Digital vs Human - Dystopia or Myopia?
I have just finished re-reading Richard Watson's latest book, Digital vs. Human, how we'll live, love and think in the future. I should declare my interests here. I know (and even like!) Richard. We sometimes partner and work together, hence "re-read", as I had a chance to proof a number of the draft chapters of this book last year. However, as so often is the case, it was much more insightful and satisfying to read the complete (paperback) book from cover-to-cover, rather than just dipping into dis-aggregated digital sections.
Richard's basic premise is that human-kind is unwittingly being sucked into a future dominated by digital technology, where our very humanity is being drained from us in return for a soulless, lonely existence, increasingly bereft of human contact and real emotions. To illustrate this, he starts with the shocking story of a Korean couple back in 2010, who let their own infant daughter starve to death as they obsessed over caring for a baby avatar in an online virtual world. Strong stuff.
Digital vs Human is crammed full of such dystopian examples of how screen obsessed humans are increasingly detaching themselves from the "real" world and being assimilated into the digital. Richard takes us on a comprehensive tour of different aspects of our lives, from society and culture, to healthcare and medicine, from economy and money and to home and family, each step of the way challenging us to wake up and realise what is happening to us before it's too late.
Cynics might argue that, as Richard is the "wrong-side" of 50, he doesn't get the wonderful benefits that a digitally connected world brings to us - instant access to the world's knowledge; the ability to create special interest groups of like-minded people you would not have met pre-Internet; the opportunity to innovate and invent new business models; the democratisation of education; the acceleration of scientific breakthroughs; the ability to offer high-quality healthcare to a rapidly expanding proportion of our planet's population, and so the list goes on. However, I don't think he is being that myopic, although I will admit that the book is very focused on the dystopian elements that a digital world delivers, almost to the point of obsession. No, the man has a point.
As I look to my own experiences, the colleagues and clients I work with, the friends that I socialise with, my family whom I love and live with, and even myself, I see a number of worrying traits that Digital vs Human nails completely. The obsession with screen time. The inability to switch off from electronic communication, from email, to snapchats, from tweeting to youtubing. The narcissistic compulsion to record everything, rather than actually living in and enjoy the moment. The need to be accepted, wanted and valued in the digital world. Getting our little fixes of dopamine as our smartphones ping to announce the arrival of the latest digital missive, alert, post, or mostly importantly "like"!
Over and above day-to-day examples of digital dysfunctionality, Digital vs Human also poses a number of existential questions - will machines ever become conscious? What is all this technology for? Are we developing digital technology for its own sake or does it have a greater purpose? Will robots be able to do everything that we can do and if so, what is the future purpose of the human race?
Digital vs Human is a huge wake up call. It reminds us that "just because we can, doesn't mean that we should". Richard challenges us to create the future that we really want, to be awake, conscious and purposeful in the way that we harness digital technology. He reminds us that we have the capability and, perhaps more importantly, the responsibility to shape our digital future rather than letting us be shaped by it.