Over the last two decades, most of my adult life, I’ve watched as the world has grown more interconnected than ever, fuelled by changes in information technology which have almost universally been treated as a force for good. This interconnection was supposed to improve scaling, transparency, productivity and bring western peace and prosperity to all.
We were supposed to be living in a utopian Tomorrowland by now, with the economic problem completely solved.
None of this has happened.
Instead of scaling, we’ve seen descaling because individuals need to adopt more jobs, more skills, more crafts just to get by — meaning professionalism is being lost. As well as our day jobs, for example, we are now also being asked to be hoteliers, cab drivers, propagandists, writers, advertisers, administrators, promoters and renters of all our possessions.
Instead of transparency, we’ve seen the emergence of echo chambers, filter bubbles, encrypted comms, noise pollution, single-interest groups, propaganda, misinformation, internet brigandage and the burying of real news in the cacophony of low-base (advertising saturated) media output.
Instead of productivity, we’ve seen working factories shut down, output stall, public resources be pulled, health services be cut, inequality rise, output be redirected to luxury goods, corporate taxes be dodged and energy be burned for no real good reason at all.
Instead of peace and prosperity, we’ve seen the world become fragmented, divided, politically charged, cult-minded, intolerant, enraged, hateful, hurtful, spiteful and malevolent — now with the added advantage of all this hate being zapped directly into our consciousness 24/7 via the power of our mobile phone or computer laptop.
Instead of coming together, political systems have been fragmenting, with no consensus anywhere, because we can’t agree on anything. Self-interest dictates the news agenda entirely. Trust is being dismantled. We are becoming less cooperative not more.
Perhaps we’ve neglected the obvious. Information technology is not and never has been a panacea or a cure-all for social ails. It is simply a tool, which is as easily co-opted by the dark and malevolent of heart as it is by the good.
For every exponential “good” information technology can create, an equal and opposite “ungood” can be exponentially created too.
The ungoods include the empowerment of terrorism, propaganda and scamming, to hacking, organised crime, corrpuption and — most important of all, this being an information tool — the radicalisation of young minds.
Why have so many of us, then, been duped by the technocratic elite that an app or a digital user experience is a cure-all for the social ails we still had before this stuff exploded, or equal in value to the creation of something of real worth, like a hospital, a school (where children also learn how to socially interact with each other in a way that teaches them to respect life and differences, rather than disrespect life by being isolated in some bedroom whilst being radicalised by the internet?), infrastructure or even factories, service businesses and leisure environments?
Why did no-one warn us of the consequences? Why did we not think, like the Amish, that technology probably needs to be tested for its social impact before it is thoughtlessly rolled out? Where were the health warnings?
Over the internet the human spirit is reduced to an algorithm. Nobody knows their customer anymore. And that means nobody knows the soul behind the command terminal either. Instead, we are dehumanised to datasets of binary inputs and outputs — to be averaged, generalised and gamed.
If we don’t deal with each other face to face, especially in trade, love and service, we forget what it means to physically hurt, destroy or upset another soul in a physical space. Without that anguish, we lose our morality. We lose our humanity. We lose the understanding of the consequences of our actions. We lose our civil society.
The greatest crimes of society emerged from the wanton dehumanisation of individuals by groups who saw themselves as above the subsets they were dehumanising. If the internet is dehumanising all our relationships, with even the best of heart being provoked into actions they would not usually take, just imagine how it’s empowering the bad guys who already had little to no respect for their fellow man?
The worst of it is, in the process of this IT-fuelled anti-social transformation, we’ve not only handed over power, wealth and prestige to some of the least equipped individuals in the world to deal with the social chaos that comes in its wake but convinced ourselves I fear — in almost a religious puritanical sense — that our lives are somehow being improved by these people?
More so, that depriving ourselves of our socially-rich activities and interactions and replacing them with voluntary self-incarceration (most of us spend most of our life plugged into terminals, concentrating in an almost trance-like prayer state at mobile phones) physical passivity, isolationism, infertility, smaller or shared abodes, downsized lives in the physical realm justified by expanded lives in the digital realm, and real food being replaced with the banality of Soylent, is somehow a thing to be championed, encouraged and celebrated!
The above sounds like a pseudo communistic autocratic nightmare to me. Furthermore, how many of the tech gods are known for their people skills or for being actually nice people?
The day the tech gods start driving Uber cars, renting their own mansion rooms out on Airbnb, renting their yachts to refugees not to mention start paying taxes, is the day I believe the products they’re creating are tools for the empowerment of all.
Information technology is not a panacea. In fact, because it errs towards the dehumanisation of individuals, it is probably much more dangerous than we ever assumed.
Indeed, it may just be that we’ve made a major accounting error. We’ve failed to recognise that for every digital asset we create and overvalue on the stock-market there is a digital liability/risk, which offsets much of that valuation — but which we have yet to figure out a way to account for properly.
Which is why I suspect the economic problem can’t be solved until technology combines with societal morality, and we begin to respect and honour every human person, whomever they may be, rather than treat them as commoditised entries in a spreadsheet which can be streamlined, disrespected or gamed for the sake of oneupmanship, cheap labour and profit.
You can’t synthesise trust in a system that has no underlying morality by simply removing humans from the process. The humans are the process. They’re also the point of the process.