The Impact of Technology on Our Society with Dr. Julie M. Albright

August 04, 2020 Alex Romanovich
The Impact of Technology on Our Society with Dr. Julie M. Albright
The decision to become a digital sociologist
Digital and human integration
The impact of moe on the future of the world
Women in technology
Digital transformation
Digital infrastructure
The Impact of Technology on Our Society with Dr. Julie M. Albright
Aug 04, 2020
Alex Romanovich

Dr. Julie Albright is a Sociologist specializing in digital culture and communications; She has a Masters Degree in Social and Systemic Studies from Nova SouthEastern University and a Dual Doctorate in Sociology and Marriage and Family Therapy from the University of Southern California. 

Dr. Albright is currently a Lecturer in the departments of Applied Psychology and Engineering at USC, where She teaches master’s level courses on the Psychology of Interactive Technologies and Sustainable Infrastructure. 

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Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Dr. Julie Albright is a Sociologist specializing in digital culture and communications; She has a Masters Degree in Social and Systemic Studies from Nova SouthEastern University and a Dual Doctorate in Sociology and Marriage and Family Therapy from the University of Southern California. 

Dr. Albright is currently a Lecturer in the departments of Applied Psychology and Engineering at USC, where She teaches master’s level courses on the Psychology of Interactive Technologies and Sustainable Infrastructure. 

Support the show (

Alex Romanovich (00:00):
Hi, this is Alex Romanovich of GlobalEdgeTalk, and welcome to the edition of July 3rd, right before July 4th of 2020. Today we have an amazing guest, Julie Albright. I'm going to tell you all about it. Hello, Julie.

Julie Albright (00:15):
Hello, Alex.

Alex Romanovich (00:17):
Julie Albright. Let me give you a very quick introduction. It's, you know, when I first saw your posts on Facebook and LinkedIn and other social media and looked at the videos that was about a year ago or so, I was so impressed and I said to myself, we absolutely have to talk. You're a digital sociologist, which is going to be an interesting topic to begin with, to talk about. You are also a faculty member at the University of Southern California, you teach, you're a TED speaker, you're a global lecturer at different conferences, you've appeared on NBC, CNN, Bloomberg. You talk a lot about digital infrastructure, you travel the world and you're an amazing entrepreneur and an amazing teacher. Welcome to our studio.

Julie Albright (01:12):
Thank you so much for having me, Alex. It's great to be with you today.

Alex Romanovich (01:16):
It's exciting to be here with you as well. So many interesting things to discuss. First of all, how did it all start? How did you decide to pursue an electrical engineering degree and degree in other technically related type of fields? And then how did you become a digital sociologist? Tell us more about that.

Julie Albright (01:38):
Well, I'll tell you. First of all, I didn't pursue an electrical engineering degree, but I teach in electrical engineering. So I'll tell you how I got there. How I got there was I started going into a counseling degree, so I have a Master's and a PhD in counseling. And that's what I was doing then: I started seeing people meeting and meeting on the internet. And I said to my dad, this is going to be huge. And he looked at all this, the words scrolling up on the screen and he goes, why would anybody ever want to do that? But I knew it was going to be gigantic. And now walk out on any street corner, anywhere in the world, you're going to see people with their head tip down, looking at a internet connected smartphone, right? So it's become completely mainstream. So from that point forward I spent my career looking at the intersection of behavior and technology, and how those two shape one another. So from that point, I met the former CTO Chevron. We wrote a big grant together for the department of energy and we won it. It's a smart grid demonstration project. It's basically about the digitization of the electrical grid, which brings customers and infrastructure closer together. And we won $121 million grant. So the rest is kind of history,

Alex Romanovich (02:57):
That's impressive. That's amazing. What is your favorite? I mean, you have so many different accolades, you have so many different things you do. What is your favorite activity out of the entire list of things that you do? I am just curious.

Julie Albright (03:16):
Well, when I was in high school, I wanted to write. I had a wonderful English teacher. I was in an AP course a nd we read all the great from The Great Gatsby to Moby Dick, to Shakespeare, everything. AndI said, I'd like to write, and my dad said, you can't do that. I was like, oh, so I went on other pathways and now I have the expertise in sociology and counseling and these relationships to technology. And so I just wrote my first book this last year, and it was named Top 30 book by Bloomberg, Top 30 book of the year. So now I get to write and do what I enjoy and travel the world and tell stories and really shed, you know, spotlight what's changing in society,from the perspective of people's lives, how they're interacting with technology and what difference it makes. And really, I think that helps business leaders to see the future and really navigate where they're going.

Alex Romanovich (04:16):
So tell us more about digital sociologist about that I don't want to call it a title, but it's almost a career, right?

Julie Albright (04:27):
Yeah, it's a career by now. Well, when I saw, as I said, that people were meeting online and traveling to meet each other and getting all excited, I thought and I said, this is going to be huge. I was accepted to the PhD at USC. And when I got there, there was an older gentleman saying, 'We're all about new ideas. If you have new ideas, we love it.' And I'm like, this is awesome. And I ran up to the guy; I said, I want to study the impact of computing on society. And he looked at me, he goes, what does that have to do with sociology? Oh my gosh. So this whole idea, you know, so I was really one of the pioneers of this, the idea that it's not about the technology, it's about the societal impacts and shaping and behaviors.

Julie Albright (05:14):
And if you look now at hardcore technology, let's say cybersecurity, the number one most successful cyber attack is not technological. It's social engineering, it's the human side. So we know that and a lot of failures have to do with the human side. So engineers are starting to realize that now business people are starting to realize that now and that we need to understand that intersection. So now I was kind of way ahead of the wave and the wave is kind of catching up to where I was standing now. So I'm able to, again, shed light and bring insights to people that are kind of unique.

Alex Romanovich (05:53):
I'm in total agreement, you know, as a former engineer by education and actually somebody who developed code for IBM and Silicon graphics and companies like that, then I realized that it's not about technology. It's about how technology is helping individuals, how technology is helping companies. Now you work with a lot of and you talk to a lot of CEOs of companies worldwide. Do they still not get it? Do they still not get the fact that digital transformation, digital and human need to be integrated? And you know, obviously you tell them how they need to be integrated, but then they still not get it?

Julie Albright (06:35):
Well, I think some are starting to get it. I was invited to speak at a big data center and IT conference in New York a couple of years ago. And, you know, I didn't know who was in the audience. I just know it was a tech audience and I was going to bring my ideas and thinking. And I've been thinking about, what I call 'we're coming untethered', that particularly young people are unhooking from a lot of traditional ways of doing things like going to a workplace. You know, they want to work remotely getting married, buying a home, going to church, all these things are changing, and then they're hyper attached to digital technologies. So I brought that message and I talked about what it means and how kids growing up in this atmosphere have a different set of values, a different set of behaviors, and even a different set of ways of thinking because their brains are developing differently than say yours did.

Julie Albright (07:29):
So because they're getting now smartphones and iPads in the bassinet, in the crib as infants. So they're developing different neural pathways in their brain. So I basically gave this talk to these tech guys and guys rushed up to me. One of them was the chief strategist of Microsoft, and at later he said, 'You changed the way I think about what I do.' And he told someone, he goes, she's had more impact on me than anyone in my life in terms of thinking about what he does and what it means. And so, you know, I think that message is starting to get out there now. And again, it's because things like the smart grid where we're attaching digital technologies to infrastructures that we never were attached before, you're bringing customer and these infrastructures together now. So you want to understand that side of it. You can't just, you don't just send them a bill anymore. So that's the change. So you have to understand both sides of the equation, not just half of it. At USC, by the way, Yannis Yortsos coined the term 'engineering plus'. I'm the plus. And bigs engineering plus psychology, engineering plus sociology, engineering plus medicine. And so that's the idea, it's engineering plus, that's the engineering feature if you ask me.

Alex Romanovich (08:49):
As a former engineer, I'm so delighted to hear this. And this is what the previous administration was talking about, we need more of this, we need more of engineering talent. We need more of this in the United States. Even though we have a lot of innovation, we have a lot of interesting companies like Uber and Airbnb and SpaceX and so forth and so on. But we need that skill. We need that talent here as well. Now I'm looking, let me ask you this. I'm looking at my kids. I have a 14 year old and I have a 10 year old, and you're absolutely correct: they are absolutely integrated into their iPads, into their gaming computers and so forth. And then I look at research that says that a lot of the corporate decisions in 10 years are going to be made by these individuals. So what kind of decisions, excuse me, can we expect from this, you know, kids like these who grew up on a very different user experience on totally different experience with technology and so forth. What can we expect from them?

Julie Albright (09:58):
Well, I think that's a great question, Alex. And in my view, we're in a transitional moment between the baby boomers, let's say in the workforce, who grew up without an internet, who grew up in a world without smartphones and iPads and gaming consoles and all that, and the millennials and younger who are now flowing into the workforce, who grew up with an internet and even younger, growing up with what they call mobility, internet enabled mobile devices like smartphones or tablets or laptops. So these kids that are growing up with mobility and the internet they think, and this is, I think this is really insightful, they think the majority of them think they have the right to work remotely. For example, not an ability, a right. So this is the kind of thinking, that's that idea of that untethered workforce that we're talking about, and COVID now is amplified that to everybody having to work untethered.

Julie Albright (11:03):
So we've got an amplification of these trends and a broadening of those trends now out from the digital natives to now everybody. So it's sort of mainstreaming what would have been kind of the hipster edge, you know, these digital kids coming in and say, Hey, we want to be able to work remotely. Now we're all doing it. This is going to reshape business to come. And a lot of companies are now saying, Hey, you know what? We're all in on remote. This is going to change the complexion of cities, it's going to change the complexion of teams, it's going to change the complexion of business. So I think that leaders are going to have to think about the issue is this, as you unhooked from other people, we see in the colleges where I worked in the university, escalating loneliness, escalating anxiety, escalating depression, we have the highest rate of mental illness in 30 years among this cohort of young people.

Julie Albright (11:59):
So it, so point being is the online interactions are not taking the place of the face-to-face. So I think that if we amplify this untethered working that the leaders of the future are going to have to say, Hey, you know what, we're going to bring the team together for an offsite at Lake Tahoe, let's say for five days. So we can really bond and, you know, make s`mores over the fire and chat and have those kind of casual interactions, because you can build upon those on a zoom, but you don't really get those as much on the zoom as you would share the experiences face-to-face

Alex Romanovich (12:40):
I'm in total agreement as well. And you know, I'm concerned that our society is going to absolutely transform into something that's a little bit different. Obviously we're humans, we need interaction, we need teams, we need collaboration, we need that energy, if you will, the team energy being in the same room feeding off of one another. And COVID, you're absolutely correct. What's scary about this is situations like COVID are, you know, making us work remotely, which is okay, but it is totally unbalanced. It is totally unbalanced. Another question that is going to talk more about women in tech. Now you're a woman in technology, you're a woman in sociology and digital media and so forth. Are you is this a challenge still or is it not?

Julie Albright (13:47):
Well, it's a big challenge, Alex. I'm on the board since that big talk I told you about in New York I've gotten to know a lot of the fellows that work and run,and women that run the digital infrastructure that we use every day, companies, like you mentioned before, the eBays and the Ubers and PayPals and Facebooks and all those. And so we have a big diversity and inclusion initiative. It turns out in digital infrastructure, there's only 10% women, 10%. Even though they make up over 50%. And so, and when you start to look at black women, young women of color, I mean, it's so small, it's not even funny. So I'm working myself on education initiatives, on outreach initiatives to reach particularly girls and young people of color at younger ages, because it turns out that particularly girls will start to sort of option out of STEM and STEAM at a young age.

Julie Albright (14:53):
Sometimes even by junior high school, it's much younger than you think, by college it's almost too late in a sense. So we're going to be thinking about that. I'm working on my next book with the guy that ran the digital infrastructure for Uber and eBay and PayPal, his name's Dean Nelson, he will be my co-author. And we're going to talk about this global connectivity, global infrastructure. And hopefully some parents will take a look at that and say, Hey, this would be a great career path for my kid. Interestingly, while a lot of businesses have struggled digital infrastructure, seeing themselves boom, as you can imagine, they're having record days and building and growing and connecting the globe. So this is going to be a great career going forward for young people. So hopefully we can get the word out about that and particularly more women. And, Alex, one more thing I want to add.

Julie Albright (15:47):
Why is that important? Some people think, Oh, that's just political or that's just something nice to do. It's not nice to do. The studies show that companies that have more women in leadership positions and more women on boards, for example, actually do better on the bottom line. I talked to the CTO of Northrop Grumman. I actually teach with them at USC. And he said to me, 'I had one of the first women integrated teams at Northrop Grumman. And we always outperformed the other teams.' He said, because engineering is based upon analogy. And if you have more experiences to draw from, you can come up with more novel engineering solutions. That means more competitive solutions, unique solutions, and that's the winning formula. So it's not simply something nice to do. This is a business advantage and that's the thing we need to get out there.

Alex Romanovich (16:40):
It's not only a business advantage, it's also an advantage for some of the countries that have women as presidents and prime ministers. It has been shown already, you know, countries like Norway, countries like Slovakia and some of the other ones. That you know, New Zealand, they handle crisis better, they handle transformation better, they handle change better. And they do it with a lot less ego and a lot less controversy. It seems than men do. Don't you think?

Julie Albright (17:12):
Well, what management has looked at that research on, management's looked at that and it turns out that women leaders are more collaborative. They're going to ask around the table, what do you guys think? And get the input. And then they're going to synthesize and make their decision. Men tend to be more hierarchical, top down. They're going to make the decision and push it out. And so sometimes that creates blind spots. If you don't get the whole view, you want that person that says, wait a minute, what about? That's why the women on the board thing is important. That woman can say, well, what wait? You know, I saw on Google glass, for example. And I said, right away, I said, well, that's not going to work. And people said in Silicon Valley said: 'Oh, keep saying that, Julie.' I said, I will keep saying that. That is not going to go over with customers. Why? Because it interferes with the subtle nonverbal communication, and people are not going to adapt to that. And that's exactly what happened. So, you know, had a woman like myself being in a team, I would have said, well, so he spent all this money developing all this money marketing for, and then they had to call off the program because you know, it's not an accepted consumer product. I mean, I saw that the second I looked at it, but you know, obviously there were no women on that team. Just one example.

Alex Romanovich (18:32):
That's fascinating. Let's switch some - let's switch the topic and talk a little bit about digital transformation. Huge buzzword. Obviously everybody is talking about it, all the vendors, all the companies, be it a software company, a services company or consultants are using it to their advantage or to their liking, or what have you,many companies because of COVID that had a three year, two year digital transformation plans, all of a sudden had to deliver something in two to three months. Now help us demystify digital transformation. What does digital transformation really all about?

Julie Albright (19:12):
Well, I think that's a really interesting question. I've actually been holding a salon every week since COVID lockdown began to think through where we're at and where we're going. And tonight we're actually talking about the new normal of work. And so I've been talking and thinking a lot about this and what this means. And one thing. So the idea of digital transformation, like you said, that we'll be able to deliver services you know, customer experiences, that equal that of the face to face. And because of COVID now, as you said, the timeline has shrunk from one to two years to two to three months, CIOs are going crazy try to, you know, we got to get online so we can continue to deliver, you know, business continuity. That's the issue. But here's the thing that, you know, the CTO of Chevron and I have been talking a lot about this former CTO and you know, we've been discussing the idea that there's this new digital divide emerging.

Julie Albright (20:15):
You know, you think about the digital divide between those that have and have not internet connectivity. But what's going on now in terms of digital transformation is you've got, let's say the knowledge workers that can shelter in place, you know, their bodies can be protected at home, they're not going out and going into a workforce and potentially getting infected or infecting others. Then you've got the other folks who don't have that luxury, let's say, whose bodies are out there showing up, let's say the delivery driver for Amazon prime, the delivery drivers, the mailman or woman the people who are bringing your food to you for Uber eats, you know, examples. And these people's bodies, the healthcare workers, frontline workers of their various kinds of police and fire and all that. And the doctors, their bodies can't shelter in place. They can't phone it in.

Julie Albright (21:11):
And so they are bodies at risk. So there's something really interesting going on here where bodies suddenly become in somewhat a liability or a risk factor in a new way for companies. So what's going to happen, and this, I will tell you, you're going to see this, and it's already brewing that's that the jobs that can be automated will be increasingly automated. And what I'm talking about is we've already seen this in manufacturing. We've seen robotics sort of wipe out swathes of jobs, right, in Detroit, in the automaking industry, for example. Well, now what you're going to see is we're going to be moving up the food chain as it were of workforce into the white collar jobs. So now you're going to see the HR gal. You're going to see, you know, these sort of benefits people, you're going to see, you know, possibly secretarial or whatever these things may be automated through AI and digitization, machine learning. So that now you're going to work with this digital assistant as opposed to Mary in the HR department. So you're going to see that go up the food chain as bodies become risk factors for companies. They're going to look for ways to lower risk factors, up business continuity in the context of things like a pandemic. So that's already brewing and that's going to amplify over time.

Alex Romanovich (22:38):
Very, very interesting. I have a couple of more questions for you, but it's a fascinating discussion as to what's really taking place in your view of this. Obviously you having - you having a lot of experience looking at the variety of different environments and countries and companies and so forth. So we have a situation where we have the automation of a lot of the jobs processes, almost the entire infrastructure. We have pandemics like COVID, we have companies that are transforming and moving their workers out of the urban areas and not necessarily moving them, but they're giving them the option to move out of the urban areas, which are extremely getting even more expensive because of the state, local governments are not able to provide for the services and the same rate of costs and expenditures and investment and to a certain degree corruption that's taken place, right? So we have all this transformation that's taking place in the society. At the same time, we have companies like Johnson controls and some of the other ones talking about smart cities and how we need to bring ecology and then smart cities together and so forth. Folks are moving out of the smart cities, right? So you know, fast forward 10-15 years give us the rundown what's going to happen.

Julie Albright (24:08):
We need smart talents, in a word. So my big grant with a downfall at the USC Energy Institute was about kind of smart cities and about digital infrastructure around energy and energy conservation. My part was about changing behaviors around those energy conservation behaviors and energy and water. I think that is the future. But you're right, COVID coupled with social unrest is causing people, and that was one of the other calls I made early. The people are going to flee the cities. For years we've seen a trend of urbanization, movement of particularly young people from rural and suburban environments into the cities for the amenities, for the culture, for the coffee shop down the street. But given that density is not your friend in COVID, for example, and the social unrest that's happened in all our big cities.

Julie Albright (25:09):
People are fleeing cities like you've never seen. Also, as you mentioned, the high rents and the high housing prices. Now, for example, companies, and this is one of the big trends when you talk digital transformation, companies, instead of having it be an option or something that's kind of like, well, maybe you want to work from home a couple days a week, companies like Twitter and Coinbase and others are going all in on work from home. So people in, for example, high price San Francisco are saying, what am I doing here? So they're flowing out to Napa, they're going to flow over, a good fella at Google was talking to me, Hey, why aren't I living in Tuscany? So the idea that you're going to live in this beautiful region, do your work remotely and then have a kind of a quality of life, that's enabled by these different places is where it's going to go.

Julie Albright (26:03):
So the key there though is conductivity. Do you have that wifi? Do you have that connection speed to do these kinds of things like we're doing now? Answer in a lot of parts is still no. So we've got things like Elon Musk sending up Starling, Bezos is working on a project like that. Google Loon is sending balloons out to try to bring wifi to these remote places. But if we can get that figured out, that's going to be a game changer where it opens up the possibility to live basically anywhere in a remote community, in a small town, in a suburban or rural area that has the kind of activity that will enable you to do kinds of tasks that you're used to doing in downtown San Francisco. So crack that nut and it's a wrap right there, and young people, again, expect to work remotely. And because of COVID, now these companies are going all in. So think about what that means, what services, what changes when you're moving from the density of the city out to surrounding or even rural regions, what's going to change, what business needs will come in that scenario. That's where the thinking needs to go.

Alex Romanovich (27:21):
Very interesting. Speaking of young people and speaking of young girls, what is your message? What is your advice to young women, young girls who are thinking of a technology oriented or digital oriented type of a career, and looking at people like you and saying, 'Wow, this will be amazing, if I could pursue something like this. What is my investment? What is my path? How do I do this?'

Julie Albright (27:48):
Well, I think that the thing to know about the world of digital infrastructure, for example, I'm involved in a wonderful group called Infrastructure Masons, and we have people that are ready to mentor and guide and so, you know, getting involved with groups like that, we're going to start some chapters at colleges, so students can get involved and then pipeline into a professional career. But I would say that, you know, don't think you just have to be a coder. I know women that are construction contractors that are building these things. You can think about the business side of it, the sales side of it, you can think of every, they call it the full stack, everything from the software to the construction, to the heating and cooling, electricity. So the thing is whatever your interest is, I think there's a place for you.

Julie Albright (28:43):
And so really kind of thinking broadly. And the other thing is, I think for young people to know is there's a lot of opportunity. Hands-On, you know, the trades, the guys at Facebook said, 'Julie, we can't get enough people to build the data centers,' talking about electricians, plumbers, framers, you know, concrete guys, like all these folks. So anything like that is going to be super, well-paid, desirable and steady in the coming years. Those things are hard to automate a way. So for those that have a knack for working with our hands, go for it. That's not, let's say a skill, that's not in use now because we're in a digital era, that's still behind the scenes, more important than ever, and people don't realize that either, I think.

Alex Romanovich (29:34):
What a great advice. Julie, it's been an amazing experience talking to you. It's been a pleasure and the privilege. We want to invite you back, absolutely. Our audience is going to be tuning in. We will post some links of your destinations, your digital destinations, your Ted talk, and links to your projects and so forth on the landing page, so expect that as well. And thank you so much for being with us.

Julie Albright (30:03):
Well, thank you so much for having me. It's been a wonderful conversation.

Alex Romanovich (30:06):
Great. Thank you, bye bye.

The decision to become a digital sociologist
Digital and human integration
The impact of moe on the future of the world
Women in technology
Digital transformation
Digital infrastructure