Have we become too big to succeed?
The Kansas City Star
Last week one of my favorite movies from the 1980s popped on the television, and being the sort who will sit through such a movie even after having done so 100 times, I made room in my day to enjoy it.
The movie was “Wargames,” starring Matthew Broderick as a teen computer whiz who inadvertently almost starts World War III when he hacks into a government computer to play a game. The story revolves around how the computer takes it upon “itself” to play the game for real even when the humans tell it not to.
It was a movie as much about the futility of war as it was about how we as humans were entering a new age of reliance on technology, at the expense of human interaction and judgment.
Fast-forward 30 years and it’s clear that society did just that. Companies of all sizes and government at all levels have used technology in many ways and at an amazing rate.
To be clear, much of this new technology is wonderful. I work with technology on a daily basis and see the many amazing things that technology has allowed us to do.
But there is also a cost. While the lure of a more productive and connected workforce has allowed organizations to grow larger and more complex, it also has caused many to create a deficit of humanity, particularly in a lack of empathy and accountability.
In “Wargames,” the renegade computer views losses of life as simple statistical ratios to be analyzed and optimized. In the real world of today, businesses grow at rapid clips, governments try to take on too much, and in the process the people they serve and the people within are reduced to similarly analyzed and optimized statistics.
And it happens to all of us. “Press 1 for help; press 2 if you’re feeling lucky” is the world of customer service. “Just be happy you have a job” is the workplace culture.
“Why can’t we just make it simpler” is a universal feeling after dealing with government bureaucracies.
Technology on its own isn’t the culprit. We watch reality shows that allow us to mock segments of society.
We say things to and about people online in anonymity that we would never say in person. We make promises to customers over the phone and then forget about them.
We treat employees as interchangeable widgets in the machine called business.
So who’s fault, and ultimately, who’s responsibility is it to fix this problem? Can I really blame that customer service rep for only being allowed to say yes, no, or sorry?
Is it the manager’s fault that his company has decided that losing some customers from bad treatment is more cost-effective than making the situation better? Should I blame the nice lady at the department of motor vehicles for my hour-long wait?
The answer is yes and no.
I believe in the responsibility of individuals to bring about change by standing up and making their voices heard. But I am also keenly aware that we are at the mercy of processes and policies that can drown out even the strongest voices.
Therefore, we need leaders in businesses to remember that there are real people on the other end of those emails and voicemails. Leaders must see that technology is a tool to be used by humans and not as a replacement for them.
We need government that doesn’t become a slave to innovation at the expense of human intuition and interaction. We need innovators who not only ask if something can be done but also should it be done.
And for all who believe that decisions can be boiled down to simply following what the data tells you, I suggest you take one last lesson from “Wargames.” While you may be listening to machines, do the world a favor and don’t act like one.
Robert Westfall of Kansas City is the founder and chief strategist of Instinct, an innovation firm. To reach him, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org or write to Midwest Voices, c/o Editorial Page, The Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64108.