Ten ways Digital Enlightenment will change us and the world around us

In Chapter 1 of our book „Digital Enlightenment“, Ossi and I establish ten basic forces of change in the Digital Age and how we as individuals and as a society will need to adapt in order continue to lead rich and rewarding lives in a world in which digitalitaion and networking have become determining factors. We call this part of the book our „10 Theses on Digital Enlightenment“. Here they are:

Thesis 1: Everything that can be digitalized will be digitalized. Everything that can be connected will be. And that changes everything!

The massive trend towards digitalization has economic roots that reach back to something called, rather imprecisely and confusingly, “Moore’s Law”. What Gordon E. Moore, one of the founders of Intel Corporation, actually formulated back in 1965 was less a law than an hypothesis, albeit one that has remained valid to this day.

Moores “law” simply describes the tendency of digital gadgets to double their capacity approximately every two years. This ability to sustain growth that is exponential (a phenomenon that we will hear more about later) also leads to the halving of costs for digital computing power every two years. More than any other factor such as the elimination of variable costs, this is the cause for the rapid price decline in the market for digital products. This price slide does not only effect microprocessors and digital storage media, but also such everyday devices as refrigerators and washing machines, TV sets and telephones, since they are all loaded with microchips nowadays. And indirectly this also influences the logistical distribution systems and other services these markets depend upon, since they too are increasingly being managed digitally.

As always when markets suffer from massive price depreciation, vendors strive to “cut out the middlemen” by reaching out directly to their potential customers. Global connectivity is the perfect means from them to interact with consumers around the world, as more and more manufacturers, dealers, markets and customers “go digital” to a degree no one just a few years back could have imagined in their wildest dreams. Together, the ongoing digitalization of the economy and the global networks connecting markets and buyers has fundamentally changed the way society – and business – works.

Thesis 2: Digitalization and networking are not like the common cold – they won’t go away!

Digitalization and networking are radically changing not only we live and work, but also how we educate and entertain ourselves, how we makes purchases and do business, and most especially how we communicate with others. Literally every facet of human existence and most human lives are undergoing fundamental upheaval. We must expect this development to continue far into the foreseeable future.

Thesis 3: The digital world is increasingly coming together with the real world. As a result, both are changing at breathless speed.

As developments in technology and business force change onon the economy and on  society as well as on our personal lives, we cannot expect to return to “normal“. This is the „new normal“, since you can’t turn back the clock, especially since we are now up aganst a totally new and remarkable phenomenon, namely the coming together of things digital and physical which used to be squite distinct. In fact, it is becoming increasingly difficult to tell the two apart.

Take navigation aids, which used to simply show us the way from A to B. As the digital world encroaches on the physical, we can now expect our gadgets to use digital information to show us the “right” way. This could be the fastest or the most scenic route, depending on whar we expect and demand. “Augmented Reality” does not simply mean “adding” somethin to it. It also changes our perception and our understanding of reality itself. What we think of as “real” will increasingly reflect a mixture of digital and physical perceptions and experiences, displayed on smartphone or a tablet computer. A new generation of“wearable” devices such as Google’s “Glass” or the Apple Watch will make this happen even faster. Thus we will become more and more accustomed to navigating something best described as the digital “infosphere” that will surround us just like the physical atmosphere of our home planet.

But don’t worry: This does not mean we will all turn into zombies marching helplessly to the drumbeat of our digital masters. Quite the opposite, in fact. However, we do need to increase our ability to discern between relevant and irrelevant information in order to filter out the noise and tune into those sources of information that will enrich our lives and help us become masters of our own destinies. And if this additional informational dimension starts distracting us, we will learn to be strong and smart enough to simply switch it off.

But being disconnecting from the digital infosphere will be like watching an old black and white movie today. Yes, we may even relish the experience as a form of ascetical and esthetical self-denial. By doing so, we will not only deprive ourselves of a (multi)medial dimension but possibly even heighten our concentration on other aspects of perceived reality. But in the back of our minds, we will always be aware that by simply pressing a button we can return to a richer and more satisfying dimension – one in which we will all feel more truly at home.

Thesis 4: Digitalization and networking create new technical, social, cultural and scientific conditions. In order to appreciate these changes fully we first need to categorize them before we can begin to fully describe and understand their new qualities.

We are already at the point where our perception of reality has changed in many ways, as have the conditions under which we experience this new reality. Is a computer game less real than a romp through the woods? Is a love affair on Facebook less rich and exciting that a flirt at the hotel bar? It may well be that digital experiences are based on binary code still influences our assumptions; after all, if the only two possible digital conditions are “on” and “off”, maybe “real” and “unreal” are also just two sides of the same coin. In fact we have already collectively learned that digital information can help us understand the world around us in a more granular and modular way than ever before; without, it is to be hoped, losing sight of their basic unity in the sense of their inherent interconnectedness.

Digitalization and networking obviously influence the way we experience, understand and handle reality. But in fact the conditions under which we do this are also undergoing continual change. The pace is so fast and so dynamic and our own experience of it so mind blowing that we are in danger of forgetting to digest what is going around us, both intellectually and conceptually. The wealth of new developments and experiences in technology, society, culture or science demand and deserve a new way of describing them, a new terminology more suited to the Digital Age. Just as it is difficult to describe Quantum physics using the vocabulary of Newton mechanics, it will be impossible to define the digital world using concepts and phrases originally developed for the Analog Age.

Thesis 5: After 150 years mass media are losing their ability to forge communality and identity. In the process, communication will return to its roots as intrapersonal exchange, albeit through digital media.

Human society is being reformatted as we speak, and as our perception of reality shifts the familiar guard rails and orientation aids that normally help us assess the world around us are becoming irrelevant and obsolete. This affects not only religion and other belief systems, be they scientific or philosophical, but especially the old mass media and their ability to influence society, shape opinions and create identity.

The “New York Times” may still claim to bring us “all the news that’s fit to print”, but actually those days are long over. There are a number of reasons for this, both cultural and economic. Due to a dramatic fall in the costs of disseminating information, mass media are losing their ability to create and influence communality and identity. At the same time, their business models are crumbling, largely due to short-sightedness of the part of publishers and broadcasters who still fail to understand what is has happened, and who lack the vision and backbone to change course in midstream. The daily newspaper is not simply an endangered species; it is irrelevant to a generation of kids who are accustomed to getting all the news that’s fit to read or watch for free and from many different sources: friends, bloggers, news show parodies such as Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show” or social media sites such as Facebook or Twitter.

In addition, audiences today are simply too media savvy to believe in the pseudo reality created daily by the mass media. Can anyone who has watched “Survivor” still believe in star allure? As a result, the degree of penetration achieved by “mass” media especially among young consumers has shrunken to such a degree that they no longer identify in numbers necessary for the producers and actors of such “media trash” to exist much longer – with the possible exception of a few overpaid football players and occasional truly mass events such as the Olympics, the World Series or the Soccer World Cup. The days when people would put off calling home because it was time for the CBS Evening News are long gone.

Mass media have had a god run. It lasted more than 150 years, but economically their business model is is starting to crumble. They will be replaced by the communication needs and habits of the “zoon politicon”, Aristole’s “political animal”; a being wthat can only exist in the singular. As a society we are being cast back on the original function of communication, namely as an exchange – a function mass media are by their very nature incapable of performing. As a result, we are in the process of restructuring society itself as we fall back on the Agora, the marketplace of ideas, albeit organized and transmitted digitally. As mass media fade away and die, we will need to collectively develop the necessary mobility and strength of argument to exist in a digital society.

Thesis 6: Digitalization and networking inevitably lead to massive acceleration and disruption, both in technology and media. Disruption is impossible to control; all we can do is hang on and enjoy the ride.

Prices in the age of digitalization and networking are destined to fall, not simply because of innovation and market forces. These factors will also lead to  a dramatic acceleration in the areas of technology and media. It took approximately 350 years for Guttenberg’s invention of the printing press to give us the first mass-circulation newspapers in the early 19th century. It took the World Wide Web only five years to grow from the brainchild of Tim Berners-Lee into the largest “mass medium” the world has ever seen. And it took only three years for mobile devices to change the way consumers in the U.S. and Europe, but especially in Asia, Latin America and Africa access and use the Internet.

Welcome to the age of Digital Acceleration, where technology and media evolve so fast that business models can’t keep up and in which established products and players can become history almost overnight. The term “disruption” perfectly describes what happens when businesses run collide withsuperfast innovation and when rule changes happen so fast they are left behind in the dust.

In 1942, the Austria economist Josef Schumpeter[1] described what he called “creative destruction” as “a process of industrial mutation that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one.“ Nowhere has he been proven more right than in the Internet Age, where “normal” markets suddenly go up in a burst of innovation which rewrites the rules and forces established brands and corporate giants to adapt – or die!

The iPhone is probably the best example to such a “disruptive technology”, allowing Apple to redefine the world market for mobile telephones and pushing long-established leaders like Nokia and Research In Motion (makers of the Blackberry handsets) to the wall. In less than three years Apple catapulted itself from a newcomer to a market leader and in the process “invented” a completely new mass market, namely the mobile Internet. Formerly the domain of a few techie geeks, online mobility has become an everyday fact of life, spawning an entire industry where suppliers, accessory vendors and service providers ply their businesses. More importantly, the iPhone has created an entirely new lifestyle; one that has influenced the lives and the self-esteem of millions around the world. Today, the iPhone has been described as the “Swiss army knife of the digital age”: an all-purpose tool for all things digital, and more importantly the “original” (something actually counterintuitive in the digital world) that others can only try to emulate.

However, it would be both presumptuous and wide-eyed to think we could accurately predict such disruptive markets (although this hardly discourages so-called futurologists and trend scouts from trying). Twenty years ago, anyone crazy enough to predict that texting would one day become the “killer application” of the worldwide mobile phone industry would have been laughed out of the conference room. And the same applies for those who believe they can “handle” disruption. The histories of enterprises such as IBM, Siemens, Nokia and Sony prove that only those who are able to reinvent themselves in a disruptive situation can hope to survive: In the Age of Acceleration there is no such thing as a second chance.

Thesis 7: Life in such a fundamentally different world will become more complex, but not necessarily more complicated. In fact, it will probably be simpler and less stressful.

For users, such disruptive moments in technology and media actually can be quite enjoyable. Not, that we are able to manage them, but they can make our lives less complicated. If we choose, we can try to understand what’s happening – but we don’t have to.

Understanding what is going on in a world where disruption is going on may not be easy, but it could well be worth the effort. If we manage to come to grips with the changes around us, the reward will be the realization that life in such a fundamentally new reality can be more complex, but not necessarily more complicated or harder. Quite the opposite: Those who understand how to make best use of the results of disruptive innovation or at least willing to try can lead richer and more rewarding lives.

But first, we need to make an extra effort.

Thesis 8: Human beings, too, will need to consider the way they lead their lives. We need to develop the ability to think in a digitally and networked fashion – and in real time.

As the German philosopher and cultural theorist Peter Sloterdijk writes in his book „You Must Change Your Life“ [2] mankind in the 21st century faces the need to “think dangerously”. Essentially, this will require quite a bit of strenuous mental exercise, but perhaps as we sweat on our mental treadmills, we can console ourselves with the thought that our object is to appreciate and penetrate the digital and connected systems which surround us; in fact to function the way the human brain is programmed to work, namely by synthesizing the many different perceptions our senses provide into an (interconnected) view of the world and of ourselves. Human thought, cognitive scientists now believe, works essentially like a computer network.

This does not however mean that the idea of man as a machine (“automaton”), so popular to enlightenment thinkers and cultural pessimists in the past, is true. Instead, we need to understand the similarities between the functionality of networked systems and human thought processes. This has less to do with the concept of “internalization” in the psychological sense and more with “differentiation” as understood by computer scientists – an essentially human form of information processing. The difficulty here lays not so much in the act of processing information but in the ability to cope with the results.

Thesis 9: Concepts and experiences from the analog past are increasingly incapable of providing guidance in a dynamically developing digital future. Anyone espousing them in a debate about the Digital Age will seem increasingly out of time or out of place; helpless, in fact.

There is yet another difficulty we must master before we can seriously debate the future of mankind in the Age of the Internet: Are we culturally and linguistically prepared for what we are experiencing or not? Notions and concepts that date back to the analog age are increasingly incapable of describing what is going on. They appear antiquated, even quaint.

Harking back to the great media and technology debates of the 60ies and 70ies of the last century we quickly see just how outdated they are now. The hot-button issues back then such as commercial television or population census are about as relevant today as the number of angles dancing on the head of a pin. Even New Media are no longer new – or news. And the open-ended issues of data protection and privacy, which has been going through increasingly bizarre permutations especially in Europe, have a distinctly old-world flavor in the age of Wikileaks and NSA. Listening to Jaron Lanier bemoaning what he insists on decrying as “digital Maoism” or when Frank Schirrmacher of the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” complains that his brain is being “mashed up” by Google one can’t help oneself feeling set back a couple of decades – if not centuries.

Thesis 10: We need a Digital Enlightenment: New and original intellectual categories that will help us function as humans in a fundamentally changed world. This is vital if we are to reflect critically and productively about ourselves and our roles in a Digital Society.

Mankind has stood at similar crossroads before. In the 18th century, for instance, ossified social structures and economic shifts forced intellectuals in Europe to fundamentally rethink the rules by which society functions. Caught between the classical logics of antiquity and medieval scholasticism on the one hand, ever-widening cracks in the old order on the other, free thinkers were forced to reconsider the basic beliefs and to adapt to change. It was before this background that the German moral philosopher Immanual Kant penned his admonition: “To think for oneself at all times – that is enlightenment”. Today, the challenge remains the same.

Categories for a New Enlightenment

Through the process of enlightenment, societies in Europe and the New World were able to topple aristocratic regimes, release societies from the bondage of class conceit and guild rules, and formulate the basic Rights of Man that continue to apply today. By casting off their bonds, men and women in the Age of Enlightenment not only set in motion powerful economic forces, but in the process changed the way they viewed the world – and themselves. Today, as digitalization and networking are again changing our perspectives, we once more need to summon up the courage and ability to think for ourselves in order to achieve our full potential and create a world in which we can live peaceful and productive lives as human beings. Humans are very good at adapting to new and changing circumstances; that is why we stand as a species where we are today.

What we don’t need is a protracted and backwards-facing discussion, either among cultural pessimists or techno-romantics. Both alternatives will never help us realize the full potential of digitalization and networking. Neither belief debates, vague conjunctures and hopeful prognosis will help us. Instead, let us talk about the real meaning of digitalization and networking, about the societal, cultural and economic effects and how we can create the necessary categories and parameters to understand and face what is happening today. Neither the worship of rationality for its own sake nor uncritical devotion to the so-called laws of political economy and the psychology of the individual are sufficient here. And tools such as mathematics, informatics, media and communication theory only take us so far. We are in uncharted waters, and we need new maps and compasses to guide us. With them, we will collectively be able to survey the world anew!

[1] Josef Schumpeter: Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, Routledge; New Ed edition (1994)

[2] Peter Sloterdijk: You Must Change Your Life, translation by Wieland Hoban, Cambridge, Polity Press (2013)

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