For the Love of Tech

Are coaches going to be replaced by Chat GPT? Some people think so. In fact, there is data to suggest that within a few minutes of engaging with a chat bot, people get comfortable conversing with a computer. They seem to forget that they are not talking with a person. There are even those people who say that they like the privacy of talking with a machine rather than a person. Perhaps they put stock in Benjamin Franklin’s famous line: “Three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead.”

Is that our future? If so, it sounds discouraging. I broke my crystal ball this morning so I don’t know if that’s our future, any more than anyone else. But I do know that the world seems to be rushing to embrace technology. We ask more and more of technology, and by golly, it keeps getting better, actually doing new and amazing things. What might the next ten or twenty years bring?

But there is a potential dark side to technology. Actually, the dark side is not technology itself. The dark side, or problem, is falling in love with technology. When we fall in love, we lose perspective. It is similar to the way some people fall in love with money. Like technology, money is merely a tool. But instead of using money as a tool, some people fall in love with it, accumulating it for its own sake. People and organizations who do this are at risk of losing their integrity. We see it all the time.

There are increasing signs that humans are falling in love with technology for its own sake. They think that because technology CAN do something, it SHOULD do it, even if there are undesirable and harmful side effects. Let’s look at two examples: (1) the way adolescents use technology, and (2) the way business uses technology.

Adolescents: Technology has dramatically changed the social dynamics of adolescence. Teens apparently spend more time hanging out on social media than they do hanging out in person. So what, you say?

Humans require exchanges with other humans, whether they get them in person or via social media. It isn’t a nice-to-have. We literally need each other for survival.

Adolescence is a developmental period in which a key task is learning how to interact with others.

Learning how to interact with others is a big task. Technology can be a useful tool for helping adolescents learn how to interact with peers, particularly in a world which is rapidly embracing social media. It opens doors for them, and gives them access to interactions with people that many would not otherwise have. One can actually argue that today’s teens had better learn the skills of social media interaction, because it isn’t going away any time soon.

For some teens, who relate better online than in person, and will continue to do so as adults, social media is a life saver. But for most, social media is not enough. Too many important cues are missing, and too many curbs on bad behavior are lifted. Things on social media are not as they are IRL (in real life).

The problem arises when these teens fall in love with technology, using it to the exclusion of also learning about in-person social skills. How might this happen? Most teens have a good bit of anxiety about social interaction. Didn’t you? There is a lot at stake. Social media can feel safe, because, in a way, you can hide. You can say and do things on social media without the real-life consequences that happen when people are in the same room. You can learn things about other people without risking sharing anything about yourself. Many teens are drawn to social media in part because there is less immediate anxiety, and a lot of gratuitous information. Anxiety reduction is rewarding, as is access to penalty-free information, which reinforces using social media as a replacement for other parts of life. The love of technology can keep some teens from learning the in-person social skills that they will need.

We know that if people don’t get the nutrients they need from their diet, their bodies suffer. But if people don’t get their psychological needs met, their psyches suffer. Anxiety, depression, suicide, and acting out are on the rise. You can’t fight Mother Nature.

Business: I booked flights to a family gathering not long ago. Technology made everything easy. I could pick my dates and seats using the airline’s website, as well as pay my bill. But heaven help me if I needed something that their programing hadn’t made allowances for.

Think about the last twenty times or so that you have tried to get customer service on the phone. You call the number. You get the robot. The robot doesn’t offer you the options you need. After going through several menus, you are finally given the option to speak to a real person. Then you hear, “To get you to the right person, I need some more information.” That sets off another round of robot interactions. You spend fifteen to twenty minutes on the phone getting nowhere, when you have other things to do in your busy life. And when you actually do make it to a live person, they ask all the same questions all over again.

To create this “we-couldn’t-care-less-about-our-customers” approach to customer service, someone had to fell in love with technology – probably two groups. One group consists of people who learned way more about technology than social skills. As a result, they have little if any appreciation for the personal and social impact of the systems they build. Projecting themselves onto others, they believe that “most people just love our system.” Wrong. Everybody hates their system.

The other group consists of people with their eyes on the bottom line, (probably the immediate bottom line, as they have to satisfy Wall Street every quarter). Their technologists have promised them huge savings. Just buy some computers and other equipment, pay a few engineers, and you can automate everything! You can get rid of all those expensive customer service people! With their eyes on the immediate bottom line, these people lose track of how badly they are alienating their companies from their customers. Even in business, people still need people.

Coaching: What has this got to do with coaching? It is our job to tell truth to power. It is our job to remind our clients who lead organizations about the human elements involved in their business decisions. Otherwise, their efforts to take care of the bottom line by an over-dependence on technology will be short term smart and long term destructive. Reminding leaders of the human element reminds them that they need to contribute to the well-being of humans – themselves, their employees, and their customers. That is important, because when people don’t get what they need, bad things happen. A society too dependent on dehumanizing technology will implode.

Robots may replace coaches someday. They can work pretty cheap and the technology is amazing. The two groups most vulnerable to falling in love with technology may make it happen. If so, they better hope that the folks who do the programming have learned a great deal more about social skills and human needs than has been evident so far. Otherwise, there will be a disastrous outcome. Again, you can’t fight Mother Nature.

That’s why we coaches need to do our jobs: Keep telling truth to power. Keep helping our clients understand human needs. We need to do so not just to protect our livelihood. That is not a good enough reason. We need to do so for the same reason we coach now – to make organizations, society, and our daily interactions increasingly human. To help protect the human race.

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