The Future, With Our Machines and Ourselves

Last month, I went to two equally fascinating conferences held in New York City. Both were broadly exploring the future of our global, hyper-connected economy. As both a tech start-up veteran and the mother of two young boys already enamored with devices, I found these events equally fascinating and frightening.

MIT and the Digital Economy: The Second Machine Age Conference, hosted speakers largely from the technology and finance industries, along with MIT economists and researchers. The overarching messages were:

1. The great decoupling: U.S. productivity, GDP, employment and income have been slowly but steadily "decoupling" over the past three decades. Real GDP and labor productivity continue an up-and-to-the-right march, while private employment and medium household income have been flat-lining since the mid '90s. As such, further economic disparity seems inevitable. Those who "own" capital, technology and/or IP can reap enormous returns, and those who simply "own" their labor/skills may find they have diminishing value.

2. Automation and the new mind-machine boundary: The first machine age ushered in an era where machines could do far more than a human body, the effects of which are still felt by the workers who were left behind... And yet, this next "second machine age" will usher in an era where machines can do far more than a human brain. So expect to see more "high-skill" jobs become outsourced-on-their-way-to-being-automated, never to return. (For example, some legal, medical and even finance jobs are starting to disappear.)

3. New business models and the disruption of everything: Business leaders were warned to embrace geeks, machines and outsiders, because while the future is unknowable, the trends are pretty clear. The pace of change will only get faster (as new inventions are built, like building blocks, upon earlier innovations), so no matter how idiosyncratic your field, these three forces will surely change the dynamics of your industry. Net net: the "Moneyball-ing" of virtually all industries is coming, so you better embrace it.

By contrast, Thrive, A Third Metric Live Event, featured speakers primarily from the media, arts and healthcare industries. The topics followed the structure of Huffington's new book, Thrive -- i.e. Well-being, Wisdom, Wonder and Giving -- as a way to structure a "Third Metric" for success (beyond money and power). I took away these key points:

1. Health >= Wealth: From neuroscience's proof of meditation's benefits, to exposing the systemic roots of obesity in America, there was compelling evidence of the terrible trade-off we've made for convenience. Yet, alternatively, there is no trade-off between high performance at work and taking care of our health. For example, Mark Bertolini, the CEO of Aetna, said their corporate wellness investments have improved their bottom line. Our individual and collective health is more valuable than, and may even drive more monetary wealth.

2. Giving, taking and score keeping: Wharton professor and author of Give and Take, Adam Grant set the scene for thinking about our corporate world as a game, whereby there are givers, takers and the score keepers. A number of singers, writers and artists underscored that gratitude was instrumental to "get something" even more valuable in return, to feed their creativity. So while it's valuable to understand the game, and give to "win", it's perhaps best to rise above it altogether. ("Onward, Upward, and Inward" was printed on the back of the conference agenda.)

3. Our new tech-life balance: Mika Brzezinski, the co-host, and many speakers, including Randi Zuckerberg, were mindful to the potential addiction to devices and real-time information, and they spoke of the value of a digital detox. Federica Marchionni, the President of Dolce & Gabbana USA, explained the #DGfamily project, as an expression of the company's roots: "The family is our point of reference." It seems our discussion of work-life balance is morphing into one of tech-life balance (which is hopefully gender neutral), and may even be reflected in the software industry's slow tech movement.

I'm not a Steve Jobs idolizer, but working the Tech industry, it's often impossible not to consider, "What would Steve do?" I mean, this man brought us the devices we're now addicted to, and yet also shaped Wall-e into the beautiful, cautionary masterpiece that it is. How would he balance a love for technology with a need for health?

But to all of us: Which future will we shape for ourselves, with both our great machines, and our great inward journey?

(If anyone should think MIT doesn't concern itself with this all-important balancing act, they recently announced a new multidisciplinary initiative for the environment and sustainability.)