Q&A with Judy Estrin

Our all-too submissive relationship to technology.

How do you define resilience when it comes to the intersection between technology and society? 

Resilience is the ability to respond to hardshipーto bounce back from being
knocked down. Technology can be life-saving and life-changing, helping people with medical and emotional challenges in a variety of ways. However, it can also be what knocks people down through disruption of markets, towns, and lives.

Online hatred and bullying, the Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) and Fear of Losing Economic or Social Status (FOLESS), the spread of conspiracy theories and other forms of anxiety are all byproducts of or amplified by today’s digital technology. But I also think of resilience in a way that is a bit more dynamic and proactive that is especially applicable to our rapidly and constantly changing world. The elasticity to be able to stretch and adapt, encompassing not just how you respond to failure but looking ahead to avoid the next fall. This type of resilience is less about toughness or grit, and more about agility. A capacity for change involves having the awareness and flexibility to make smaller and more constant changes.

Resilience and agility require a strong core, a clear sense of guiding values, and trust in oneself that is coupled with a healthy amount of self-doubt. It requires the ability to pay attention while not being so hyper-focused that you miss opportunities or threats (myopic metrics can work against agility). True resilience means taking responsibility for, and learning from mistakes. It is not enough to just fix them and move on. Responding involves more than just reacting. Being flexible does
not mean defining oneself by the latest trend or poll. Bouncing back does not
have to be punching back, but rather responding with consideration of others.

You have written about our society’s need to revisit many of our cultural and economic assumptions as it pertains to our use of technology as co-parent and co-educator. Can you expand on this?

I believe that we need to revisit our overall relationship with technology because it is currently too submissive. We view each new technological advance as inevitable and rarely question whether it is for our good. We focus on today’s convenience with little awareness of the coststrading services for servitude.

Steve Jobs once described the personal computer as a “bicycle for the mind,” reflecting on a study of locomotion that showed how much more efficient humans are on a bicycle than on foot. The bicycle enhances us while leaving us in control. Today the industry is more focused on self-driving cars and AI-based systems that manipulate our decisions or decide for us.

This evolution has also impacted how we use technology at home and in our schools. Technology is an important tool, but I believe we need to take another look at whether we have turned over too much control to software for learning, work, and play, and study the consequences of ever-increasing screen use by our kidsー both physically and psychologically. What is the impact on childhood development when we are increasingly experiencing the world through our screens?

Silicon Valley is focused on, as you have described it, “driv[ing] toward frictionless connectivity.” As a result, you wrote last year that “we seem to have collectively forgotten that the right level of friction is a good thing…Connectivity without containment leads to uncontrolled spread of wildfires, floods, infectious disease and misinformation.” So, what is the right level of friction for our connected world?

There is no single ‘right’ level of friction. Not everything can be specified in a
metric or answered in a tweet. The point that I am making here is that we have come to view friction as something to be avoided as we become increasingly addicted to instant gratification. We need to remember that friction is necessary and a positive force in so many aspects of our lives. Real relationships, collaboration, democracy don’t happen without friction. Rules and norms, cognitive functions, or a moral compass can all be thought of as forms of friction that can mitigate negative aspects of human nature. We need to be able to tolerate frictionーboredom, discomfort, or effortーto learn or to be able to discuss hard problems. When we jump prematurely to solutions, we too often make ourselves feel better by addressing some symptoms and moving on without ever addressing the actual problems.

Friction should be viewed as a force that is used differently depending on the
situation. Like applying breaks or changing gears on a bike, how and where to apply it requires nuance. At the geopolitical level, how do we balance government and industry power? As individuals, do we look to behavioral limits and fixes or at the underlying causes of significant problems? Balancing requires ongoing vigilance.

Earlier this year, you and Sam Gill, the Knight Foundation’s Vice President, co-authored a piece in Washington Monthly discussing digital pollution. You describe the big tech companies—Facebook, Google and Twitter—as being clueless about how to confront and solve the big legal and policy questions facing their platforms. If you could ask the CEOs of these companies to tackle one critical ethical question at stake, what would it be, and why?

“Being clueless” is taken a bit out of context; we were referring to the fact that many in Big Tech have acknowledged that managing platforms is hard due to their scale (they point to the magnitude of content and number of users as an excuse when asked why they can’t fix something). One of the main points of our article is that, as with industrial pollution, we all need to be involved in understanding the costs and trade-offs in accordance with societal values.

Leaving it up to the industry alone to address leads to a future driven by the
values of those companies. I believe that the most critical ethical challenge facing the technology industry is to face up to the societal and economic costs of its culture. What are the consequences of valuing growth, momentum, scale and speed above all? What are the costs to our planet as we encourage optimization of behaviors for convenience or as more and more decisions are AI driven? What are the costs to our humanity as use of technology impacts our cognitive development and collective psyche? What are the costs to society as we become less able to work together to solve problems or to appreciate deferred benefit over instant gratification? We can debate the actual costs themselves, but a culture that only focuses on the good, an inevitable utopian future, can end up with the realization of a dystopian one. Some may view “move fast and break things” as a type of resilience, but not everything can be fixed and when it comes to human lives, democracy, or the destruction of our planet, we need to think about potential harms before we act.

What concerns you most about the negative effects of technology on young people, and what, if anything, gives you hope that they can remain resilient in the face of its addictive qualities? 

There is a lot being written about the impacts of technology on young people, including FOMO, video game, and social media addiction. I am also very concerned that we don’t yet really understand the long-term impacts on cognitive development or personal agency and authority. The paradigm has shifted dramatically. As the distinction between our offline and online worlds has melted, I worry about a loss of nuance and overall flattening of our experiences and relationships. We may have more connections, but they are more shallow and so we feel more alone. Our lives have become digitized and we need to pay attention to the impacts (good and bad). We must collectively figure out how best to adapt, to not just submit but to keep some thoughtful level of controlーas individuals, parents, teachers, leaders and as a society.

You are considered one of Silicon Valley’s most successful serial entrepreneurs and executives, having founded seven tech companies. You’ve served on the board of FedEx for 20 years, Sun Microsystems for eight years, and The Walt Disney Company for 16 years. You’ve had staying power that few in your field can rival. What have been your most consistent challenges over the years to helping guide companies’ trajectory and growth?

I would say that one of the most consistent challenges I have seen is how to lead through changeーbe it change in the market or internal change in leadership through M&A or succession. This has become ever more important with an overall accelerating rate of change in demographics and technological innovation.

Many leaders respond to this change by becoming overly reactive. In a desire to be more agile it is easy for an organization to become brittle as a focus on speed and reflexes can lead to instability. We should embrace the full definition of agility, that is: to change position efficiently requiring integration of balance, coordination, speed, reflexes, strength, and endurance. Strength involves having a strong core; a shared sense of values and ethics, and an environment that makes people secure enough to share power. Balance means embracing the right level of friction and creating the space to breathe, to step back and think, to be responsive (vs. reactive). Coordination requires systems thinkingーconsidering interconnectivity and consequences and not just looking at pieces on their ownーand fostering collaborative styles of leadership within and between organizations and people. Endurance requires taking the time to plan and to discuss strategy and values. We should be building resilience into the immune system of our organizations. We do not know what is ahead, but it is clear that it will be more turbulent and unpredictable.

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Judy Estrin

Judy Estrin is a networking technology pioneer and Silicon Valley leader. Since 1981, she has co-founded eight technology companies and served as CTO of Cisco Systems. As CEO of JLABS, LLC, she is an advisor and speaker in the areas of entrepreneurship, leadership, and innovation.  Previously, she served on the boards of directors of The Walt Disney Company (1998-2014), FedEx Corporation (1989-2010), Sun Microsystems (1995-2003), Rockwell Corporation (1994-1998), KQED (2015-2017), and The Medium Corporation (2016-2017).

Estrin is the author of the book, Closing the Innovation Gap: Reigniting the Spark of Creativity in a Global Economy (McGraw-Hill, 2008). The book explores key concepts of innovation and challenges business, education, and national leaders to work together to reignite the sustainable innovation essential for future growth. Her more recent thoughts about the impacts of technology on democracy and society are expressed in “Authoritarian Technology: Attention!” published on Medium and “The World is Choking on Digital Pollution” published in Washington Monthly magazine.

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