The shift of humanity in the era of digital transformation

The digital revolution is transforming everything in our world. But is it changing us as well?

The shift of humanity in the era of digital transformation

I stumbled upon a conversation about digital transformation. Apparently, these are big buzzwords today. Companies want to be agile and reach out to tech consultants, asking for “one of those” (digital transformation). We are living in the digital era. The mark of this era is our readiness to use digital means to create something new, or modify the existing business processes, culture and customer experience to meet changing market requirements. In the context of corporations, employees must be digital transformation-ready.

But digital transformation is also happening in society at large. The older generation needs to keep up with new gadgets, while the younger generations are growing up with gadgets as a way of life. In general, there is a demand for people to find ways to survive in the digital era, to thrive and to make their mark. The digital era comes with a certain speed, pressures and expectations. The screen in our hand is not just a digital tool. It shapes our identity, and this is probably the real challenge of digital transformation. The question is, while it all feels normal that digital transformation is central to our lives, how much is this digital transformation actually impacting our humanity?

Just for fun, imagine there are Martians roaming around observing how we live and interact. What they see is that we wake up with a mobile phone in our hand or reach for it as soon as we open our eyes. We press a few buttons and here comes our food. Sometimes we also put the screen between us when we talk to others. The Martians would think, “Wow, humans can’t live without these gadgets.”

Our attachment to mobile phones and our constant references to social media are the two topics I would like to focus on in this essay. How does this impact who we are, the way we interact and the way we live?

Apparently, we spend a great deal of time on social media. Roughly two hours, 24 minutes per day, a steady increase from 90 minutes in 2012. Approximately 60 percent of users claim they are constantly connected, according to BroadbandSearch. This is a major change in lifestyle, a way to connect that even our parents couldn’t dream of. We also spend a lot of time following other people’s social media accounts to be in the know, not to miss out or to keep up. Like it or not, a big part of online time is spent “stalking” and/or comparing our lives with the lives of others. The exhibition of greatness in our lives makes us want to keep it up. There is a race to show off the most and many seem to play along. Apparently, Indonesian celebrities started a game of showing off the amount of money they have in their bank accounts. It’s worth asking what we could use those 2.5 hours for if it wasn’t spent on social media?

In this essay, I focus on eight themes that are universal to our humanity. They touch us as people and are relevant to our experiences regardless of culture or race, although some examples will be centered on my observations in Indonesia. Has our focus, or overfocus, on life around a mobile phone slowly shifted our humanity? Are we aware and getting used to this? Or is it just a shift that creeps into our lives, causing a setback to the good of our humanity?

The way we see the world

The internet has opened our horizons like never before. Today, there is no excuse to not know – to know is as simple as saying, “You can Google it.” We can know almost everything we want to know, and we can see almost everything we want to see. Our horizons are expanding, and what we can see has completely shifted from the pre-internet or pre-digital era, where it could be cumbersome to find information. Remember how “dreadful” it was to go to a library to find some reference to a certain topic we were studying? Today, we are informed in an instant, we easily see things that we otherwise couldn’t and we have access to information to better understand the world around us.

What it means is that our vision changes. I have observed this while conducting research projects all across Indonesia. Generally speaking, it used to be true that people in rural areas were less visionary compared to those living in urban areas. For example, those who were born, grew up and lived their whole lives in a small village would have a limited view of the world. New visions, ideas and ways of doing things took time to infiltrate small villages, as the access to information was rather limited. Many generations were living just like the generations before them, because their point of reference remained the same. Today, this is no longer the case. The internet has changed access to information and automatically it changes what we can see.

There is a saying, “You can only be what you can see.” Today, what that means is that we are open to more possibilities regardless of where we are. The main change happens in our vision. Exposure to the world brings a certain familiarity to an otherwise limited understanding of the world. Falling in love
with a Korean boy band doesn’t need to stop there. The tweens in Indonesia can go all the way to learn about Korean culture, expose themselves to Korean dishes and understand what they are beyond just names, or even study the Korean language.

We are now able to see beyond what we can physically look at. It changes our relationship with the world. As our minds open, our curiosity grows and our understanding develops. We should be able to see the world with more appreciation and understanding, as we become more enlightened.

While our minds may be more enlightened, there is a reduced physical connection among us. A simple thought, or every moment we spend looking at our mobile phones, takes away time that we could spend looking at each other. There is a deficit of human connection and what it takes away from us is empathy. Lack of empathy takes away our ability to feel and understand the emotions of others. This could mean that we become more judgmental as we are exposed to new things. As we become unable to empathize, our minds reject understanding. The less we connect with others at the human level, the more we judge and the less we understand. We deny our ability to be more open to others and to understand different realities.

Therefore, only having knowledge because more information is now available to us doesn’t necessarily make us more open-minded human beings if we are unable to empathize with realities that may be different from our own.

The way we feel about ourselves

We used to have time. We used to have time to grow up and reflect upon who we are, where we come from and what we want to be. Today, the images of others on social media come to us way too soon. Our self-image may be distorted early – an example is young girls who have eating disorders by the age of 11 because they are disturbed by their self-image. Our relationship with social media is key in impacting the way we feel about ourselves today. The “hyper-picture taking and posting society” has set a very different standard about how we look and feel about ourselves. An excess of self-liking is observed everywhere, from looking at a mobile phone camera from various angles before taking dozens of selfies, to repeatedly liking our own posts and photos. We seem to have been drinking a little too much from the cup of self-like.

or do we like the images that we use to inflate ourselves? If we like ourselves that much, why do we count the number of “likes” from our posts?

Social media demands that we project only the brightest side of our lives – visiting cool places, eating exotic foods, attending fantastic events, making expensive purchases. There are even housewives who
use a different set of pots and pans when they post their own cooking to make the ordinary look more gorgeous. We constantly eel the need to keep up and project a superior image to the world. There is an inflation of reality, where images of how people live their lives are (probably) nothing close to the real reality. However, funnily enough, we somehow accept this as the new norm; we start to believe the inflated reality is actual reality. We rely on the approval of our social media buddies for our self-image.

There is nothing wrong with keeping up with others and liking ourselves. Liking ourselves nurtures self-love and is positive. Any psychology theory teaches us the importance of self-love. However, liking the image that we constantly project to the world because we must is tiring, to the point of depressing. This is the opposite of self-love. In a world where we should know better, and appear to like ourselves a lot, do we put too much pressure on ourselves to project a certain image? In spite of the self-loving image we project, do we lack self-love? It is important to realize that if we allow this to happen to ourselves, then we allow the digital transformation to come into our lives. But we give away an important piece of our humanity: to feel good about who we are with or without the posts and images that may or may not be liked by others.

The way we relate

The fact that we appear to see the screens of our gadgets more often than we look someone in the eye must impact the way we relate to each other. On many occasions, we have replaced human interaction with interaction with our mobile phones. There is a deficit of human connection – does this happen because it is easier to disconnect? One can argue that building human connections is a skill. Does it mean we have become too lazy to nurture one of the most important skills we need? Have we been putting too much of our focus on the online world, while only giving part of ourselves to the real world?

In the context of business today it is totally acceptable to talk while looking at our mobile phone once in a while. We know that we cannot give our 100 percent when dealing with two things at the same

time and yet we do it, and we accept it and allow it to become the new norm. There is a sense of being able to deal with a matter quickly and in an instant. For example, we are in a meeting to discuss a project, and at the same time we need to reply to an email from a colleague who demands an immediate response, and our child is waiting for a yes or no on WhatsApp. Our inclination would become too lazy to nurture one of the most important skills we need? Have we been putting too much of our focus on the online world, while only giving part of ourselves to the real world?

In the context of business today it is totally acceptable to talk while looking at our mobile phone once in a while. We know that we cannot give our 100 percent when dealing with two things at the same time and yet we do it, and we accept it and allow it to become the new norm. There is a sense of being able to deal with a matter quickly and in an instant. For example, we are in a meeting to discuss a project, and at the same time we need to reply to an email from a colleague who demands an immediate response, and our child is waiting for a yes or no on WhatsApp. Our inclination would be to quickly say yes to the child and finish the email to our colleague, and both are done while having a discussion about the project we are taking care of. We fragment our minds and we probably give each matter minimal attention. It seems hard to focus as we are so distracted. We want to do and achieve many things at the same time. Maybe we become more efficient and swifter, but we give minimal attention to matters that need a bit more attention. We also allow this to be the new norm of how we relate with the people around us – it’s OK to look at our mobile phone while talking, it’s OK to interact with the mobile phone while interacting with each other.

As we are more often distracted, we have accepted a deficit in human interactions. Some intensity in human interactions has been reduced as we seek more “likes” on social media rather than finding meaning in holding hands, looking into a partner’s eyes, having intimate conversations or simply taking the time just to be with each other.

A good example of how we relate with each other is found in the business world. The fact that our profiles on social media are so crystal clear in telling the world who we are, what we do, what we like and who we like, it saves time in getting to know each other. Today it is totally acceptable to arrange a business meeting with a complete stranger we have only met on LinkedIn. This shows an increase in trust as people have to be more transparent to live in the digital world. Professionally, we become more open to connecting with people we don’t know and working together from a distance. It is not unusual to do business with someone we’ve never met in person.

The way we learn

The internet changes our relationship with learning. We can pick and choose what, where and from whom we want to learn. We can learn anything from anywhere. We can earn a degree from a prestigious university while sitting in our office doing our job. Distance becomes nonexistent and the possibilities for learning become limitless. One angle that impacts our humanity is a stronger ability to
form a point of view.

There has been a transformation from the old classroom-style learning to the new “from anywhere learning.” As much as learning is easier, simpler and faster, the focus of learning is the responsibility of the learner, and this is where the big transformation happens. Learning, to some extent, used to depend on the teacher. Today, learning mainly revolves around the learner. From a must, learning has become a choice. People can choose what they want to know about, find information and dive deep into it.

Independence is another important nuance. From being dependent on teachers or textbooks, we are now independent to learn from research, websites and experts or observers such as bloggers. Learning becomes more independent and openminded. The process of learning today should enable us to approach a topic from various angles, and this not only makes us “know” the subject matter, but it helps us to develop a point of view – a position we take in considering an issue. In the past, the ability to develop a point of view was not always a given during the learning process Today, the process of

learning can enable us to develop a conceptual framework and adapt it to what we learn. We will be able to frame a point of view that evolves with our knowledge. The positive change happens in the way we learn, as it matures us from learners to thinkers with the ability to master conceptual thinking. And this is not necessarily due to our level of formal education.

The way we work

In the digital era, the world of work is evolving. Where many of the Generation X cohort (born between 1965 and 1979) climbed the corporate ladder to define their success, apparently corporations struggle to keep Millennials (born between 1980 and 1999) with the company. Millennials have a different approach to work and see opportunities to work from home, in coworking spaces or even while traveling. The idea of working between four walls seems too confining when the work itself can be done using a laptop from anywhere. Higher education used to be ammunition for people to find a job in an office. Today, people with an education want the option to work an “office job” outside of the office. The impact is also seen among people who live in nonurban mini-cities. I met a young graphic designer who works from his home in Kudus, a medium-sized city in Central Java Province, and earns a few thousand dollars a month.

Relationships with work have changed and evolved, and further impact the even younger generation, namely Generation Z (born in 2000 and after), who focus on what they want to do and build competencies around it. This generation will have jobs that today may not even exist, and will deal with a completely different set of rules.

Speed is another interesting factor at work. Take the case of startups in Indonesia that are used to the fast pace of working with algorithms and getting information in real-time. The speed of work in these organizations becomes faster and it seems normal to request a very short deadline for work that would normally take time. Jumping from one action to the next seems to be the norm and there is restlessness when action takes time. This approach to work may cause a deficit in thinking work. There is not enough thinking put into the strategy that directs the actions, or sometimes there is not enough strategy, period. The deficit of thinking results in the birth of a term such as working like “headless chickens” – a rush of directionless activity that is a manifestation of a lack of planning and a sense of priority. In an era where a lot of things are evolving and we are able to master the changes, it’s just as important that we not lose sight of quality while working from home; we should also not lose sight of the depth of our work, even when speed is one of the major challenges.

The way we eat

On this topic, there are two areas I would like to focus on: the intervention of mobile phones and their impact on the way we eat and socialize while dining. Apparently, 69 percent of Millennials take pictures of their food before they eat, according to Maru/ Matchbox. This fact sounds incredible, but it
makes sense if we observe what’s happening in restaurants today.

The need to take a photo of what we order and what we eat is related to the way we feel about ourselves. The role of food has expanded; it’s not only for dietary intake and enjoyment, but also a tool of confirmation. As we are enjoying our food, we want the whole world to enjoy it with us – to know where we have been and what food we ordered. How cool we are from the food we eat and where we eat it. Socializing is another area that has impacted us. In the past, going to a restaurant was an exciting idea in itself. We looked forward to eating out and socializing with friends.

Today, interestingly, it is almost normal to see a group of people in a restaurant where everyone is looking at their phones and not talking to each other. Or when a family sits down for dinner at home and everyone is busy with their gadgets, including a toddler who is playing with a tablet. The intervention of mobile gadgets in our food rituals has an interesting angle where it takes away from the space for socialization. It has certainly changed the way we socialize around a dinner table. There is research proving that the social skills of a child can be developed during conversations around the dinner table. Does it mean that we do not utilize this opportunity well enough since we give our child a tablet to play with instead of a topic for conversation? The need to show off our food and the erosion of social interactions around eating occasions are some of the evolutions of our humanity. We don’t value dining occasions the same way we used to, and instead of opening up and talking, we keep to our mobile gadgets. Are we replacing the role of dining occasions as a social interaction tool with social confirmation tools?

The way we mate

Candace Bushnell, the producer of “Sex and the City,” recently launched a new book, “Is There Still Sex in the City?.” I think it’s the right question to ask. If we observe how people in the big city live today – take Jakarta, for example – many of us leave home as early as 5 m and only get home after 9 pm. After focusing our energy on work the entire day, it seems there is very little space for romance or love. This little space is impacted by limited time but also by the lack of energy we have for this purpose. Is this why Tinder and the like have become a new solution in the dating world? Swipe left if we don’t like what we see, and swipe right if we do. It saves time and cuts down a few levels of unnecessary hassle. Before the digital world, we had to invest a bit more time to explore and get to know each other before deciding whether we should move to the next level. The time we invest to get to know each other, to impress each other, that’s when romance happens and love blossoms.

Today, we can make a quick decision about whether to meet a person, largely from the way they look. There is nothing wrong obviously, but it does show the shift of codes in the world of dating. It is intriguing to think that one of the biggest human needs, the need for romance, has been swiftly substituted with sex. Does that mean we deprive ourselves of romance because it is not relevant? Or are we trying to ignore it because it seems to take too much time and focus from our lives?

To some extent, we seem to have become too distracted to take the time necessary for intimacy. We have also lost the patience to get to know each other in the old-fashioned way.

The way we parent

Speaking of parenting, it always starts with ourselves as adults and our view of the world. In the past, parents needed to provide a comfortable home and sufficient food for their children to feel safe. Today, parenting is fundamentally shifting as our view of the world has shifted. Back to that old saying, “You can only be what you can see.” Today, “what we can see” has changed and that includes for our children, despite where they were born.

This has enabled children to learn about possibilities in faraway places without the need to ever go there. Their point of reference changes.

Next to that, parenting doesn’t stop being the business of a family. Before, the mother-in-law or neighbors may have been sources of anxiety as our choices and decisions for our children were judged by our immediate surroundings. Today, social media is an important source of anxiety. What other parents seem to know and post about their children makes us feel like we aren’t doing a good enough job with our kids. Health care professionals claim that parents today treat Google as their doctor, and they come to human doctors with strong preconceptions about what’s happening to their child who is at that moment ill. When this happens, what the doctor says is normally not respected.

Another interesting parenting topic is patience. Growing up, we learned that there was time for special foods, special clothes and special moments. Today, children can ask for what they feel like and order special foods online. Our children are growing up learning to be impatient. And we parents probably give them what they want because we are anxious ourselves and we just want things to be solved immediately.

Boundaries are needed to protect our relationship with our children without interference from the internet, gadgets and social media. And there are areas where our children can flourish due to the digital transformation in their lives. It is in our hands, parents, to define and nurture it for our children. Like anything in life, every era comes with its strengths and weaknesses. The digital era has propelled humankind forward. The challenge is to keep humanity itself alive.



Cilla Henriette is an international consultant who has worked in 30 markets across multiple continents. Her work involves decoding cultures and studying why people do what they do.

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