The Digital Reformation

Braces yourselves, a ‘Renaissance’ is coming!

Martin Luther…will the next one please stand up?

We, as citizens of a world stocked with fruits of centuries of medical invention, do not have to worry about the plague any longer. This is one of the key differences between the Western (and, indeed, global) public as they are in the 20th-21st century, as opposed to how they were in the 14th and 15th centuries. One would imagine that the list of differences between these two cohorts of civilised humanity only began there, and would stretch on to infinity. I’m not so sure.

Our crusades may be colder and more multifarious in their catalysing factors; their relation to the higher elements in their hierarchical societies may have been more avowed. But what relates these two far off generations (or generational clusters) is that they have found themselves at great crossroads; they have found themselves on the land that, from an extreme metaphorical perspective, sits sociologically, culturally and politically between a Tigris and a Euphrates.

In short, they are both peoples born between two seismic poles of human cultural event; the benighted 14th and 15th century folk, fleeing from rats and illiteracy, were the generations between and of the Reformation and the Renaissance, born into or introduced to an almost unfathomable wealth of new socio-political, agricultural and artistic technologies. They were generations empowered on a mass of scale no society had ever concertedly seen before, the godchildren of Gutenberg, freed by Martin Luther, lead into new realms of self-actualisation and self-possession, in coin and letter, by the gains of the respective English and Spanish golden ages that became mercantile and artistic flowers from the soil of the Renaissance.

And that other generational group of people? They, dear reader, are us. It is to my belief that, as of the time of writing in 2016, we are on the precipice of an equivalent age of new possibility and accompanying progress. In terms of disrupting prevailing orthodoxies, the rise of the Net and Digital Culture has proved as subversive as once did Luther’s 95 Theses; it has, to a degree of debatable benefit (as yet, anyway), freed people from all kinds of benevolent and negative tyrannies that once gave regulation to all kinds of culture that they may create and (on a larger scale) consume, and to all social directions that they may plot. It is well on its way to completely refiguring concepts of ownership, to reconfiguring the human life that may now be lived more in abstract than in concrete, LED-asphalt-and-oak reality.

Owing to the comparative dearth of ethnographic account from the time, and shirking from the urge to be presentist, we cannot be sure, but there may never before have been in such a space of time been so severe a disruption of convention as when the Internet was first crafted and socialised, with the crucial reformative factor of the affordable net connection included.

You may have noticed that, so far, we are short of a pole; the Reformation was one thing, a creatively-intentioned cleaning of the slate, but the Renaissance brought new order, form, symmetry and frameworks thereafter to give better vehicle to human thought and effort. Thus far, the Internet gen-cluster have only seen the reformative-equivalent measures. The rest of the road, and the most interesting part of it too, of our very own Renaissance, has yet to be paved. And here’s the rub; the Renaissance was made possible by a concrete and espousable system of human values, light enough to be carried to a man and enriching enough that near enough anyone with a mouth to feed wished to buy into its ideas of faith in human potential, and anyone with the luck of the broadening horizons of public education wished to go deep into it.

The very seeming contradiction of our digital reformation is that its methods can, if not checked, precipitate the decaying of our human values. The responsibility carried by the architects of our next step will not merely be revealing the scope of the role Digital can and will play in giving flight to our humanity; but to show us how our relationship to the Digital need not be a fealty that we pay for by robot-ising ourselves.

This is why a concept of Digital Humanity can only become more vital in the coming decades. Though we are enjoying a rate of technological progress as a society that cannot very well be increased much more, our development into a race both virtual and non-abstract, both terrestrial and digital, can only go so fast. Indeed, the reformation of which I just spoke is itself far from complete. The most important element of it will take on a literal similarity to its cousin from the last millennia, only instead of a divorce of church and state, ours must see the separation of corporation from state.

The most staunch problems in contemporary governance resort from the fact that, not only are our governments and corporate superstructures so closely aligned, but that some of the biggest of those structures are those that have been constructed in the unregulated Wild West of the public Internet — we are held, governed essentially as regards our culture and sociality, by unaccountable megacorporations, great wild aggregates (Google being the name of one) who pursue aims unburdened by aims any broader or more humanised than relentless profit. The internet should be the greatest human tool ever created; the summum of human will, knowledge and potential, designed as means of rising above the simple notions of knowing, timing and location that otherwise necessarily bind us. Run, as it now, without that crucial human compact, the net is a city of banks and fast food joints; relentlessly productive, for nothing. Sublime, but without any homing element; it is a monument only to itself, and monuments you cannot live in.

In the coming years we will see the gradual beginnings of a movement to stamp human essence on the net as an assimilative machine. Digital ethics will give new home, world and employ to untold numbers of law students as people, and companies, begin to pursue a digital muse that interrogates itself morally, all the while opening up possibilities in creation, commerce and research stitched by freed and subsidised software designers and content developers.

We will see, likely through the would-be enfranchisement of the Commentariat, a greater intellectual accountability on the net that — especially as regards news reporting — otherwise may be allowed to be partisan, sentimentalised and, as seen in a liberal new media’s fatally irresponsible extension of a certain man named Donald’s campaign half life in order that they might have someone big and influential to feel smarter than, downright idiotic.

For these efforts we will need and, presuming the calculation of the human dialectic will still works as it always has, will find ourselves at the behest of the guiding figure of an Aquinas, a Copernicus; those who understand that the disruptive elements of the Digital world have ravaged as much as they have enriched, and who can suggest new methods of town planning for our little (and large) digital villagescape to better farm its fields and get on with its growth. The gains of the Renaissance began the spread of means through society, but were still essentially sequestered at the top end; we ourselves are of a means, and of a sensibility forged by historical event, to do ours differently, if we are willing to commit, and commit further to reading that history right.

The net is a powerful tool, and yet it only takes a brief diagnostics collection on how we use it to understand that it is something we have not yet begun to take responsibility for. But this process will soon begin if, somewhere, it hasn’t begun already; it will start, as these things must, with a few. Before the majority of the human race could be thankful for more than a loaf of bread as a luxury, we had begun to slowly, lovingly and dedicatedly develop entities in art, architecture, politics and science that explored the fullest reaches of where we had come as a species. With so much to build ourselves from now, we must begin to develop and then show the reaches of our humanity in the face of these great changes to the way we live.

As it is now, mid-Reformation, our digital universe is of an indeterminate centre (possibly one, it must be said, with an event horizon) with a couple of billion human users drifting without method or reason in the sea of its vacuum and solar winds. As it must be in the future, we must settle its reaches and then move towards the centre of that universe; and at that centre, we must find nothing there more or less than a humble picture of humanity itself. It is somewhere within our reach.