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Being Human
Feeling Our Way in This New Millennium

by DK Holland

A friend at a big nonprofit that betters the lives of disadvantaged children said to me, “I’m sick of the starving child portrait!” “Get over it,” I retorted. “We need to see a face :-).” Of course this was by e-mail—or maybe we chatted, texted or tweeted. I don’t recall which, but I do know I’m clueless about whether my friend was being callous or just feeling overwhelmed. I didn’t see her face. The only face in this exchange was the goofy punctuation smiley I added at the end. Oh the irony!

We are a social species. Connectors. Back when our kind lived in small tribes and gnawed on bloody hyena legs still warm from the kill, we could smell fear, see in the dark, sense approaching animals. We knew only our own tribe. But we traded in these survival skills for the ability to distinguish the ring tone of an iPhone from that of a Blackberry and a decent Pinot Grigio from a lousy Soave. Luckily our primitive brains still react to a baby’s plaintive cry, the aroma of burning wood, the crisp taste of mountain spring water. Word-of-mouth, a human phenomena, still helps warn us of impending danger. And while we are each still part of a small tribe, in reality we are aware we are also just one in a cast of six billion. Our humanity is not lost, just overcrowded.

Believe it or not, most people are fairly altruistic—that is, if they can see the person, the individual. Studies show that, when given a choice, most people will give more to another person than is needed or requested—even if it’s a stranger. When the plea is to help thousands in dire need, the individual becomes a statistic, and empathy can become apathy. We need to see a face. And preferably touch a hand, hear a voice, smell a person.

Indeed we have a unique construction housed in our skulls: one part ancient amygdala (emotion-driven) complemented by the modern prefrontal cortex (rational and calculating).

And our numbers are projected to increase by an unnerving third, climbing to 9,000,000,000 in the foreseeable future. James Lovelock, father of the Gaia theory of the living Earth,1 speculates that, as conditions become unbearable, wars will break out leading to massive slaughter and starvation. Survivors of this apocalypse will be the early adopters who will once again create small tribes and, with luck, find oases soon enough so they may survive while the Earth heals. Lovelock’s radical projection is either severely depressing or weirdly uplifting, depending on your perspective.

One wild card has been tossed into the game—the Internet. Crowd Acceleration Innovation is the theory that as millions are being connected, especially youth, online, they are rapidly educating themselves and therefore able to pull altogether at warp speed through technology.2 This positive view gives us a shot at a winning hand. It speaks to the connector, the survivor, in each of us. Cisco speculates video will fill the Internet of the future. We are uniquely wired to decode information when presented in an accessible, human way. Since we are drawn to sentient beings, the appeal of much of that content will use spoken and body languages, faces and emotions. As the knowledge revolution was spawned by the printing press, the Internet may lead to a new Age of Enlightenment (YouTube videos of Bridezillas and hot dog gorging contests aside) for the next generation.

Humans cultivate empathy by making meaningful, quality connections with other living things. When information is presented in a compelling and creative way in any venue, neurons start firing, emotions ignite the imagination. Any place where people congregate presents such an opportunity. Nathan Shedroff, an experience strategist and program chair of the design strategy MBA program at the California College of the Arts (CCA), says, “All experience happens in a place—and all aspects of a place need to be considered. Taste, smell, touch, sight, sound and our emotional/intellectual interpretations of these sensations are what make up any experience. Awareness of sensory factors is what is called Experience Design (XD).” “A place" may be a store, a Web site or a kitchen. Maria Giudice, CEO and founder of Hot Studio, says, “Experience design is a widely adapted term now. And its inclusiveness brings designers into parity with business. The millennium generation, those who were born into technology, automatically ‘get’ that there are multiple touchpoints. The old way of thinking—the cocktail napkin design solution—is old hat.”

When you fix dinner, dive into the pounding surf or change a baby, you engage most of your senses. Yet, in your average day, how much time is spent experiencing rich sensory experiences? Texting and e-mailing have become preferred communication paths for many even though in doing so, we can become a tad autistic, detached from the true emotion behind the communications we send or receive. But like Pavlov’s rats, we get a charge out of it. When a teen girl texts (an average of 4,000 times a month), she’s shooting 4,000 doses of love (i.e., dopamine) to her virginal amygdala3.

The cheap thrill of dopamine is, however, a tradeoff; since e-mails and texts lack emotional nuance, the quality of the exchange is deteriorated (the punctuation smiley or frowny face are Band-Aid remedies at best). And, by narrowing down sensory engagement, the interruption required in order to perform the task can cause normally placid people to become downright apoplectic or rude.

Our ancestors had to be a lot more physically active than we are just to survive. But no leopards are stalking us now. In fact, many of us spend our days seated, in isolation, at some kind of computer. With all this communication technology Giudice wonders if our connections to the real world “get blurry.”

In the mid 1970s, I waited expectantly, with a bunch of squealing ten year olds, at the Exploratorium (the museum of science, art and human perception) in San Francisco. Standing in front of the geodesic Tactile Dome, we were instructed to strip down as much as we could before diving into a pitch-black, womb-like tunnel in the dome not much bigger than our bodies. Off came socks and shoes, boys pulled off T-shirts amid stereophonic giggles and sighs from girls. One by one we climbed in, suddenly blind, feeling the sides of the tunnel as we made our way. As the tunnel went down we slid, then we crawled around a turn where we came to a fork and had to choose a direction unable to see what lay ahead. Each of us interpreted the different textures on the walls with our fingers. My senses limited to touch, smell, hearing and intuition, I felt so “in the moment,” exhilarated, totally disoriented, a brand new experience. Holland
DK Holland writes about design and teaches in two MFA design programs in New York, one at SVA and one at Pratt. She is an advisor to Project M and Design Ignites Change. Holland has been the editor of Design Issues since she started it in 1990. She is the author/producer of many books on design as well as Branding for Nonprofits. She is the producer of CitizenME, which creates transmedia tools that engage students in understanding how to become proactive citizens. Holland lives and works in her tiny nineteenth-century restored Italianate house and garden in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.