is poised to make significant progress catalyzing a new direction for tech. 

That said, I must admit: As I left the event buzzing with energy and a sense of shared commitment, I found myself reflecting on what was missing. Specifically, conversations about how companies and industries need to collaborate and co-evolve, rather than work in silos, in order to transform.

It made me think about ecotones: the places in nature where changes happen at the boundary of two ecosystems. The phenomenon of this intersectionality, often called the edge effect, result in increased thriving and productivity of species from each ecosystem, increasing resilience and biodiversity.

What’s the edge effect in your organization and sector? Where do you see opportunities to convene people from across ecosystems to focus on accelerating what everyone can do together that no one can do alone? My hope, not only for the tech sector but for all industries, is that we increasingly move towards creating more spaces and places that foster the kind of diversity, empathy and cross-pollination we need to create the change we all want to see.

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