Community Voices

Beyond the Classroom: Data, technology and….humanity

Technology creates data and data is everywhere. We are born into it and die by it. We are taught by it, treated by it, we often succeed and fail because of it, and we are becoming defined and labeled by it.

Technology provides us with data about what we don’t know, what we do know, and what we should know. TIME magazine writer Lev Grossman in “What’s this all about?” says that as we gain access to greater troves of information, the returns diminish rapidly because it becomes harder to find the meaning of it all.

Ironically, it is visual arts that is coming to our rescue. An excess of information stymies us just as a lack of it does. As a result, the greater the amount of information and the more complex the information, the more we need art (charts, graphs, pictograms) to help us extract its relevance. Throughout history, art has been devoted to making complexity comprehensible and extracting meaning from chaos.

Data, when mastered, can be used to help us make choices, to keep us from getting lost, or can be used to save our lives. Technology and data banks have evolved into such efficient and embolden masters, we have allowed that which makes us human — touch, observation, and sentient interaction — to become overshadowed by it.

Mark Masters shares in his article, “The Importance Of Human Interaction Over Technology,” that although technology is changing the way we work, one thing will always remain — who we are as people, what we need and what we stand for.

Technology and Data

Many of us, especially the baby boomers, are all too aware that humans are interacting less. Melissa Nilles says, in her article “Technology is Destroying the Quality of Human Interaction,” that the impact of internet and mobile technology on human relationships is already evident. In its expedience, it has quietly deconstructed the foundation and meaningfulness of personal interactions. Instead of spending time in person with friends or business acquaintances, we call, text or possibly Skype them. Ten texts don’t come close to having lunch with a friend. And those smiley-face emoticons are cute, but they can’t replace the smiling eyes of your best friend. Face time is important, people. We need to see each other.

Whether in medicine, business, education or simply at the dinner table, the human dimension always prevails. We understand more about data when people connect, deliver, interact and raise points of view.

Medicine

In a recent TED talk, “A Doctor’s Touch” and TED radio show “Do We Need Humans?,” Stanford University Abraham Verghese remarks in a darkish humor that in today’s hospitals, when a person brought into an emergency department missing a leg, no one will believe he has lost a limb until he undergoes a CT scan or MRI and has an orthopedic consult.

Verghese was told that there will come a time when physicians will no longer be needed because health care will become accessible by computer. He responded with “Well my friend, you have not yet suffered enough. When you suffer enough, what you want, especially in addition to the best technology and chemo, is a caring, empathetic physician who says I will walk this path with you to the end of the line. I will be with you.”

As such, he feels that the greatest medical innovation to come in the next decade will be not be another automation, but the renaissance of the human hand in its power to touch, diagnose, comfort and bring about treatment.

Our ability to look into the body in this simple way, using our senses, is quite recent. By the early 1900s, with the advent of percussion and auscultation, the barber/surgeon had given way to the physician who was trying to make a diagnosis .

Education

It seems like data is kept on everything, from the websites we visit, to how long we stay on each web page, to what groceries we are buying, and how many text messages we send. In a tech vs. humanities debate, Forbes’ writer Jeffrey Dorfman in “Surprise: Humanities Degrees Provide Great Return on Investment” and Business Insider’s Max Nisen in “11 Reasons To Ignore The Haters And Major In The Humanities” say that the humanities are important to our work force.

Smart students who devise their educational strategy with a liberal arts degree supplemented with current in-demand skills can think and write well and can integrate these skills with math, science or engineering fields.

The stats on humanities majors aren’t as bad as people think. In fact, the most currently underemployed degree major is business. Companies are showing that they are weighing less on degree and GPA and more on emotional intelligence, adaptability and people skills.

Humanity majors — those who can write, provide empathy and have the ability to react to people — can do things machines can’t do in a service economy. They learn to explain and sell an idea — and actually deal with people.

Business

More people tend to trust small businesses to tell the truth over large companies. When a company makes a human connection, as opposed to a digital connection, they create a completely different platform to build a relationship.

An article by Shvetank Shah in the Harvard Business Review, “Good Data Won’t Guarantee Good Decisions,” explains that global businesses have entered a new era of decision making. The ability to gather, store, access and analyze data has grown exponentially over the past decade, and companies now spend tens of millions of dollars to manage the information.

He says however, that IT needs to spend more time on the “I” and less on the “T.” IT typically arose within an environment where business needs were clearly defined, stable and relatively consistent over a wide group of users. However, other departments must deal with diverse data demands or use data in ways they can’t even explain. Meeting these challenges requires anthropological skills and behavioral understanding — traits that are often in short supply in technology. Leaders need to ensure that human capabilities keep pace with the computing firepower and information they import.

Interpersonal

Nilles says face-to-face interactions are real and valuable. As technology evolves, we must take care not to lose the “person” in the conversation. Extended connections are great for networking, but the quality and meaning of the connections must be considered — not just the extensiveness.

The technology vs. humanity argument doesn’t just apply to friends; it applies to the world around us. Face-to-face interaction has been proven by studies to offer comfort and provide us with some important sense of well-being, One grocery store chain removed its self-checkout lanes due to numerous complaints: an eerie lack of human contact.

So do we really need 3,000 friends on the internet?

Why are we texting at the dinner table instead of conversing with those next to us?

Why do physicians order so many tests before they listen to and examine their patients?

Let’s recapture face time. Let’s recapture the human interaction, and not always rely on technology to do the job for us.

I’ll leave you with the following exchange from 1870 between Dr. Joseph Bell and a patient that illustrates the art of observation and human interaction (Dr. Bell is perhaps best known as an inspiration for the literary character Sherlock Holmes):

In Edinburgh, a woman comes into the infirmary with a child. As a doctor approaches, the woman says “Good morning.” Dr. Bell responds “Good morning. What sort of crossing did you have on the ferry from Burntisland?” Puzzled, she replied “It was good” He continues. “What did you do with the other child?” The woman replied “I left him with my sister.” He asks “Did you take the shortcut from Inverleith Row to get to the infirmary?” She says “I did.” He asks “Would you still be working in the linoleum factory?” She replied “I am.”

How did Dr. Bell know all of that?

When the woman had said “Good morning,” Dr. Bell noticed her Scottish Fife accent. The nearest ferry crossing from Fife was from Burntisland, so she must have taken the ferry over. He noticed that the coat she was carrying was too small for the child that was with her, leading him to believe she had started her journey with two children but dropped off one on the way. He noticed the red clay on soles of her feet, clay that is not found within a 100 miles of Edinburgh, except in the botanical gardens — and therefore he surmised that she took a shortcut down Inverleith Row to arrive here. Finally, she has a dermatitis on the fingers of her right hand, a condition unique to the linoleum factory workers in Burntisland.

Laurie Futterman ARNP is a former Heart Transplant Coordinator at Jackson Memorial Medical Center. She now chairs the science department and teaches gifted middle school science at David Lawrence Jr. K-8 Center. She has three children and lives in North Miami.

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