Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.
I watched Deb Roy's TEDTalk: "The birth of a word" with fascination and heart-pounding realization. Deb's observations at first made me think of my childhood and of my own children, and the children I see as part of my medical practice. He reminded me of happy, active, playful children who learn instinctively from day one of their lives, contrasting with those who have autism, attention deficit disorder and learning disabilities; who struggle to learn and be taught; of children with a traumatic beginning; those adopted from poor foreign orphanages, and children of busy first time parents who get placed in front of electronic screens missing out on learning from human interaction.
I was reminded of how we are instinctively programmed to learn and teach and how the process breaks down at times; how we intuitively collect data beginning with the earliest parts of life, unaware of the consequences, unconsciously analyzing and mimicking behavior in the social domain and creating our own life's stories. As we have evolved technologically, we have gotten logarithmically better at collecting information and utilizing it, but there are questions about how this has truly affected our social sensitivities and relationships with each other.
The discussion also ties in with a part of the human experience that may seem completely unrelated. How humans placed in different environments, working in different areas in varying ways tend to be attracted to the same ideas. Why did the Aztecs and the Egyptians create huge pyramidal structures despite their distances in time, place and culture? Why have humans across time and geography continued to seek a higher power they called God by different names and worshiped in different ways. While iPhone, android phones and BlackBerrys have been programmed differently yet they all serve the same purpose: They are phones, networking devices and have cameras. There is in all of these examples a unified theme of commonality of human experience.
People have recognized forever that human behavior is variable but essentially predictable. On a global scale, people come up with similar answers to their problems and react similarly to issues. Philosophers, social scientists, marketers and political groups have all utilized this information successfully. Organized religious groups have had great success in using this observation for ages. What they did not have however, was the certainty of knowing how people act and react, and then shape and reshape it based on that data.
If we know how people think and act, and can prove with the amount of data we can now collect, we have crossed into a new age of our existence. We can deconstruct human learning and behavior, collect billions of pieces of information and organize them to create the most powerful tools we have ever known to serve our needs.
We have now empowered ourselves to do much good but potentially also do much harm, like all our innovations and inventions of the past. We can for example use the power of data to help treat or even prevent autism, attention deficit disorder and delayed development in a child by modifying the behavior of the parents, teachers, and children themselves; or we can invest our energy in finding out how to best manipulate human behavior in favor of the highest bidder for this information. The same data could be used to predict riots, crises and terrorism, or used to create disharmony, destruction and chaos.
We are once again witnessing further evolution of the human race. Let us sit back and enjoy the ride.
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