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The Newsletter | Edition 098
Progress Report is dedicated to providing inspiration for action. In our Off-White Papers, we provide practical guidance on how to respond to our rapidly-changing world. This newsletter explores those topics in real-time, with information and action steps on how to make progress now.

But in this special newsletter series, The State Of, we dive a little deeper into the long-term work that comes after, in the places where we’re seeing new types of progress in action. From brand strategy to design, internet trends to sustainability, music to science, beauty to travel, and more.

In 1983, Steve Jobs developed Apple’s first personal computer. Beige and bulky (at least in retrospect), the computer was expensive (at $9,995, it would be just under $30,000 today). A lack of enthusiasm from customers resulted in commercial failure. While the device inspired other less expensive innovations, its name — the Lisa, after Jobs’ first-born daughter — would go on to have the biggest impact, inspiring a years long preoccupation: giving female names to machines.

Consider Amazon’s Alexa, one of the most ubiquitous examples of modern gendered tech. Her tone is pleasing and familiar. She suggests restaurants, reminds you when your flight is, and plays a song you haven’t heard in a while. She even knows trivia. However, she’s not capable of sustaining an actual conversation, something that involves introspection and invites pushback — one talks at Alexa, not with her. Alexa, Siri, and other digital assistants take on responsibilities (say, ordering groceries) typically reserved for humans, cautious not to hurt consumers’ fragile egos. We’re in control; she’s at our whim. The servility of tech like Alexa has only amplified existing gender norms in an era of supposedly progressive tech.

What does this tendency say about the broader state of human-tech relations? And how can we ensure that tech progress truly is progressive?

We are surrounded by objects, capable of forming “complex, intimate, relationships with the things we own,” Kathryn Hymes writes in an article on naming objects for The Atlantic. By naming our machines, “we mark [them] as worthy of our attention.” We convey that we trust them, that they’re special. And we elevate their status. Hymes continues:

"When we name an inanimate object, we are intentionally building a relationship, elevating it to a character in our lives. Not only do we feel closer to things that we name, but perhaps we name our things in order to feel closer to them."
As the gap narrows between humans and machines, maybe consumers and innovators alike would benefit from a less essentialist, more humanist perspective. OpenAI founder, Reid Hoffman, believes this could benefits us all in the long run:
“What defines humanity is not just our unusual level of intelligence, but also how we capitalize on that intelligence by developing technologies that amplify and complement our mental, physical, and social capacities. If we merely lived up to our scientific classification — Homo sapiens — and just sat around thinking all day, we’d be much different creatures than we actually are. . .The story of humanity is the story of technology."
Whether one participates in an interactive livestream, asks ChatGPT to build a resume, or mindlessly scrolls on a smartphone, humans and technology are integrated, and they’re only becoming more intimate. With that intimacy comes a need to confront how our own imperfect humanity is built into the tech we use. Maybe the way to think about these devices is to acknowledge their relevance and entertain their biases. Maybe the solution is to consistently re-examine and improve upon our relationship with them.


  • Step outside of your own shoes. Pretend you're an alien visiting Earth (some good inspiration for that here). Without having any context about our planet, what do the most common technologies tell you about how humans live and what they value? Do this exercise for the technologies you regularly use, both in your work and personal life, as well as any innovation projects you’ve worked on. Do any of your realizations surprise you? Reflect on why that is.
  • Experiment with a reset. With your project teams, brainstorm phrases or mindsets that you commonly rely on but want to leave in the past, as well as tangible ways you can challenge the status quo. (Hint: “We’ve always done it like this” is one we’re all guilty of.) Hold time at project kickoffs for these brainstorming sessions.
  • Learn from what exists. Recognize what “traps” (can be common language or phrases) tend to be used in discussions around technology and innovation. How can you avoid this type of language when conducting research? Share these traps with your project team, and find ways to keep them top of mind while research is underway.

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