Being a Digital/Analog Leader

When 9/11 happened, the Internet was flooded, and I couldn’t even access it from MIT. In my office there was a high-tech plasma TV with its cable service down, but it could pick up a weakened airwave signal. We sat and watched the horrible events transpire in completely fuzzy images. There at the temple of the digital universe, I found it ironic that the only way we could reconnect with the world again was through an analog lens.

The above story is a metaphor for my awkward feelings about digital technology. I completely identified with Nicholas Negroponte’s 1996 book Being Digital, and it was particularly symbolic that was the same year I became a professor at Negroponte’s Media Lab. And yet all through my experience at that incredible place, I constantly wondered whether digital technology was making our lives any better.

The popular terminology “digital natives vs. digital immigrants” describes the natural divide that has occurred between those who were born with computers and those who came to them later in life. Given the ubiquity of cell phone use for even those who would see themselves as “digital foreigners,” it’s safe to say that we’ve all been assimilated to some degree. The question remains are we less human or more human for it.

I say this because I hear how technology can be dehumanizing — like the exasperating interaction you get with a phone tree when calling up your insurance agent. And I hear how technology makes our lives more fulfilling — for a CEO who wouldn’t be able to attend his daughter’s soccer game if it weren’t for their mobile phone/office. My only conclusion is that we are coming to terms with the hybrid lifestyle we’ve chosen with technology. Just as a Toyota Prius is a gas-electric system, our generation of humanity needs to be digital-analog, and to know when to turn one on, and the other off. That’s as parents, managers, and friends as well.

So in a previous post I mentioned my need to do less blogging, and more jogging in my role as President of RISD. How is that going? Well, I’ve started to cook meals for faculty members at my house – that’s gone nicely from the feedback I’ve gotten thus far. I’ve pulled back from making elaborately designed PowerPoint presentations and am finding more comfort simply talking without any fancy aids. The other day I bumped into a group of freshmen who were being oriented around campus, and we did an impromptu conversation fishbowl – something I’d learned how to do from my participation on the Design Advisory Board for P&G.

As for other things I was already doing, like sitting with students whenever I see them gathered around campus or catching their concerns having lunch in the cafeterias, I still gain a lot from those interactions. And jogging? Yes, I still do my morning jogs around campus to randomly shake the hands of our groundskeepers and public safety officers. I’m on the running path to learn how to become a better balanced digital-analog leader, I guess.

The original post is here, by John Maeda & Becky Bermont @ Harvard Business