CYMA CHATS WITH: Ayesha Khanna, co-author with her husband, Parag Khanna, Hybrid Reality: Thriving in the Emerging Human-Technology Civilization

Hello. I’m so pleased to be interviewing you today – I’m in dire need of “technology updating!” While I’m by no means a computer dork, I’m certainly having trouble staying abreast of current technologies. I think I can easily speak for our readers in saying that I hope we’ll all learn much – if not for our kids – then for us.  Please remember that many of us are close to being or are one generation removed from the “Baby Boomers!” With much on our plates, learning about Internet-related technology becomes one more “thing” we need to cope with in our already (over) stressed lives!

How did your tech journey begin?

When I first came to the US for my undergraduate education (I grew up in Pakistan), I was primarily interested in economic development and human rights, having volunteered both in villages and in jails. At Harvard, friends introduced me to the beauty of science, technology and mathematics. And even though I became deeply entrenched in technology and innovation strategy in my career, the principles of equity, justice and access that were fundamental to my earlier interests always underpinned by approach to technology. Now I see access to technology as a basic human right.

I was fascinated to read in your press materials that you travel over 300 days/yr. advising governments and companies all over the world. This passage about you, “They own almost nothing, rent everything, and in 2010 donated several thousand books to New York area libraries. In many ways, Ayesha is a role model for the post-material global nomad entrepreneur-intellectual. All this time on the road also means the Khannas use technology extensively in their children’s educations – (they) believe they are preparing their children for success by doing so,really resonated with me. Please tell me more about your chosen lifestyle.

Parag and I really enjoy traveling, primarily because we meet the most incredible people on our journeys. Somehow, our children love traveling too (our 3 year old daughter’s favorite game is her taking a suitcase and us role-playing a journey that starts with going to the airport, landing in a country, and then going on a grand adventure – usually to rescue a little puppy who seems to be perennially lost).  The bottom line is, I don’t like leaving my children when I travel so I almost never do, especially because they like visiting new places as well.  We try to tell them about the places where we’re going: we watch videos on YouTube that illustrate the city’s language, culture, dance, and sights. We also make crude maps by hand and our daughter has to guide us as we walk around the city.  Let’s just say progress is quite slow in those cases, and we end up running with the stroller to our appointment. All this is interspersed with flashcards, math quizzes, and Hindi lessons (mostly on the iPad, many of them tailored by me), which are usually resisted to the utmost! Right now, our kids are very young (our daughter just turned 3 and our son is 5 months) but as they grow older, we’ll have to figure out how to divide time between their school at home and camps internationally on a regular basis. I stayed in the same school almost all my school life so I’m very conscious that they need stability and consistent friends. Luckily, with a connected world, I think that will be very possible and hopefully, they’ll have a strong support group of international friends.

You’ve been branded the “Tech Tiger Mom!” What does this mean to you?

I am a strong believer in making technology a fundamental part of the emotional and educational development of children. In fact, I insist that it’s necessary if we want our children to be equipped to deal with a coming hybrid reality in which technology is a significant partner to humans in society.

Many of our children are “Generation Z” – today’s toddlers and tomorrow’s leaders. Much of your (‘s and our) focus remains on their success in this new world. Can you address this?

Today’s millennials (or Generation Y) are referred to as “digital natives,” but it is Generation Z (today’s toddlers) for whom the flux of hybrid reality will be normal. Today they play with coins and keyboards; tomorrow those will be artifacts. “Something has changed in the relationship between young and old,” the futurists Alvin and Heidi Toffler wrote. In the Hybrid Age, we need translation across generations more than across cultures. Each of us has a biological age and a technological age ¾ often in inverse proportion. Much like product generations, today one biological generation can contain four or five psychological ones with respect to technology. It is the young who are the earliest adopters of new technologies and develop fluency in their techniques and idioms, and we must educate them on how to use these technologies productively and responsibly.

 It appears as if the wave of the future will primarily involve the Internet – tech school will be the new home-schooled. (English speaking robotic teachers are putting English teachers out of jobs in Korea.) This is frightening to many of us, esp. midlife mothers, who are clearly of another generation. Please address our (many!) fears.

I think instead of being frightened, we should be very excited for our children. They are entering a world where they will have a wealth of knowledge, much of it available at little or no cost, to them. Plus, they can connect to other like-minded children and together create interesting projects and convivial communities for themselves. A robotic teacher is possibly every bit as good at basic education as a human, and can potentially provide a nurturing environment for children, who anyway have been found not to have reservations against machines the way adults do.  Here’s one thing we should be frightened of (and by the way, it’s the exact same thing our mothers and grandmothers and great-grandmothers feared for their children): focus and self-restraint. How does a child learn to be focused in a world of infinite distractions? Part of the answer lies in discipline, but possibly a larger part now lies in finding activities for them that are interesting and stimulating and that involve other children. For example, is a recent startup, which provides an online community for children to exchange objects they have constructed themselves. Putting together a crude robot can happily occupy a child for some time, while at the same time teaching her the fundamentals of physics and engineering.

While much of what you say makes sense, the de-emphasis of (the amount of time spent with) outdoor play and the continued lack of interaction with other children quite frankly frightens me. As the daughter of an optometrist, I’m constantly hearing about how our children are becoming unnecessarily (esp. visually) stressed; their autonomic systems being over-taxed. How do you respond to this?

Cyma, outdoor time and face-to-face interaction with other children are absolutely essential!! This is exactly the wrong way to use technology: to use it as a substitute for sports, play and socializing! Technology should be used in appropriate doses and ways to help make those very activities more educational, collaborative and fun. My philosophy is that children learn through experiences in which they are creative, and technology can help in this goal. So, for example, I’d prefer if my kids didn’t watch a lot of cartoon videos, and at the same time, I’m not going to pressure them to become expert video makers either.  Increasingly, intelligent machines will take over such jobs like programming and editing. Our children need to learn how to be designers and feel comfortable directing machines.

So instead, we’ll all go out into the sunshine and play in the sandbox, and then make a fun movie out of it on my iPhone and edit it on the Mac, adding music and text. The point is that they begin to get an intuitive feel of the capabilities of technology, how it works and how it can be directed. This means you don’t do it for them. You sit there and go through the often frustrating experience of letting children make mistakes, mess things up, and then create their own mashup of a 3-minute film. Often, the end result is really cute and sweet, and kids love to share it with their grandparents and aunts and uncles. The challenge is not that Moms don’t get technology; it’s that this kind of education requires time because our schools have not designed a curriculum based on educating in this manner. I would say even if you only did one or two of these activities over the weekend, you’re already on your way to incorporating technology in a productive healthy way in your children’s lives.

With so little free time in my life, how would someone like me stay abreast of the Internet and its technologies?

I would say it’s important to read a magazine like Wired (GeekMom and GeekDad) or Fast Company on a weekly basis. That’s all it takes to begin to familiarize oneself with the language of technology and with new technologies that are emerging. I always find newsletters such as PSFK and BigThink fun and interesting, and they come directly to your inbox everyday. I wouldn’t worry too much about knowing every invention that appears in the market. Just read a few stories a week and you’ll find yourself automatically drawn into the interesting world of new technologies. Plus, remember a lot of it will resonate with you based on many of the gadgets you’ve seen in movies like Avatar.

I’m pleased to understand that your work involves the necessity for knowing and understanding the global nature of our new world. How do you view the intersection of this with ever-changing facets of it all?

The great disruptive global trends of the 21st century ¾ the shift to multipolarity, shrinking of space, economic convergence, and new forms of collaboration ¾ all have technology at their root. So if we’ve all come to take globalization for granted, we certainly have to understand technology as well. The Hybrid Reality Institute helps organizations to figure out which technologies can help improve their performance. We think of ourselves as “techno-sherpas”!

 Finally, what one message would you like to leave with our (midlife mother) readers?

I know we’re all stressed for time. But just like we make sure our children are well-fed and well-educated, we need to make sure they have not just good IQ and EQ, but TQ – technology quotient, that is, they understand how to use technology in a productive and responsible manner. If we want our children to be successful when they are older, we have to introduce them to these technologies today.  This means the soccer Mom now also has to be the tech Mom. We drive them to soccer practice and we drive them to the local hackerspace; we buy them the latest Nike shoes and we buy them the Lego Mindstorms kit; we take them to the neighborhood Bar Mitzvah and we also take them to the Second Life virtual party.  We have to divide our resources and our time to find the space for a relationship with technology; otherwise, our children will not have the emotional or skill capacity to deal with the coming hybrid reality. 

Ayesha Khanna is Founder and Director of the Hybrid Reality Institute, a research and advisory group focused on human-technology co-evolution. Her new book (co-authored with her husband Parag Khanna) is Hybrid Reality: Thriving in the Emerging Human-Technology Civilization (TED Books, 2012), available at —