Skip to main content
Feedback

Welcome to Bloomington!  It’s great to be in the middle of all this creative energy, during all of the idea-sparking and -sharing that’s happening here at the Combine. I want to thank all of the folks who have been bringing us the Combine for almost a decade now--the Humanetrix Foundation--President Denise Alano-Martin.

If you were here last year, I shared some interesting facts about Bloomington -- first and last color television made in America. Limestone Capital. 2nd largest collection of sexually explicit material in the world, etc. But this year I want to highlight something else, not unique to Bloomington, but important.

Most of us know that technology and innovation have been contributing to the well-being of our species for a long time. Consider primal technology, like making and using tools for agriculture, or domesticating animals, which reduced raw human labor and contributed to our productivity and supported civilization itself.

Each technological advancement -- even some of our earliest, and most foundational -- no doubt brought repercussions and probably some hearty apprehension.  I imagine a reaction to a rudimentary plow or seed planting tool -- “this doesn’t feel right, I’ll lose my connection to the dirt and earth.”

Think about Greek mythology, and the story of Prometheus, who stole fire from the Gods and gave it to humans. A big step for us mortals, indeed...but poor Prometheus. Symbolic of scientific inquiry, of creativity and technology, the Gods sentenced him to eternal torment, daily having his liver eaten out by an eagle, growing it back each night to suffer again tomorrow. [A side note, Mary Shelley subtitled her great novel Frankenstein, The Modern Prometheus]. We can go on thru the Industrial Revolution and Transportation and logistics and Information Revolution and AI and on to today.

Technological breakthroughs fundamentally enhance human life. But we’re all aware of the robust counter-narrative that runs alongside -- let’s call it the “West World” or “WALL-E” scenario (or Frankenstein).  This counter-narrative excavates the shadow side of technology for its potential to summon a dystopia where humanity is edged out by machines, the “robots have taken over,” and the Earth becomes barren and uninhabitable.

In this counter-narrative, in order to reclaim our humanity, we overthrow the machine culture, and strip things back, returning to a handmade aesthetic and a simpler, natural lifestyle. We’ve seen this narrative played out in the media, and human history--

Writing, and literacy were long the province of the very few.   As literacy grew, the great philosopher Socrates warned it would “create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories.” That was 2,500 years ago.

Or take the printing press. Swiss scientist Conrad Gessner tried to make an index of all the books in print, was flummoxed, and concluded that this information overload was “confusing and harmful.”  This was in 1565.

During the Industrial Revolution, artists, poets, novelists and musicians in the 1800s sought refuge in thatched huts, and went back to the land, rejecting the machine-made and the store bought --  the Arts and Crafts movement in England grew, and similar trends across Europe (naturalism in painting, romantic composers seeking out folk music, and the like.

We saw it in mid-20th-century US as well, when the Atomic Age/Space Age/period of great affluence and mechanization after WW2 spawned the hippie movement/back to the land movement/vegetarianism/counter culture, communes and other intentional communities

The list goes on. Predictably…with each advancement, there is reaction, recoiling...

But as this room full of innovators, makers, and entrepreneurs know: we’re dealing with a false dichotomy here. The narrative of innovation and the narrative of humanism are not mutually exclusive, but intertwined, and in fact symbiotic. The point of innovation and technology is not to finesse the role of humans, but to enhance and enrich human existence.  

The shadow side of technological advancement is not just a myth. Technology can and has led us astray--

-Consider what we have done to our habitat and our planet, including climate change,  in the name of getting places fast and exploding consumption;

-Consider the health issues deriving from our more sedentary lifestyle, with our gadgets and machines, and our modern diets from factory farms and highly processed Wonder Breads and the like;

-And yes, hazards of the screen age:  a compromised attention span and memory, and the isolation and depression that can result from living in a world mediated by devices and preempting actual encounters.

But when we consider some of the most significant innovations -- from the wheel and the printing press, to the steam engine and the vaccine, to the airplane and the Internet -- we concede that we can’t imagine life without them.

By this point, I imagine you might be like, Mayor OK, what else is new, thanks for the message, we know. Maybe you’re even thinking, hey is it possible that Artificial Intelligence could replace most of our politicians before too long? A robot mayor?

But here’s the thing, and here’s where Bloomington comes back in. All these technological advances have indeed re-assigned manual and rote aspects of our daily human lives to the machine world -- from brute heavy lifting, digging, hauling, stitching, to tedious computations, compiling, cataloguing, to higher level processing, analyzing, problem-solving and more. Freeing us from enormous drudgery, pain and risk, helping billions live better lives, and allowing more of us to do more of what humans do best, and most happily.

There’s the rub. As technology replaces more and more of our former activities -- what DO we do best and most happily? That’s when it’s good to be in a university city, a place full of young people (and older people) trying to figure out what life means, and what’s important, and how to find a path. A good education isn’t just about gaining tools and skills. It’s about learning what’s important. It’s about awakening our passions. It’s about learning to love. And pursue justice. And to LIVE. It’s in communities like this that we all, in our very human, non-robotic mortal bodies, find out that we want to dance, or sing, or play a cello, ride a bike or a scooter, read a poem and hunt for morel mushrooms, settle a family dispute, brew craft beer, rock-climb, knit a blanket for a new baby, shoot a basketball, overcome an addiction, cook a meal for friends, tell a story, laugh long and loud, or oh so many other activities we tend to enjoy here in Bloomington.  

So let’s re-do that West World, WALL-E, Frankenstein scenario, shall we?  Instead of hurtling inexorably toward a world where humans are less relevant or are cogs, perhaps, if done right, technology can help deliver us BACK to our humanity, to restore our humanity. To revive our basic humanity.

The best innovators these days are doing exactly that. Those who are “innovating with intention” are using high-tech to create economic equity, steward natural resources, and forge stronger social connections.  Innovators like Goshen, Indiana native Max Yoder, whose Indianapolis-based tech company Lessonly builds software that trains teams to work smarter and communicate better.   Whose corporate North Star is the notion of “unlocking human potential.”

Started in July 2012, Lessonly has grown from four to one hundred employees, 1.5 million learners, and more than 550 paying customers. In 2015 the company was named Tech Startup of the Year by TechPoint’s Mira Awards, which honor the best of tech in Indiana.

Yes, with Lessonly, Max Yoder has developed some of the world’s most popular team learning software. And here he is speaking at a forum of high-tech entrepreneurs and software designers. But when you learn about him, you realize this guy is no gearhead, who speaks in code. When he explains team success, his response is qualitative instead of quantitative. Yoder speaks to intangibles like creating psychological safety within the workplace by practicing vulnerability, avoiding perfectionism by sharing work product among the team early and often, taking ownership and initiative, sharing gratitude, and leading by example.  Max knows that greater efficiency and higher yields start with creating a positive company culture.

A 2010 graduate of Indiana University, Max is also founding director of the Brighter Indianapolis Fund, which donates time and money to youth-focused nonprofits in Indianapolis. This is innovation in the service of humanity, reviving humanity.  Please join me in giving a warm Combine welcome to Max Yoder.      

Speeches