The promise of technology was, in many ways, to bring us closer together. Railroads transported us from the baron countryside to the city center. Radio, television and tablets let us experience the same stories and access the same information as someone in an opposite corner of the world. Telegraph wires, phonelines and then wireless mobile technology allowed us to communicate with each other faster and faster (and with less and less crackle).
We lapped this opportunity up. Over 60 years, landline adoption in the U.S. went from 10% to 90%. Radio, over 45 years, jumped from 10% to 99%. Color TV: 10% to 95% in 25 years. Social media: 5% to 70% in just 10 years. Smartphones: 35% to 80% in a mere five years.
It wasn't long before the innocent promise of connectivity turned sour. Now, our digitally-powered communication is a toxic game of "whose life looks better online," the source of constant competition (4.2 billion Instagram likes a day, but who's counting? Well, everyone.) At its lightest, a laughable misuse of #nofilter; at its worst, leading defenceless youngsters to take their own lives.
We can create things online that appear true offline. It's not just the perfect filter on Instagram that has the potential to mislead. Now Deepfakes have the power to make anyone appear to say- or do- anything. It won't be long before Deepfake technology breaks out of the realm of research into consumers' hands. Adobe, for example, is developing a prototype software called VoCo, which lets users edit recordings of speech as easily as a picture. WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) exists no more.
We can create any reality; try on any identity in our digital worlds. "Online" is not one world that we all share, it's a world unique to every individual that engages with it. Yes- pockets form, when groups of individuals choose to share the same reality. Kitsch is fine when it's a collection of nail-art fanatics, but can be catastrophic when it's an extremist political movement. The internet has the power to bring people closer together who should remain worlds apart.
It might feel like we've already fallen too far down the rabbit hole. But we haven't reached the singularity yet- we can still switch off. The digital detox movement is a rebellion against constant connectivity and the abusive realities that people are unwittingly sucked into online. People no longer want Free WiFi- they want to be WiFi free. Coming together the old-fashioned way (IRL), is having a renaissance. It makes a lot of sense- at home and at work, considering that it takes on average 25 minutes to refocus after checking a single email.
But one WiFi free café does not a return to shared reality make. Let's be real- if you wanted to avoid technology you would have a pretty tough time. Full-on off-the-grid, deserted island, depths-of-the-jungle life might be your only choice. Even if we did get off the grid, our data trail would be inked in the skin of the internet. We unwittingly handed over our data for decades in exchange for shiny digital services that came at steep price, our privacy.
Has privacy been lost forever? Or will there be a resurgence?
The French data protection authority has imposed record-breaking fines on Google for failing to abide by regulatory requirements for transparent, adequate and accessible information concerning data consent. Other countries are stepping up to follow the UK's lead in charting and codifying the ethics surrounding the use of personal data for profitable gain. Will politicians' fight for data protection save us? Or can Tim Berners-Lee's "Solid" (Social Linked Data) save us?
Our addiction to technology crept up on us. Metaphorically glued to us (our eyes, our thumbs), our devices are so well adopted that we reach for them even when we don't receive a notification. There's even a medical term for obsessive phone checking- nomophobia.
In the future, it's possible we'll be putting the phone down. But only to put the VR goggles on, altering our manufactured realities in even more profound ways. One day, we might put the VR goggles down. But only if we're replacing it with technology that delivers digital services directly to our brains and senses. Chip implementation like Elon Musk's Neural Mesh is the next stop on the road to becoming fully-fledged cyborgs, being human will be a thing of the past. Smart contact lenses are already in development (Verily, Sony, U.S. Department of Defense) and will sink the tech deep into the fabric of life.
Nobody wants to be the person who unconsciously gets their phone out while walking down the street, only to cause a domino effect of angry commuters behind them. But this is our reality. Don't be so naïve as to think the next wave of human-machine interaction won't creep up on us, too. The question is, will it bring us closer together or push us even further apart? This begs and answer on how we can navigate this change (human augmentation) and apply technological change for societal (workplace) good.
Our latest book, From/To: Everything You Wanted to Know About the Future of Your Work but were Afraid to Ask deep-dives into 42 shifts of where work has come from and where it's going to– including those highlighted here.