Part 2: Digital Dynamics
The potential of digitisation
At a recent conference in Berlin, one of Google’s top managers raved about the possibilities of the digital age, saying: “Let’s take a look at China to see into the future. There, customers of online services expect their orders to be delivered within one hour.”
What a sobering thought! Are even faster delivery times for products the extent of the positive effects of the digital age? Or will digitisation open up the potential for a fundamentally new era in the history of mankind, providing us with a new operating system for society and the economy and a new level of thinking needed to solve the existential problems of our day?
From hardware to mindware
I first explored the larger implications of digital transformation when founding a think tank devoted to digitisation and the common good. In this context, I could demonstrate that digital technologies can enable us to build a more inclusive, prosperous, and flourishing future.
The most important turning point for my thinking came when we moved from a hierarchical organisation, with me as the boss, to a leadership model based on self-organisation. In my gut I knew this transformation was not only the result of our new hardware – the laptops which enabled us to work in a much more distributed fashion, from the cafe or our homes. The shift from a hierarchical structure to a flat one was part of a larger phenomenon, a deep transformation that comprehensively influenced our behaviours and subjectivities. Accordingly, I started researching digital dynamics and the evolving digital mindset. What I found convinced me that digital technologies open up a fundamentally new potential for humanity.
These technologies enable humans to organise themselves in a more complex way, express themselves more fully, and gain a more comprehensive and differentiated understanding of the world. In addition, they increase our potential for existential depth; i.e. they allow humans to look more intensively and deeply at their own existence. In the process of evolution we are developing higher degrees of complexity. In short, new technologies can stimulate the creation of new human skills and capacities. These provide us with a new level of thinking needed to solve the significant problems of our day.
This post is about that potential.
The digital impulse
Digitisation has not fallen from the sky. It began as new ideas from a handful of pioneers that opened up a horizon of new opportunities. These tech innovators were often driven by curiosity, wonder, and the sheer joy of creation. Just for Fun is the title of Linus Torvald’s book about how he developed Linux. Tim O’Reilly describes the early days of the World Wide Web in similar terms: “It was all about the joy of sharing your work, the rush of clicking on a link. We were all enthusiasts. Some of us were also entrepreneurs” (O’Reilly, WTF:14).
The experience of joy and excitement is typical for the inspiration stage of an innovation. This is what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi famously described as the “flowstate”, an optimal state of intrinsic motivation, during which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter.
Once original ideas become manifest as structures in the world, they develop a momentum of their own (a process which we will be examining in more detail in the 4th post). Suddenly they are used, adapted, and expanded by many more people: scientists, entrepreneurs, consumers, and regulators. Together we have created a world-encompassing technological infrastructure, consisting of billions of websites, applications, platforms, cloud services, software networks, data centres, and sensors.
This process has a breakneck momentum, transforming not only our economies, material culture, and communication style, but human subjectivities and the awareness we have of the world, of ourselves, and of our broader consciousness.
In 16th century Europe, the Gutenberg printing press paved the way for the reformation, the scientific revolution, and the enlightenment.
In the 19th century, the steam engine and industrialisation opened the horizon for the modern age.
With digital technologies we have arrived at the gates of yet another era, which has been called, variously, the Second Machine Age, the Third Industrial Revolution and the Information Society. Other schools of thought, focusing more on the cultural aspects as well as the new evolving mindsets of contemporary society, are speaking about the Integral Age or Metamodernism. The latter is a cultural philosophy aiming to include and transcend the developments of modernism and postmodernism. Instead of focussing on dialectics, metamodernism aspires to combine supposedly mutually exclusive elements, such as the political left and right, or high- and low-brow culture, into a new meaningful creation.
Characteristics of digital technologies and their potential societal effects
In his book The Inevitable (2016) internet pioneer Kevin Kelly explores the characteristics of digital technologies and the areas in which they impact us as individuals and societies.
He names 12 technological drivers, from “sharing” and “filtering” to “remixing” and “becoming”. I have taken up and modified seven of those, adding one at the beginning (decentralisation) and one at the end (global awareness). From these I derive a set of key terms (marked bold below) which I am going to configure into a graph depicting the spectrum of new structures and behaviours of the digital age. All these forces do not run automatically, they are not deterministic. Rather, they draw a “direction of development”, a certain potential for human development which digital technology opens up.
Decentralisation is one of the key features of digitisation. The internet is a decentralised system: anyone anywhere can build a website, application, platform and link it to the internet, making it accessible to anyone anywhere else. Digital media enable (almost) free communication between an individual and any number of other people or groups anywhere. Anything anywhere can network freely with everything anywhere else.
Value chains change as players organise themselves to create services and products and to exchange information with each other. In decentralised, distributed networks, products and services focus much more on the user. User-generated content blurs the boundaries between producer and consumer, with customers increasingly becoming “prosumers” (consumers who participate as producers in commons-based peer production).
New networked firms such as Uber or Lyft fundamentally challenge established employer/employee relations. With 81% of hosts sharing their own home, AirBnB benefits ordinary people more than large centralised hotel chains. And platforms such as Upwork create new decentralised labour markets, allowing workers from around the world to find on-demand, high-freedom job opportunities.
In the course of digitisation, many hierarchical systems are being replaced. This is apparent in, for example, the Scrum process, in which the management function is replaced by a process manager (the scrum master), as well as in other professional contexts in which management levels are abandoned, paving the way for self-organisation. Tools like Slack or Facebook’s Workplace allow teams to work at a distance, looking over each others shoulder in virtual space. As employees – not only the bosses – in a company are aware of what is going on, decentralised management and situational leadership becomes possible.
In the wake of this differentiation and pluralisation, trust in established, centralised institutions, such as media, regulators, and political parties, is waning. Instead, communities of interest that are geographically distant from each other are forming, giving expression to the “long tail”, i.e. previously underrepresented and voiceless minorities and concerns. New forms of mobilisation lead to large, often leaderless, social movements, such as Black Lives Matter, Indivisible, or the International Campaign to Ban Land Mines.
The trend towards decentralisation also promotes the authentic self-expression of people: we show more of ourselves in the public by blogging, commenting, liking, and sharing. The authenticity experienced in participatory media sets a standard for many other players. For example, many established companies are attempting to be social, trying to meet customers at eye-level. Still these companies have a hard time letting go of control in social media environments. Yet increasingly users can sniff the difference between participating in a natural and authentic online community or being marketed to. Thus companies which have grown out of online communities, such as Reddit subgroups, and are continuously listening to them, like HVMN or Rabbit, have much more credibility.
In the overall picture, we can see a strong development surge away from hierarchical, centralised structures and towards distributed, decentralised structures, leading to a whole new range of human behaviour and interaction.
Digital technologies make it possible to share information like never before. Resources such as computer infrastructure – from networks to storage, applications and services – can be accessed remotely via the cloud. This way music, movies as well as software are distributed widely and used locally by an infinite number of people. In addition, collaboration and co-creation is possible on a mass scale and over long distances.
People can join forces for many large and small tasks:
- to develop new ideas (for example on open innovation platforms such as Open Ideo)
- to finance projects (in 2016, more than 36 billion US dollars were collected via crowdfunding platforms)
- to gather and exchange knowledge (on platforms such as Wikipedia or Patients like me)
- to conduct joint research (on Zooniverse, over 1 million users are contributing to scientific discoveries)
Digital marketplaces such as Tinder, AirBnB, eBay, Uber, Mokobike, or Zhulegequi enable the easy sharing of real-life objects and experiences, from romance, beds, and foam rollers, to cars, bikes, and basketballs. None of this was possible a mere 10 years ago, but it has since created a new way of doing business: the Sharing Economy.
There are two important and subtle side-effects of all this sharing and working together. First, people are willing to extend a whole new level of trust to strangers (moderated by filters and algorithms). Second, we experience the great achievements we are capable of when we join forces. In the 16th century it was the collective ingenuity made possible by the sharing of standardised knowledge through printed books that enabled Europe to overtake the rest of the world in technological, scientific, and economic terms. Today, with much larger parts of the world contributing to the collective intelligence, we should be able to find solutions to our current pressing problems.
The internet is in a continuous process of change. Not only do thousands of new websites, platforms, and services emerge every day, but also the existing ones are constantly updated.
To change them, website providers use narrow feedback loops in which they evaluate existing user data. They also test different website variants (A/B tests). The results are then incorporated into the new software releases. The entire internet economy is moving from fixed products to constantly, and incrementally, updated artefacts. In the old days of Microsoft dominance, software used to be a “thing”, upgraded mechanically at regular intervals. Now it has become a process.
This has profound implications for how we generate and manage knowledge. While standard reference books – in medical diagnostics, for example – manually add new or remove old knowledge with each new edition every few years, on platforms such as HumanDX new knowledge is constantly created by doctors and patients together, both adding information on the platform and constantly updating what is considered canonical.
Bits and bytes change much faster than matter and hardware. This changes our horizon of experience and thus our expectations: we get used to a constant state of “beta” and upgrading. This dynamic experience of the world extends to our biographies; unfolding our potential becomes an important concept in education. Instead of teaching the same, mainly cognitive material to everyone, the focus has shifted to a much more individualised learning path, which includes emotional and social competencies and is constantly updated and adjusted to the actual needs of the learner.
But the same development also influences the material world: 3D printing processes make objects much simpler and more cost-efficient, thus allowing them to be continuously changed.
The internet consists of unstoppable streams of real time content. Digital technologies thus continue the trend of the modern age, in which “all that is solid melts into air” (Karl Marx).
Flowing becomes more and more important: we “stream” movies and music, communicate in real time via email, Slack, Skype, or WhatsApp. All these developments reinforce our sense that everyone has a ubiquitous physical and temporal presence.
We also encounter flowing in the analogue world: with services such as Amazon Prime and Deliveroo we are getting used to ever faster deliveries of material goods (see the Chinese example above). Uber and Lyft create liquid marketplaces for transportation; the world speeds up accordingly.
The view that reality is something static and fixed becomes more fluid, approaching the factual reality that the world is in constant motion. People experience a similar liquidity with regard to their own identity: avatars let them express new facets of themselves. Monolithic identity can be diversified.
This liquefaction also takes place on another level: all information can be dissolved into the smallest components and combined in a new way. By reducing information to 0 and 1, the digital world is extremely divisible and changeable. In principle, anything can be exchanged for anything else. For example, reputation for money, or knowledge for attention.
The default setting of digital technology is “open”, as in open source, open innovation, open standards, open interoperability, open access.
Open source has moved from the fringe to the mainstream and has become the engine of innovation in software development. It allows crowdsourcing of the best talent from all over the world. Today, Microsoft has more stack on Github than any other company, and Google shares TensorFlow, a software library for machine intelligence, open source. As permissionless networks, operating without a central authority, open source software grows faster and more dynamically than networks requiring permission. As Tim O’Reilly writes: “This is a central pattern of the internet age: more freedom leads to more growth.”
Because information in virtual space is so inexpensive (nearly free of charge), because the services either already exist or because copies of goods (information of all kinds) do not generate additional costs in virtual space, the consumers’ relationship with media shifts from ownership to access. People experience that they can use media – music on Spotify, films on Netflix, photos on Flickr – without having to take it away from someone else.
A world characterised by openness and access allows for a larger mental space. Instead of “either/or” we learn to bridge supposed opposites and to experience them as simultaneous and compatible, as “both/and”. With the playing field enlarged, we can make sense out of multiple perspectives that first seem at odds with each other.
At the same time openness reduces the costs of failure. Due to open source hardware and software, new (crowd)financing mechanisms, and 3D printing, prototypes can be implemented and tested much faster. What was incredibly expensive 10 years ago can now be implemented quickly and cost-effectively.
All this makes a reversal of perspective possible: instead of living in a world of scarcity, we are experiencing a world of abundance. We can learn from the possibilities of not thinking about limitations.
For example, Google provides free storage space for each of its 1 billion users. In 1995, this storage space would have cost 15 trillion USD, i.e. each user would have to pay 15,000 USD. Today we use the service free of charge.
Every digital action can be documented. The world community is currently producing 2.5 quintillion bytes of data every day. This (Big) Data, in turn, can be analysed to investigate behaviours and identify patterns. The emergence of the Internet of Things will exponentially accelerate this.
Data serves as a seismograph to detect local and global trends much earlier. Processes and developments become transparent, as do people and organisations, to an extent previously unknown.
Collecting behavioural data will affect all areas of our lives. Already today digital products undergo a “build-measure-learn”-cycle, during which user data serves as a crucial feedback mechanism. This experience will become much more individualised: curricula are tailored to our individual learning experiences, medicine to our personal needs.
With tracking data analysed and made available to them, humans gain an additional level of perception; many areas of life can suddenly be “objectively” experienced. Self tracking enables a new (or recovered) form of self-contact and self-knowledge.
For example, Free Style Libre, a body sensor allowing diabetic patients to measure their glucose levels regularly, enables them to get to know their bodies better. Via the objective sensor, patients develop a more subtle perception of their bodies, noticing more quickly when their blood sugar levels are rising and they need insulin.
Inter- and hypertextuality is one of the central features of digital technologies. Individual elements can be taken apart and reassembled as required.
This way, things lose their unambiguousness. When things are obviously no longer simply themselves, our ability for meta-reflection is enhanced. We are more able to think in larger contexts (both/and) than in simple pairs of opposites (either/or).
In the remixing process, apparently opposing elements are joined. This reconfiguration of opposites is a guiding principle behind the theory of metamodernism. In their Notes on Metamodernism (2015), cultural theorists Robin van den Akker und Timotheus Vermeulen describe this by means of examples referring to our attitudes. Thus typical metamodern attitudes are “informed naivety” or “pragmatic idealism”. Also, irony takes on a new significance: while in postmodernism irony often serves as a distancing device (as everything has been deconstructed, nothing seems of much value), metamodernists use irony in a way that both acknowledges the falsity of all absolute truth claims, and deeply cares about the questions at hand.
The same stance can be found in the highly popular meme culture, where a graphic representation of a key moment or quote is freed from its original context and designed to be shared online for impact. Most memes are remixes and reinventions of some original thing. The reinventions create a phenomenon called “meme drift”, i.e. they can be understood by those who see them because of the shared experience of seeing and understanding the original text-image combination. As Seth Abramson writes, memes are metamodern “because they create an instinctive feeling of understanding even when they can’t logically be broken down into their parts.”
Cognification /Artificial Intelligence
Cognifying is Kevin Kelly’s name for the development of upgrading, improving and reinforcing all digital systems with artificial intelligence. For him, AI is like electricity: everything that could be electrified was electrified. Today, everything that can be improved with AI is supported by it.
Due to the increasing competence and use of algorithms and AI, more and more of the capabilities that we have attributed to human beings are being taken over by machines. This will redesign our image of what a human being is and what distinguishes us from other forms of existence.
Even now, machines can do many things better than humans. But instead of robots and machines replacing human beings in the future, it seems more likely that we will develop new kinds of intelligence. We will get a more precise picture of what really distinguishes us from machines. Is it our empathy? Our creativity and intuition? Our connection to something bigger, even sacred? Our consciousness?
Vis-à-vis an alleged threat by “superintelligence”, it might well be that our identity as “humanity” will be sharpened – just as the arrival of aliens in sci-fi films makes mankind aware of its unity (before all differences). In other words, more people may develop a world-centric view of the world.
Many people talk about the internet as a “global brain”. No other technology has ever connected so many people together before. At the same time, the network is a seismograph of all developments worldwide. With the mobile revolution, every human being has potentially the whole world in her pocket.
Through social media we develop an “ambient awareness” of world events and the activities of people known to us. I know what my 100 or 1000 Facebook friends are doing. The theory of “six degrees of separation” has become much more comprehensible, as we ourselves experience on a daily basis how interconnected we have become.
HBO Voyeur Project
The access to information from all over the world opens up the potential for humans to develop a more world-centric, multi-perspective worldview. In the postmodern era, the diversity of human forms of expression became central. In the current digital age, we can develop a meta-perspective on diversity; we can organise and categorise it. This creates an integral perspective (what we mean by this will become apparent in the next post).
But let’s not fool ourselves. Global perception, like all the other digital principles described here, exerts enormous mental and emotional pressure on each individual. It is impossible to adequately host and process this diversity, abundance, speed, and movement within us. Some of us can cope better than others, but anxiety, disorientation, and overstrain are widespread.
But if we don’t switch off artificially, or let ourselves be flooded, we are forced to take in more information and sensory impressions. The accompanying growth pains of disorientation and anxiety so many of us experience (often diffusely), pressure us to increase our mental scope and our awareness. They invite us to keep an eye both on individual aspects of our surroundings as well as the whole world-system. If we choose to remain open and let the world touch us, our cognitive capacity expands, (i.e. we will know more about the world), as well as our emotional space (we will be more empathetic to others who suffer).
Ideal types and the diversity of today’s digitisation
If we accept the cultural, economic, and social dynamics described above, the following picture emerges: while some elements of digital technologies are potentially dystopian (more about that in a minute), they hold a potential for a large range of progressive qualities and phenomena, from co-creation and transparency to multiperspectivity and world-centric consciousness. These qualities – marked bold in the text above – could be key for the new operating system we are looking for.
The graphic above shows these positive, prosocial tendencies of digital technologies. This is in line with our basic approach, which is to think from a potential angle, not from pathologies or limitations.
At the same time, it is clear that these positive, prosocial possibilities are often not realised. Rather, we see a wide range of uses in the world; some fulfil the potential outlined here, while others use digital technology for purposes that are sometimes diametrically opposed to positive, prosocial purposes.
All the trends outlined above have countertrends. And not only countertrends. More often than not the potential of a digital tool gets watered down or reduced during the process of its manifestation. I will go into this downgrading in more detail later, but for now, let us just be aware that a potential is only that, a possibility, not a certainty. The technology can just as well be used to cement the status quo and serve less inclusive and complex ends, depending on circumstances, the mindset of the innovators, entrepreneurs or users.
In this sense we can observe today how large tech companies use digital technologies to maximize their profits at the cost of possible positive and prosocial goals. Having identified advertising as their main finance mechanism, companies such as Facebook develop strategies that involve “deep surveillance, emaciated work force, automation, and the use of algorithms to find and highlight content that entice people to stay on the site or click on ads or share pay-for-play messages” (Zeynep Tufeci). Instead of appealing to our higher brain functions, they speak to our lower brains. Many consequences follow: the proliferation of filter bubbles and a tendency to present us with more and more extremist content (for example on YouTube), which algorithms have learned leads to more viewing time. Looking at the users, we see how social media bring many latent regressive attitudes and tensions in the population – racism, nationalism, sexism – to the surface more quickly, making parts of the public online discourse increasingly crude.
The same phenomenon will also be true in the future. Even if new technology is able to fulfil its potential, it will automatically develop new pathologies. That’s why any naïve techno-optimism is out of place. Technology may help us solve part of our current challenges and dilemma. At the same time, however, it will create its own new problems. This is the hallmark of evolution; each new level brings with it new pathologies that the next generations will have to tackle.
At the end of this post, let’s look at a concrete example for this mechanism. Earlier I wrote that digital technologies lend themselves to decentralisation. Historically, as Timothy Wu has described in his brilliant book The Master Switch, decentralisation itself seems to be a typical trait of every new information age.
Over time, however, the landscape consolidates and new monopolies emerge. In the internet age, we see how centralised platforms are establishing themselves (see Google, Facebook, Amazon), which make it easier for users to find their way around in the unmanageable diversity. These companies, having identified advertising as a financing mechanism, develop pathological strategies, some of which we have mentioned in the paragraph above.
However, these monopolies are themselves undermined by even newer technologies. For example, the blockchain — the digital ledger in which transactions are recorded chronologically and publicly — amounts to an even more radical decentralisation; it seems plausible that in future many central institutions will be replaced by “trustless trust” protocols through which actors organise themselves. These could replace banking institutions with 2P2 cryptocurrencies, but also P2P social media platforms.
In the next post it’s time to place the digital dynamics into a larger historical context. They represent a new and next stage in human development. Already today we see many of these elements in companies, programs, and initiatives at the evolving edge of our contemporary transformation. But in order to understand them, we need to explore where we are coming from and where we are going.
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As far as necessary, all rights to the images used here have been clarified with the artists or producers. For some images I have paid a small amount of money. For others I made a donation to non-profit projects in agreement with the artists. However, most of the creators agreed that their works are used here free of charge. I’d like to express my gratitude to all of them.
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A few key references:
Kevin Kelly, The Inevitable, 2016
Tim O’Reilly, WTF? What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us, 2017
Seth Abrahmson, What is Metamodernism?, 2017
Robin van den Akker, Timothy Vermeulen, Notes on Metamodernism, 2015
Rachel Botsman, Roo Rogers, What’s Mine is Yours: How Collaborative Consumption is Changing the Way we Live, 2011
Eli Pariser, The Filter Bubble, 2011
betterplace lab, Trendradar
Timothy Wu, The Master Switch. The Rise and Fall of Inoformation Empires, 2011
Andreessen Horowitz, a16z Podcast