What is the digital age?
For many, the digital age is simply the industrial era ‘amped up’ on tech steroids. Perhaps marked by the IT industry’s coming of age as new technology became as much part of the social fabric as it was in the world of business. But that doesn’t really cover it. So, what is the digital age?
There are certain interesting traits that for me define the digital age:
- Many of us now have virtual lives as well as physical ones.
- Some of us use our virtual life to promote an idealised physical life.
- Technology is augmenting us in unimaginable ways. We have the world’s knowledge at our fingertips, thanks to smartphone technology, but we choose to use it primarily for shopping and picking arguments with strangers. Either way, Alexander Graham Bell would be dumbfounded.
- Thanks to digital distraction, we appear to be losing the ability to think deeply. We take in content like a whale takes in plankton. In other words, very little of what we ‘consume’ has ‘nutritional’ value.
- Increasingly dumb objects, such as trolleys and toothbrushes, are becoming data-rich smart devices.
- Many of us are happy to trade privacy for convenience. And some of us are unaware of the value of our own data.
- Our own data, thanks to ‘quantified self’ technologies, is permanently streaming from us like a comet’s tail.
- There is a growing acceptance that citizen surveillance is a price to be paid for being part of a developed society.
- World leaders constraining foreign policy statements to 140 characters.
- It has never been so easy to share.
We are still learning as to what constitutes a healthy virtual life, and what reflects deep psychosis.
As parents, there is no digital playbook. So we may well be crafting the next generation’s issues by our laxity in respect of our children’s digital lives. How long will it be before you child’s best friend is a robot? Or a sibling’s robot becomes a life partner?
Many of us are realising that past certainties are no longer indicators of future certainties. This makes career planning something of a challenge.
The digital age is particularly challenging for organisations. Many leaders seem to think that it is simply a case of adding the latest tech to their old industrial era model. Hence we often hear the term, the 4th industrial revolution (4IR). Hyper-uncertainty and increased volatility require a fundamental rethink of business models. Most organisations founded in the industrial era are far from ready.
One might even argue that we are in the midst of a species change from homo sapiens to what one might call homo extensis (augmented man).
Possibly the transition will be complete when the first generation is born that in some way or another immediately needs new technology for its survival. This will very likely be the case when we start to colonise other planets. How else are we going to get those rare earth metals needed to fuel our hunger for new technology?
So how will we know when the digital age has passed? Well in some respects, the end of the digital age is in sight. One could argue that the twentieth century was the age of information technology, and that the twenty first century is the age of biology. In recent years, we are seeing indicators that biological sciences are about to hit the steep end of the exponential curve. Genomics, bioinformatics, bionics and nootropics are just some of the areas where we will see human augmentation take a quantum leap.
I am often asked is the digital age good or bad for mankind. I would say that it is our destiny. We have been on this journey since the day, many millennia ago, when we first picked up a rock to use as a tool. It is not clear where we go from here. This very much depends on the extent to which the world’s leaders reflect on what the digital age means for humanity, and in turn guides us along a path that secures our long-term future.
We must keep in mind that as a species, we are arrivistes. We are relatively new to the planet compared to fellow earth dwellers such as ants and shrimps.
In that respect, nature probably still considers us something of an experiment.
If we add to this the fact that out of all species that have ever existed, ninety nine percent are extinct, we should consider our next steps very carefully. Or if that is too challenging a thought, we can always pick up the nearest device and lose ourselves in a neurotransmitter soup of online entertainment.
Perhaps the question, ‘what is the digital age?’ presents an opportunity to reflect whether we are designing our lives by the judicious use of new technology / content or is it the other way around?