Dear Tech, over time you have evolved from a tool for mere survival to an instrument for labor intensification, you became a means for knowledge sharing and communication, a lever towards urbanisation and much more. Not every step in our relationship has been linear or smooth, but in the end I have come to realise, we want the same thing. Something I guess we could call ‘the good life’, our choices weren’t defined by profit or power, our compass was the common good. But lately it feels like we are living next to each other, you are taking these giant leaps that I can’t follow, you are not communicating about them, making new friends that I don’t know and behaving like an arrogant know-it-all… I write to say we have lost our common goal and it’s not me, it’s you.
We really need to talk, let me start here.
A MEANS TO AN END
The potential impact you have on humanity, society and the natural world is growing exponentially with every new solution you come up with or product you develop. These innovations could revolutionize the world as we know it. But revolutions can turn out for the better or for the worse and they are seldom an end-point. I want us to look further than your disruptive impact and question the long term effects you will have and their desirability.
You will always be a means to an end, but turns out you’re an extremely powerful means, so we have to seriously think about the ends.
THE HOLY TRINITY innovation technology and digital.
The assumption that innovation is good because it’s new is very dangerous. If some have to lose for others to gain, it’s not an option to pursue. Also the cost of new technologies càn be too high to develop and deploy it. We don’t have to design, program or built everything within our capabilities. The talent and time that goes into new technologies is highly underestimated. Our brightest minds are spending their days figuring out how to make us click on ads and the app-graveyard spans over miles and miles.
To leave the digital decisions of what should or shouldn’t be built and how to the digital natives or nomads is absurd and the same goes for most investors, their compass is questionable to say the least. In this universe there is no such thing as the digital island, it’s always intertwined with other sectors and domains of life and thus other experts, users, politicians, philosophers, … should join the conversation.
Not only the economy but also technology should move towards a circular mindset. Don’t develop it unless you have researched, mapped and evaluated its impact on humanity. If your solution brings forth problems you can’t counter or foresee or if it creates more needs than it soothes, don’t go there. The social ànd environmental footprint technology has may be less visible but nonetheless very actual. We need to make it visible and asses the ripple-effect new digital products or services may have on social dynamics, education, employment, … There is no shame in slowing things down to prepare ourselves, to proactively plan out our future one domino-block at a time before we let technology flood it.
A NEW ENLIGHTENMENT
The unwanted side-effects of uncritical or undebated technological inventions is already very present. The filter bubble is not only affecting elections, although the global uprise of populism makes for an alarming evidence. It’s also preventing people from actively shaping their own future. Every aspect of our horizon will be co-defined by technology, so why do people protest about pensions and climate change and when it comes to technological evolution they swallow everything that’s being served. While a raging techno-utopism seduces people to remain unemancipated in the rich part of the pie, the ignorant middle-class, the poor and digital illiterate are silenced, excluded and discouraged by an apocalyptic horizon. A new enlightenment is needed to make people dare to think again, about themselves, their city, their future and fellow humans. Not as an era but as an attitude, an openness to critique and an investigative mindset towards innovation, digital technology and the renewed ethics it requires. Without room of anomalies and critical voices we will be stuck in this paradigm forever, for the first time in the history of truth.
NEW FRAMEWORKS FOR POLICY MAKING
We not only need a bottom-up emancipation, seen as its their function to speak for us and look after our best interest, politics and policies need to join this movement. The modern ideas that shaped current policies are inadequate to answer the inevitable questions raised by this era of hyperconnectivity, automation and digital disruption.Therefore we need to rethink the old concepts we used to explain our reality. Amongst other things the distinction between reality and virtuality, between human, machine and nature have blurred so we have to reshape what makes us human, how we identify intelligence and citizenship and where the line between public and private lies is hopelessly outdated.
While in modernity hierarchical structures shaped our institutions, government and company-structures, technology paves the way to multi-agent systems, distributed trust and the possibility of a direct democracy. As a government it takes courage to update, reinvent and reform yourself, risking to make yourself obsolete. But we should expect no less from our political leaders. Their responsibility reaches till the end of time, not for the next election cycle. Technology needs to feed and empower our governments to better serve us, while being monitored and regulated by these governments in return.
We as first-line technology consumers are very susceptible to it’s impact. This asks for other skills, laws and learning methods. We shouldn’t overestimate our self-control as humans as it is explicitly put to the test by most devices and applications we use on a daily basis. The move from information scarcity to abundance is going to lead to a cognitive overload. The default settings of technology should respect our attentional capabilities, not use them as something that can be exchanged on the market. The right to focus our own attention and therefore allocate our time is a conditio sine qua non for autonomy, responsibility and finding a sense of meaning. New digital products and services appeal to our most basal needs and desires, those we are teached to control from the day we’re born. How is it that these vices are nurtured, fed and given all the space they need to flourish. Voyeurism, jealousy, indulgence, greed, bragging, envy, impatience, … These are a no-go offline, but online they can be rampant. We need to protect each other and dare to be self-critical. Seen as all technology (for now) is still designed and developed by humans, it’s our task to restrain from building products that infantile people. And it’s our task as consumers to be responsible and restrained, we have to hold our virtues high in the digital realm.
Dear Tech, I feel responsible for the impact you will have on mankind, the earth and societies. Not only to avoid negative scenarios, but to push towards the world-improving potential of all the new solutions that are being developed. Not bad is not good enough. I believe that the digital revolution, if done right, has the potential of making us more human than ever before. Technology, applied with wisdom, can lead to a real life utopia. This would not be a wanted side effect, but the legitimation of your existence. The anthropocene is here, and it comes with an immense responsibility. Let’s do this.