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Rahaf Harfoush: Digital culture is redefining what it means to be human

Businesses are moving from being knowing organisations to learning organisations, driven by data abundance and digital anxiety

“We’re entering a new era of humanness. Digital culture is forcing us to redefine what it means to be human,” according to Rahaf Harfoush, strategist, digital anthropologist and executive director of the Red Thread Institute of Digital Culture.

Speaking at a Corporate Research Forum event, Harfoush said that new digital "forces" are changing how we live our lives, with one of the main ones being data abundance.

“Society has moved from data scarcity, where it was hard to use, to data abundance,” she said, highlighting that sharing personal information with our devices has become the norm. “We’re now data powerhouses and every day we add more data to the ecosystem.”

Harfoush gave the example of people even sharing their ovulation cycle with their phones. “It’s the normalisation of intimacy… but if I asked you to turn to the person next to you and tell them [these things] how would you feel?

“I’m Rahaf and I’m not ovulating today,” she joked. “We laugh but we share that information with app developers all the time.”

Smartphone usage habits have led to a “decade of digital dependency”, she warned, pointing to research that finds 40% of adults look at their phones within five minutes of waking up. The problem is that “we are overwhelmed with information” today, Harfoush said, and this is pushing people to “breaking point”.

“The information ecosystem is making us anxious,” she said. “To understand this we need to look at our evolving relationship with information consumption. The information ecosystem has moved from linear to infinite… and we’re not equipped with the skills to navigate this infinite ecosystem.”

Trying to navigate this reality of never-ending information is giving people anxiety and having a cognitive impact on the brain, she explained, leaving people constantly stimulated and incapable of being bored.

Organisations need to enable employees to have digital detoxes to alleviate this anxiety, she said.

“Are you prioritising recovery in your data strategy?” Harfoush asked. “All organisations are getting better at crunching data. But do you need more data or do you need to give people more time to think about the data and what the information means?”

Harfoush went on to point to another way digital culture is changing lives: digital relativism. “Because we share all this information about ourselves with organisations we are getting products and services customised to individuals,” she said, giving the example of a make-up app that can customise and order an exact shade match for the wearer’s skin tone.

“The problem here though is that we’re entering an age of informational complacency where we’re so used to seeing things personalised for us that objectivity is no longer a factor,” Harfoush explained. “We’ve decided we want personalisation over objectivity.”

Much of the information people consume on a daily basis has been selected by algorithms, and so organisations need to be aware of this from a diversity and inclusion perspective.

“Diversity needs to be prioritised, especially in the decision-making process,” she encouraged, suggesting using apps that deliberately match people with colleagues they would never otherwise interact with to go for coffees.

“For the longest time the pusher of AI was that it is an objective decision-maker. But they’re not objective decision-makers as we’re teaching them what’s right and wrong,” Harfoush explained, noting that this is leading to the need to digitise moral imperatives, such as who to prioritise in a crash between a self-driving car and self-driving bus.

“These are complex decisions we’re expecting computers to make,” she said, adding that it “all has algorithmic bias”. “Sometimes the biases aren’t malicious, but all technologies carry the views we put into them.”

All of these digital culture shifts are causing organisations to “move from knowing organisations to learning organisations”, Harfoush said. “Training and learning must be prioritised.”

“I hate the term digital transformation as the definition of the word implies it’s a one-time change,” she explained. “Instead consider the mindset of the digital evolution.”

Harfoush emphasised that “this is a leadership issue not a tech issue” and called on the audience to “forget the future and start with the now”. “In reality the decisions you make today determine the type of future we will have… we need to address those imbalances today.”