What Children Will Always Need, No Matter the Technological Future

Steven Crane’s first talk at the Xploration Center Virtual Summit

Start with the question from summit website: what can we do to empower the next generation to thrive in a future of constant change?

  • Answer: My simple answer for this talk is: ingrain skills for social connection 
    • (more technically: socio-emotional intelligence, 
    • or in more fuzzy terms: the capacity to love and be loved)

Who I am to speak to this

  • In my professional life as a Stanford researcher I do a lot of thinking about the future of humanity and how technological shifts will influence human flourishing. 
  • But I’m also a father of a two-year-old plus one more on the way.
  • I know we are living in exponential times, and cultural evolution is proceeding at a breakneck and ever-increasing pace while our biological evolution continues at its usual slow pace.
    • We are at a moment in human history when the difference between the worlds that different generations will inhabit is the largest it has ever been.  That is, never before has our current world been such a poor model for what our children’s future world will be when they grow up.  
    • So with that much uncertainty and change, it’s a huge question of how to prepare children for their future. 
    • So when I look forward to the future and think about what to prioritize in my children’s upbringing, I ask myself what I think is likely to be valuable when almost anything about us and a species and as a society could change. 
      • I’ve come to the conclusion that the most important priority as a parent is to ingrain the capacity to love and be loved, in other words their socio-emotional intelligence.  

Let me share a bit more about my research work that leads me to that conclusion, and near the end of the talk we’ll circle back around to socio-emotional intelligence and a list of ten things you can do as a parent. 

More on why I think that: [[Boundaries project intro]]

  • For the past six years, I’ve worked on a large interdisciplinary research project at Stanford with a long name: The Boundaries of Humanity: Humans, Animals, and Machines in the Age of Biotechnology.
  • Our central goal has been to examine what is special about us as a species; how are humans different from 1) machines, computers, AI, robots and 2) non-human animals.  
  • Basically, what makes us human?  What is important about how we work and operate, from a variety of different perspectives.  Here’s three examples: 
    • 1) How is our basic biology unique: our genetics, our physiology
    • 2) How is our psychology unique: language is obviously key, but also the reciprocal relationships between conceptual understandings in our minds influence our biological responses and vice versa
    • 3) How are human societies unique: our flexible cooperation at massive scales with perfect strangers is something unprecedented in the animal world, as Yuval Noah Harari has pointed out.
  • Our project really does aim to integrate it all: body, mind, and spirit at every relevant scale. 
  • Why bother?
    • This framework of human uniqueness also sets us up to answer questions about human flourishing: how do we do well as individuals, as societies, and as a species?  What are the conditions, constraints, and configurations that promote human wellbeing in the broadest sense?
  • It’s vital that this work be done now. 
    • We are at an unprecedented moment in the history of our species: 
    • we are starting to harness the power to reach into the very core of our being and alter the fundamental components of our nature.  
  • With these powers in hand, a careful consideration of who we really are as humans and how we flourish is essential to wise action with our present and future biotechnologies. 

Humans, technology, and where we are now

  • Technology has always been a part of the human story. 
  • The use of tools and technologies in the cumulative, flexible way that humans use them is certainly one of our defining features as a species.  
  • Combined with cumulative culture and social connection and cooperation, tool use and the development of technologies is a central if not THE central defining feature of our species.  So in this sense, human technological and cultural evolution is nothing new, and by and large is an incredibly powerful and usually positive force.
  • But looking forward, we have new and radically transformative technologies to contend with. Here’s just five examples:
    1. The ability to reach into our bodies and alter the basic functioning of our brain and nervous system with neural prosthetic devices
    2. The ability to alter our chemical composition and cellular functioning with nanobots and other smart drugs
    3. The power to re-write our code of life with genetic engineering, which has already been used in attempts to enhance human genetics
    4. Ever-more immersive virtual worlds that can involve all of our senses, and in which we can live out our wildest dreams and fantasies
    5. Ever-more intelligent AIs, robots, and nonhuman agents that we may form relationships with
      • [see my portfolio on my website for more discussion of these topics]

How do we think about the future of technology?

We want to innovate, to push outward our human boundaries into uncharted territory.  We are indeed in exponential times, yes. Especially in biotechnology.  

But when we do that, we have to remain somewhat humble.  There’s a fine balance to be struck between innovation and preservation.  I hope that my work helps us understand what in our nature is important to preserve or to safeguard. 

We must take gratitude for our biological and cultural inheritance as a species, and use that as a foundation for innovation, which we certainly need to address the many urgent needs facing humanity.

But I must emphasize that we want to build our technological future informed by a complete understanding of human flourishing that’s in touch with all the diverse and sometimes neglected aspects of our humanity.   

  • Humans are a “general purpose organism,” and our current constitution as a species is what gives us our balance, flexibility, adaptability, and creativity.  To charge forward into an uncertain future, we need a framework that’s holistic and appreciates our embodied, relational, cooperative, and emotional natures. 

As far as future developments for how to evaluate and develop technologies, I invite you to keep in touch with the project as it unfolds.  We are continuing this work and will begin a major multimedia public engagement component later this year, so you can go to my website to stay up to date with what we’re doing there. 

But no matter what biotechnological future that’s in store for us, I want to return to the importance of socioemotional intelligence. 

How do we foster the socio-emotional intelligence our children need to flourish in this future?

As I’ve observed in my own life and also in my research, the greatest human flourishing is achieved through rich, enduring, and loving relationships.  These are with family, friends, and one’s broader community.

We’ve known this since the first century and before, BC, when Lucretius wrote, “We are each of us angels with only one wing, and we can only fly embracing one another.”

Supportive relationships buffer against hard times, stress, and upheaval.  They foster resilience and encourage longevity.  Perhaps the most striking research finding that sums this all up is that being socially connected is associated with a 50% reduced risk of early death.  (source).  

Furthermore, in summarizing the findings of a famous 75-year study of Harvard graduates, the psychologist, George Vaillant, simply said: “Happiness is love. Full stop.”

However, over a quarter of the US population lives alone, and frequent or intense loneliness is common, especially among older adults.  

I see this as a tragic neglect of the most important aspect of human flourishing: our social connection.

So obviously at this point you know that I think the capacity to love and be loved is the most important thing to prioritize, and is the part of our humanity least likely to change, despite many singularity-type moments on our human horizon.  

  • And there’s a lot that goes into that:
    • Emotion regulation
    • Healthy attachment
    • Understanding of diversity
    • Living in such a way that inspires respect and trust from others
    • And many more things. 

But what can you do as a parent?

I pulled together a list of ten virtues to foster social connection and how to practice them, which I’ll go through now and also list as a supplementary resource.  For each of these, you’ll want to think about how to model them in yourself and how to instill them in the children in your life. 

  1. Practice reciprocal communication
    1. Talk to your child, but also show that you hear them when they share back with you.  Presence and intention will go a long way in helping them feel heard.
    2. This includes an authoritative parenting style: explaining your rules and reasons for discipline so they understand the larger context
    3. Do this not just with plans and ideas, but also with feelings.  
  2. Name feelings / show empathy 
    1. Help your younger children put words to what they’re feeling, because this ability will be crucial for helping them get their emotional needs met throughout a lifetime of relationships
    2. It also helps you show empathy when you can use these words to say things like, “it looks like you’re feeling frustrated…” or “wow, you sure seem excited about visiting your friend later today”
  3. Foster healthy attachment
    1. Attachment (secure, avoidant, etc.) is a foundational concept in developmental psychology, and you can foster healthy attachment styles by being responsive, understanding, and compassionate towards your child’s needs
  4. Demonstrate trustworthiness, authenticity, and honesty
    1. Model what it means to show integrity, especially when it’s hard and you’d rather do otherwise.  Being trustworthy is a necessary component for all subsequent deep and healthy relationships your child will have. 
    2. Relatedly:
  5. Be dependable and conscientious 
    1. These are some of the most highly valued traits in an individual, both in society and in all close relationships.  
    2. Modeling this for your children will not only strengthen your relationship with them as a trusted caregiver, but it will increase their capacity to demonstrate these virtues in their own life
  6. Contribute to others
    1. Show how you choose to prioritize other people, giving from yourself (to a healthy degree) to improve the lives of others.
    2. This is also often an activity that brings meaning and purpose, usually involving social connection and solidarity with people committed to the same cause.
  7. Show gratitude and appreciation. 
    1. I bet there are at least a dozen people in your life who made a difference to you, and they don’t know it.  Or they don’t know how much they mean to you.  Make sure you tell them.  And do the same with your children when they behave well or impress you. 
  8. Apologize
    1. One of the hardest ones as a parent: apologize.  Every parent slips up.  I do all the time, but as soon as I can, I try to apologize specifically for what I regretted and what I’ll try to do instead in the future.  This shows children how to take responsibility for themselves and their impacts on others, and softens any harsh moments they may remember. 
    2. If you live at home with a partner or spouse, inevitably you will get irritated and not always be your best self to each other. Make sure your kids see not just your squabbles but also when you make up and apologize.  This models an important skill for their own future relationships.
  9. Stay connected
    1. Let your child see how you stay connected with your social network beyond a superficial level.  Make a habit of reviewing who is important to you that you haven’t reached out to in awhile; ourfabriq.com is a great tool for doing this. 
    2. And when you do connect, share genuine insights into your life: highs and lows, vulnerabilities, open questions, etc. 
  10. Love and accept
    1. And most of all, demonstrate love and acceptance for who your child is.  If they don’t get it from you, they won’t be able to give it to themselves, and they’ll forever be searching for validation from others, even when it’s unhealthy.
    2. This doesn’t mean condoning misbehavior, but it does mean demonstrating to your child that you value and accept them at a fundamental level and have their best interests at heart. 

Send-off:

  • Remember: socioemotional intelligence is the intelligence most central to our flourishing as humans, and is the least likely to become irrelevant in changing technological futures.
  • Issue two challenges to help bring this home
    • 1. Print out the list of parenting virtues for socioemotional intelligence, and go through them with somebody important to you: could be spouse, parent, child, etc.  Find a domain you want to work on and think of specific behaviors to build this skill.  Use https://www.tinyhabits.com/join if you’re having a hard time making it actionable. 
    • 2. If you have children in your life in whatever form, if you can, schedule a whole day with them one on one, just you and them, and let them take the lead.  Linger on what they want to linger on, move on when they want to move on.  Practice living life at their pace and seeing the world through their eyes.  Also use this as an opportunity to embody whichever virtue you chose to work on.

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