Car Culture

Driving change: Ian Somerhalder says we need to 'humanize tech'

From CNET Magazine: By day, Ian Somerhalder plays a supernatural antihero on the popular TV series "The Vampire Diaries." The rest of the time, he's an activist and entrepreneur working to remind us what it means to be human.

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While many of today's millennials prefer hailing a ride-sharing service to owning a car, the generation after that might not even learn to drive if the promise of self-driving cars becomes reality.

That should make Ian Somerhalder happy. When he's not starring as Damon Salvatore on TV's "The Vampire Diaries," Somerhalder is an outspoken advocate for conservation and green energy. Self-driving cars, which aim to reduce the number of vehicles on the road, play into the green-tech movement Somerhalder cares so deeply about.

Even so, Somerhalder says he's taking a cautious view of automated vehicles. "I'm so wanting it to work and be flawless, but I'm also so aware of how tech fails," Somerhalder, 36, says on a break from filming in Atlanta. "Unmanned cars and drone technology are really going to change the world in a very expedient manner. I just hope we have our heads screwed on straight and that the people who are really going to benefit financially are not buying and selling our policymakers."

His concerns stem from watching what happened after his home state of Louisiana was hit by the devastating Gulf oil spill in 2010. Raised on the bayou by parents who taught him to appreciate its fragile ecosystem, he started the Ian Somerhalder Foundation to educate people about the environment and green energy. (LED light bulbs are a passion.) And he uses Twitter (he has almost 6 million followers) to raise awareness on the issues. His foundation plans an education center and animal sanctuary in Louisiana where kids will learn about the world around them -- and how they can effect change.

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"We need tech and we need smart governance in tech," he says. And while he applauds social media, he believes we should rein in our always-connected lives. "If we just build the next generation to be hyperaware of their use of technology and remain human, we're going to be OK."

Somerhalder spoke with Connie Guglielmo, editor in chief of CNET News, about growing up in the bayou, social networks' ability to prompt activism and why he is staying behind the wheel for now. Here are a few excerpts from their conversations.

What compelled you to start an educational foundation?
My parents showed me at a very young age that when we take too much from the environment the result is catastrophic. Without a perfect balance between man and nature, man can't live effectively.

Cut to 2010. Seeing the BP oil spill really galvanized my need for immediate, well-thought-out but aggressive action. I felt so helpless, as many of us did. It was destroying my backyard, one of the greatest bodies of water on the face of the planet. Once I raised my voice, I realized there were millions of other voices echoing the same idea I was screaming, which is it's time for change.

What do you hope to accomplish?
If we can restructure the corporate mindset, where it's not just about shareholders -- where it's actually about reinvesting into communities, education, the environment -- you will actually see significant change.

Our greatest untapped natural resource ... is our youth and if we just give them the tools to go into the future, we'll be OK. The three biggest things missing in the world, which will make it better, are reverence, gratitude and compassion. Those are things that you can't teach. You have to show them. The only way you get that is through experience or learning.

If we can just build that next generation to possess those three amazing qualities [through] innovation and education, we will literally build the next generation of the most compassionate, grateful, innovative, intelligent people the world has ever seen. And we'll dig ourselves out of this hole.

How is tech helping you with this mission?
The amazing thing about the tech world, when you look at, say, social networking and social media, is that they allow us to transfer information literally at the snap of a finger.

Egypt changed because of social networking. The Googles of the world, the Facebooks of the world, the Twitters of the world, even the Instagrams of the world, are allowing us to use tech to transfer information, to educate people and tell them what's happening right now.

However, we've become so reliant on tech that we no longer rely on each other. It breaks my heart sometimes when you sit at a restaurant and you see a husband and wife and their two kids texting at the table -- sometimes the kids are just texting each other. We don't talk to each other.

We just have to be very careful that even though technology is supposed to bring us together, it's starting to separate us. If we just build the next generation to be hyperaware of their use of technology and remain human, we're going to be OK.

Self-driving cars is "an ingenious idea, but it also is tech," says Somerhalder. "I'm so wanting it to work and be flawless." Ian Derry

You're a fan of electric cars because of your passion for green energy. But you're cautious about self-driving cars. Why?
You have on one side people [who] say taking reckless drivers off the road and putting unmanned cars that are proven to be safer [will] hopefully diminish the amount of accidents and fatalities. Let's talk about that. Clearly it's an ingenious idea but it also is tech. Tech does fail. If tech fails on your iPhone, if Maps goes out, you're going to be OK. But when you start talking about tech that involves weight at velocity, it's a whole different story.

I'm so wanting it to work and be flawless. But I'm also so aware of how tech fails. I just got married, and we want to have children relatively soon. I'm just thinking about being at work and my wife being on the way to the set with our kid or kids and dogs in the car at a stoplight totally aware of what's going on. And some unmanned car is coming by and there's a glitch in the system or there's a firmware issue or there's a satellite issue. Anything new like that is a bit scary.

I would love to see how this unfolds. But I just beg ourselves not to rush into it. Unmanned cars and drone technology will change the world in a very expedient manner. I just hope we have our heads screwed on straight and the people who are really going to benefit financially are not buying and selling our policymakers.

You've said we have to be careful our tech won't turn us into zombies. What's your thinking?
When you look down at your phone and it says 3G [service], and you say, "Oh, my God, it's just 3G," that is a disease. That is a 21st-century disease. That is not a good thing that we get so impatient. That trickles down to how impatient we are with our animals, with our kids, with our teachers, with people in traffic.

I was texting with my management about something and I was really frustrated and in a rush, and I walked into a pole and whacked my head. I didn't get angry. I just said, "Case in point. Slow down. You don't have to accomplish everything at the same time. This is ridiculous. Take a breath. It's going to be OK."

Silicon Valley is never going to tell you that. It's up to you to figure it out.

As much as I love trees and getting on my horse and walking in a field with my wife, I live for tech. I live for it. It's the future. I just want to humanize tech and I want tech to humanize us.

This story appears in the fall edition of CNET Magazine. For other magazine stories, go here.

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