I was recently asked to provide a blog post for IBM as part of its “Shaping Our Future” campaign. The entry is, of course, buried within the site in a way that makes it hard to find and link to. Here is what I contributed:
Because of the rise of digital network technologies, the future of human society is all about connectedness. Our lives are changing dramatically, indeed have already changed, because of it. Connectivity is no longer just having Internet access: being ‘networked’ is now deeply part of our culture and our emotional lives. As we get comfortable with our always-connected state, it becomes part of us in a way that a mere tool can never be.
We now can access (and often must use) software and hardware to create, share and receive information. These technologies permit conversations, collaborations and communities to persist and grow, free from many constraints of time and space. No longer do we need to be in the same place and time to work and play together. And, through network access wherever we are, and powerful mobile computing and communications devices, networked information and communication is becoming ubiquitous.
It is more than just ‘the Internet’, though this meta-network is a very significant part of connectedness. The technologies that make the difference also include digital cameras, audio recorders and players, the ever-present ‘clouds’ of computing power to serve applications and store data, and geo-location services provided by GPS. Databases that store and relate vast quantities of trivial data (often provided unconsciously) also matter: the code is a technology which now defines our way of life.
We sometimes think ‘connectedness’ is about our family, our friends and our workmates. And, truly, the Internet has changed these social relations and where we experience them. We work from home more, we play at work more. We connect with others through countless forms of digital exchange, reaching out to the person across the street, or across the world. Connectedness makes us imagine the world as our backyard: but we are also ‘everywhere’ all at once.
It’s not just about connections to others. We also have a different sort of connection to our own everyday life. We snap pictures, update our status, immediately find a key bit of information to put to use, there and then. Layers of data provided by our computers augment the reality we live. In many ways, we are more connected to ourselves than ever before, even as our connections to others become weaker, but more numerous. We see ourselves, online, as others see us; we see ourselves reflected in the mirror of the screen.
Technologies do not make things different: how humans use and adapt the devices and their applications remains vital. Computing technologies are not replacing humans, nor taking over from them, nor stealing our essential humanity. Skynet, the self-aware computer of the Terminator movie series that embarks on a crusade to exterminate humanity, is just the dream of an evil genius.
J.C.R.Licklider, an American scientist in the 1960s had a different dream. He was one of the pioneers in the creation of the Internet, once writing of the “ ‘man-machine’ symbiosis ” as his vision for the way humans and computers would work together. The Internet, especially in the form of the mobile connected devices which many use intimately every day, is enabling this symbiosis to occur. This dream, unlike the endless (and ultimately fruitless) quest for artificial intelligence, recognises the weaknesses and failings in both computers and humans rather than triumphantly desiring computers to be like humans or vice versa. Only through symbiosis does each compensate for the other.
But humans must also realise that they are not solely in charge of their destinies. Connectedness is becoming a pervasive fact of life. As it does so, humans form a permanent connection with the technologies of networking: they become our partners, not servants. Our future is now shaped by the interaction between our lives and the computers and networks that make them work. In effect, each connected human becomes a part of the network: we give up ideals of freedoms and are no longer autonomous individuals.
Our capacity to express our individual identity – through Facebook walls, Twitter updates, Flickr photo galleries, Youtube home videos – has never been stronger. But the basis of that individuality has never been weaker. We are as much data and code as the websites we visit, and the applications we use.
Ultimately, connectedness is the new future of humans and technology. Connectedness not only binds humans together more strongly, but binds us to our technology. It enriches us, but it also fragments our lives into diffuse packets and streams of data which take on lives of their own. Who we are, and how we make sense of things has changed forever.