The world does NOT revolve around you!

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How the over customization of technology is destroying our culture, and what we can do about it. (From Todd Mitchem's TED talk of the same topic)

by Todd Mitchem

A dolphin in a pool of sharks.

For a long time, I had been looking for a partner, that perfect mate to spend my life with and to build my future. The search went far and wide, utilizing every technical means at my disposal. I would open an app, target: age, gender, hair color, proximity to me, because who wants to drive over 15 miles for love, and I would utilize virtually every custom option so I could search for the perfect woman. 

Each of these methods, however, did not present that ideal of the woman I imagined. Then on one night in early spring, I sat at a restaurant contemplating this search and waiting for a Tinder date to arrive. 

After waiting for two hours at the restaurant, I finally realized I had been stood up, ignored, and hope was again dashed. At that moment, I was finished with dating. In particular online dating in my mind was a sham. So I got up, walked out the door of the restaurant frustrated, and headed to the opening of a friend's new nightclub a few miles away. I just wanted to see my friends and have real human contact. You need to understand that I was not searching for the next physical interaction. Dating apps had become so transaction-oriented. I was without a doubt searching for a dolphin in a pool of sharks. So I swam away from the pool.

When I arrived at the new club, I never imagined how that night would change my perspective and my life. As I sat there at the bar talking to friends and meeting new people, a woman caught my eye across the room. She was stunning and lit the place up like a bolt of lightning. We stared at each other from across the crowded dance floor and finally, after getting fed up with my lack of advancement, this amazing woman walked through the crowd, and asked me, “Are you going to stare at me all night or say something?”

That woman is now my amazing wife, Diana. It was that chance encounter, a moment of fate, passion, and unpredictable circumstances that brought us together. 

Who's at fault is this customized technology thing anyway?

I should back up for a moment to also reveal to you that at the time Diana and I met I was obsessed with dating apps, and dating preferences in social media technology. This apparent obsession was not because I was a creepy online stalker. At the time I met Diana, I was the co-founder and CEO of a new dating and social networking app called, High There! which was designed to link cannabis consuming adults, patients, and advocates for dating and socializing. We wanted the app to be a place where all types of cannabis enthusiasts could feel safe to talk, meet, socialize, and date. 

As a co-founder and CEO, my days were spent studying every dating or social networking app on the market to help me make critical decisions about how to instruct my team to build High There! My ambition was to disrupt the mold, break it perhaps so we could develop the best app in the industry. Our mission was fairly straightforward, draw people together based on their consumption preferences, where they lived and their age. In other words, connect based on a mutually desired experience. But, as I became more immersed in the journey of creating the app with my team, it was apparent we needed to customize the preferences significantly in our search algorithm to accommodate a particular type of culture. We spent days and months catering to a community of people who wanted to specify every attribute of each person they met. It was more like making a custom pizza menu of selections than a connection tool. Still, we kept listening to our consumers, so we kept customizing. 

For a moment in this article, I want you to pause. If you are reading this on your phone, have a more conscious look at it. Notice how unique your phone is to you. I do not mean unique in the design of it or the make and model. I mean, look at how customized it is to YOUR preferences. If you are like most people around the world, you have tailored the many features, apps, covers, and settings to your phone so it perfectly suits you and your desires. Think about this, literally, at this moment you could order a pizza precisely the way you want it, custom search a flight particular to your preferences, and, if you are single, customize your “ideal” perfect person, just like that pizza you just ordered, with the preferred hair, weight, age, and distance.

"So while we sit here immersed in our customization culture, we need to ask ourselves, “Is the over-customization of technology turning against us and destroying our human relationships?” 

When I began my journey with High There!, and especially after I met Diana, I noticed how much people wanted to design their interactions with other humans. It hit me like a bus in the night; I was a massive part of the problem! It was me who had helped to build yet another technology that would begin to treat people as commodities. 

I often reflect on what this insane look at people, and technology has done to our global culture. The commoditization of our society means we are, as people, to be traded up, ordered, and looked at, not through objective eyes, but through a lens of discernment that is, ironically, isolating us from the potential of truly remarkable experiences with another person. Instead of doing the work to connect, we seek shortcuts using technology. This situation is sad for the human race, and frankly, it's unnatural.

When we built that app, I felt this happening first hand. Huge self-esteem issues emerged in our users, as well as in myself as we progressed. In the beginning, if I was passed up online by a woman, I would wonder and ask myself “was it my hair, my height, my description, my age, or my distance that drove her away?” so, I would change preferences and play a game of trying to figure out what people wanted, never really being my true self. But, after we fully launched the technology, it was then I felt a more profound and more tangible sting. The consumers in our platform started to send me direct feedback. I would often get emails asking me if a person’s profile was broken because no one was reaching out to them. It was heartbreaking. One woman, a 60-year-old cancer survivor, who utilized marijuana for pain, messaged me on the app begging for some guidance. She could not seem to meet people who would talk to her, and this was causing her deep agony as well as a feeling of loneliness. It was at that moment, despite my drive to make a difference, I knew I had not helped society, I had made it more custom, and that was not a good thing. But as I put my head up, it was clear to me that the real issue was all tech leaders. We were a collective of "daily active user rate" conquers blinded by ambition or ambivalent to what we were doing to society.

But it's not just dating and social technology that is potentially hurting us.

This hyper customization trend is currently destroying our ability to stay together. A recent study by Michigan State University stated that married couples who met online are three times more likely to divorce than those who met face-to-face by acts of fate. Read that again. Our dating technology is damaging the family. Online daters are also twenty-eight percent more likely to split from their partners within the first year. The study also found that relationships were far more stable if couples met in traditional ways such as introductions by friends or, as in my case, out in social settings. 

Unfortunately, the trend is speeding up, with sites becoming ever more specialized. Couples who want to be matched up because they like farming can use FarmersOnly, while Jewish singles can try JDate, those who want their partner in uniform can try UniformDating, and of course, if you love cannabis you can try the app I helped to build, High There! As we adapt to more and more specificity in our technology, we are creating a strange hierarchical caste system of our own making.

It's in your work too! 

My quest to understand what was happening stretched into how we work and hire also. After High There! I went back to coaching leaders and millennials around how to drop the customization mentality, and the discovery was profound. What we see in leadership is mounting frustration where leaders now feel a need to customize every rule, interaction, and conversation to the whim and needs of the individual worker because that is what THEY expect...or else! This trend is a dangerous formula when we consider that a company and its ability to run smoothly depends a sense of uniformity, focus on common goals, and most importantly, working together REGARDLESS of differences.

Then I noticed the problem goes further back to when people are hired. A terrifying new trend in recruitment, for example, uses artificial intelligence instead of human discernment, to read a person’s resume, search their social media interactions, and, using algorithms, determines a “match” for the role at a company, thus removing any sense of human connection. To me, a trend such as this one leads to an insane culture.

What's the impact of all this customization?

Over time, we have been systematically and gradually tricked into believing that our opinions are useless unless they align with the person that we are talking to the way they want. The newly formed "outrage culture" can take up arms online to destroy a person's life, career, and future just because beliefs are not aligned. Power has been given to people with no sense of what to do with it. Because of social media, custom dating apps, rapid-fire text communication, and lack of real connection to others, we often live or interact in an environment where our opinions are not valued because they are not precisely designed the way the receiver desires. This is problematic since it adds a never before experienced level of fear in all areas of our culture. We are afraid to take risks, make mistakes, or voice a counterpoint. The very essence of progressive moving society is a conversation, peaceful disagreement, and calm dialogue. 


In my book, YOU, DISRUPTED, I discuss my experiences with High There!, my leadership coaching clients, and I articulate the problem coming for humanity if we do not get control of ourselves. It is my belief a solution is within our reach, with a little discipline from consumers and leaders.  

But what about you? 

Where are you over-customizing environments void of real conversations and meaningful relationships? I believe we as a society are becoming addicted to the “My Way” mentality, and it pushes us into massive social issues we are hurting to solve. But I am not alone.

A study published online in Computers in Human Behavior in December of 2016 found that the use of multiple social media platforms is more strongly associated with depression and anxiety among young adults than time spent online. In other words, because we continuously seek the approval and status of our customized technology, we are more distant and depressed as a result.

 I know from personal experience that with our over 300,000 users within one year of launching High There!, I talked with thousands of consumers in the app, and while some liked the conversations, many were concerned about their profile, pictures, and the judgments they would receive about their preferences. But there was one feature we did add to High There! that changed everything for the better. I feel this solution could be a start of the remedy leading to improved interactions over time. 

It's so simple; it just might work.

I called this feature, “My Story”. In the app we had the team design a 420 characters box. In this box, users of the app could talk about themselves and were encouraged to share details on the type of experiences they wanted to have. We began to focus on users telling a story instead of the preferences of limiting search parameters. It was the “My Story” feature that people reported to me, attained them the most thoughtful interactions and connections. Then we implemented strict cultural conduct standards. If you were mean, rude, or hateful to another user, that was grounds for being removed from the app. And before you rage culture folks start to give me the "free speech" nonsense, let me say that the plan worked! After implementing these standards with "my story," we grew from 60k users to 300k almost overnight. Oh, and that 60-year-old cancer survivor I mentioned earlier wrote to thank me for adding the “My Story” feature, because now people understood her journey and wanted to be friends, not because of preferences, but because of a personal story.

You see, technology can be utilized as a tool if we approach it the right way and make it thoughtful rather than over-customized.

The Solution

So what’s the answer? Well, where I was once a part of the problem, I am now dedicated, with my wife, to living an example of the solution. I think the first part of the solution is to realize there is no algorithm you can write to control the inherent unpredictability of human interaction. It is, in fact, the contrast of meeting different people randomly, telling our story, listening to their story, and overall embracing the variation of life, we derive our best interactions. We need to stop the judgments based on posts, political slants, or preferences. As my father always said, "Son, the world does not revolve around you." Same goes for all of us.

When writing my book, it occurred to me that to gain back our sense of useful positive disruption in our culture we must embrace differences instead of attempting to isolate ourselves around the same preferences of news, food, people, and technology. Instead of being lulled to sleep by a pampered existence of hyper-customization, we can utilize the beautiful contrast of human interaction to find new solutions indeed, discover new ideas, and work together for more thoughtful goals.

The solution then is for us to begin to look at all of these fantastic new technologies emerging as tools to enhance human interaction. They are tools, but only if we utilize them properly. We can begin to ask ourselves what is the purpose of our technology at that moment. Much like you only use a vacuum cleaner when you need to clean the floor, you can use technology to order that pizza precisely to your preferences. You can use your phone to say hello to a friend in text and organize the next get together. But perhaps it’s time to put away the technology when it comes to interacting in thoughtful ways with people. You can begin to embrace the contrast of humanity by putting your phone away in the line at a coffee shop and talk to the people around you. You can ask yourself what you are so mad about in your life before you lash out at strangers online. And if you would only pick your head up in these moments, you may meet that next amazing person who can change your life. You won’t find them in your limited preference settings.

Ponder this....

Humans are not commodities to be traded up and down like corn or wheat. People are to be valued, not discarded, just because their hair color or political views does not match your preferred ones for a new friend. If we want to be appreciated, we must first value others more. We are the people, and the technology is the machine. We are still in control. You can take back your value now by seeing technology for what it is, a tool. 

Had it not been for the allowance of fate in my life, without technology, I would have never met Diana. If we had used an app, we could have missed each other by a year or two of age preference, or based on a distance mismatch; we lived 16 miles apart. Because we both let nature decide, within two years we were married, collaborated on my book, built multiple businesses, set out on a journey, and became the couple I had always dreamed of in my heart of hearts. Even now, we utilize technology as a tool to achieve results for our family, clients, and our businesses, but not as a hyper custom crutch.

Just like a hammer, technology can be used so that individuals and humanity can build great relationships and influential disruptive projects, or just like the hammer, it can be used to destroy us by smashing down our integrity, self-esteem, and ability to connect with each other. 

The choice to build or destroy using the tool lies in the hand of the user.....

.....and that’s all of us.

You can watch my corresponding TED talk below.

Todd Mitchem delivers entertaining inspirational and informative presentations as well as highly effective world class 1-on-1 coaching for business & personal needs. His consulting firm works with all types of organizations to create breakthrough results.

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