Homo digitalis

I’m a Zoologist by degree. I work in digital now but zoology (and science in general) is a philosophy and mental model that doesn’t leave you. I’m not the first person to observe that we’re undergoing a new era of techno-evolution. I’ve been wanting to write about this for a while and COVID-19 brings a sharp relief to my thoughts, so here we go.

A species is defined as:

a group of living organisms consisting of similar individuals capable of exchanging genes or interbreeding.

My argument is that humans with modern digital technologies should be considered a different species, distinct from Homo sapiens.

We exhibit different behaviours from pre-digital humans:

  • Social networks are increasingly online, unconstrained by physical location, allowing those with shared interests to find each other
  • Trade and commerce are both increasingly done online and consist of digital products and services
  • We find partners through apps like Tinder and Match with the help of AI
  • We live with a very different privacy paradigm, sharing far more personal information than before (albeit it unwittingly much of the time)
  • Organizations increasingly find it difficult to keep secrets – see Edward Snowden, The Shadow Brokers, the Sony Pictures hack, and the accelerating rate of hacks generally
  • Collaboration can be asynchronous, motivated in non-financial ways e.g. open source

As well as behaving differently, we have different powers – different ways to sense and act in the world:

  • Our assisted memory is infinite and perfect
  • We can program software and hardware to augment our bodies and minds, and even be remote agents (such as with drones)
  • Communication is instant, global
  • We can instantly draw upon pretty much the sum total of human knowledge that has ever existed
  • Augmented and virtual reality give us new senses and whole new world where we can have different powers
  • We can even design the DNA of our children and to some extent even design our phenotype

Yes, from a strict biological perspective, digital humans can still mate with non-digital humans and produce fertile young (the classic definition of a species). But speciation can also be functional – for how long will techno- and non-techno- humans meet and mate? Probably forever (humans being humans) but nonetheless, it feels like we’re evolving towards a new technological future (either a subset of the population or everyone).

On institutions

Current institutions were designed for pre-digital humans. They were essential to our success as a civilization because they solved for some of our biological constraints, particularly around our ability to communicate and collaborate with others effectively.

People had to be in the same building to communicate and access physical resources and usually employ hierarchical structures – e.g. party politics – to filter information sufficiently for all tiers to be functional.

Overall, our society; political structures, the types of organisations that exist, the rules we use to hold it all together, the social norms of education, religion and lifestyle represent emergent systems, born of the underlying inputs of humans, the earth and our evolutionary heritage.

For hundreds of years it’s been largely effective in allowing us to achieve incredible things. A pretty astonishing local maximum in the topology of possible arrangements.

But the underlying inputs have now changed. Humans don’t have the same qualities, either individually or in groups. We’re changed profoundly by our technologies, especially digital technologies.

Complexity theory
In light of this recognition that the underlying inputs of humanity have changed, it would be crazy to expect for the same system to emerge. For the same society, government, organisational and social structures to be the best solutions. Indeed, they may well not remain as possible solutions.

The institutions we have today solve for the old constraints, fail to make the most of new opportunities and superpowers.

Some examples:

  • Is party politics the best solution in a world where individual votes on individual policies are possible?
  • Do nation states make sense in a world of global supply chains, internationally-mobile workforces and harlequin, cosmopolitan populations?
  • Can current legislature and taxation cope with corporate power even now, let alone in an age of decentralised autonomous organisations or AI-owned wealth?

Tension in the system

It’s felt to me for a long time that there’s been increasing tension in the system. Some of it was there already and is just accelerated by the things that technology gives us. Other tension has been introduced as a direct result of digital technologies.

Tension in government and the political process. Single-party solutions to split electoral voting such as Trump and Brexit. The power of mass surveillance when used by authoritative regimes such as the plight of the Uighurs. The threat to democracy of internet technologies that allow micro-profiling and influencing at industrial scale. The farcical questioning of Zuckerberg by Congress that exposed how little was understood, further that the representatives were basically illuminating the fact they had not done their job and were asking Facebook to do it for them. To the point that Zuck has specifically asked for more regulation.

The failure of government to regulate technologies effectively – for example the collection of data by corporations, the use of facial recognition technologies (to the extent that Amazon has written its own facial recognition laws for the legislature to consider). The well-established strategy of corporations growing by ignoring legislation when it can (see Uber) or by lobbying for favourable environments (see Google which is now the US’ largest lobbyer).

There’s a general acceptance that governments have been corrupted by corporations – the revolving door of the Pentagon and the military industrial complex. “57 percent of the general population say government serves the interest of only the few” says the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer.

The bailout of Wall St and corporations in spite of stock buybacks, the backlash of sentiment against billionaires in the face of growing inequality.

https://twitter.com/rooshv/status/1243212547467235332?s=12

The emergence of Extinction Rebellion and the growing tension between climate change and low cost air travel.

The increasing global inequality in wealth and opportunity and what that means for quality of life. The way that the internet has made those differences so plain to see.

The increasing fees of attending universities in the UK/US in contrast to the sheer volume and quality of content available to anyone, online, for free at any time.

You don’t have to look far to feel the tension.

Checks and balances

Before technology there was little we could do – e.g. protests and rioting. Now technology provides alternatives. Sometimes these alternatives are well-proven or already more attractive than the incumbent solution but more often, they present themselves as new, poorly understood disruptors. Here are a few examples:

  • Bitcoin is an alternative to fiat currencies
  • Cyberattacks are an alternative to meatspace crime or war
  • Open source can create better software than corporations
  • The web’s ability to bypass government censorship
  • International commerce is trivial and does not rely on government support

What does the future look like?

Of course, nobody knows what the future might look like but we can look at what seems to be working.

Hybrid organisations that transcend traditional organisational boundaries in analogy to hybrid warfare. Tesla, Red Bull, Trump, all have clear missions (purpose), economic engines (commerce), communications mastery (media/publishing) and a self-selecting following (community) and varying influences on politics.

Open source organisations that have no central core that can be attacked as an individual eg WordPress, Linux, Bitcoin, Extinction Rebellion – and where these organisations to have individuals that are prominent (Greta, Linus) we see they often suffer from ad-hominem  attacks and the organisation suffers as a result.

The risk of Orwellian levels of propaganda and psychological operations based on micro-targeting unless there’s a radical improvement in government regulation.

The success of radical, polarising, simple messages (true or not) as people flee the difficulty and complexity of reality for the sanctuary of simplicity and ‘truth’.

Gradually then suddenly

Coronavirus is a ‘suddenly’ part of ‘gradually then suddenly’. As my friend Grant LeBoff of Sticky Marketing says about Coronavirus:

“This changes nothing, accelerates everything”

It’s been frequently remarked on that this crisis has challenged many previous preconceptions and behaviours. 

Companies who have always insisted that working from home is not possible have had to enable, encourage and finally enforce home working (including Google and famously Slack). Jobs that previously were “not possible” to do remotely or from home suddenly are. This will have a significant impact on the number of people who choose to work remotely, avoiding cities and commutes.

Parents are changing their attitudes to screen time as 3 billion children worldwide go through lockdown. Sometimes because parents simply need to work and can’t homeschool or entertain and work. Sometimes out of the sheer need for a break and often because screens are the best route to education for children in a lockdown situation. This is a positive feedback loop for digitisation – as children become digitally-capable younger, so the role of digital in our lives will accelerate, creating more pressure towards digital capability.

And it won’t just be for children that education changes quickly now. When universities (costing north of £10k/year) start becoming online-only course providers, there’s suddenly a democratisation of education online. Why pay those fees when you can self-serve your own curriculum and qualifications for much cheaper?

Our purchasing behaviour has had to change overnight with ecommerce and videoconferencing growth arguably going through ten years of change in a matter of months. In the UK alone this represents an estimated £12bn+ shift in spending.

There are lots of digital adoption graphs that look like the one above right now.

Nearly every business (large or small) has been forced to adapt, change and pivot in response. Notably, brands like Heinz and PepsiCo are using this opportunity to start exploring Direct to Consumer models – presumably not least to give them a better negotiating position with supermarket chains on the other side of this lockdown. h/t to Antony Mayfield for this insight.

The pace of digital transformation has quickened significantly:

Perhaps most importantly, the crisis has put the spotlight firmly on governments. The difference between numbers of COVID-19 deaths (even casting reasonable doubts on the numbers reported) is stark – especially between the UK/US and South Korea, Taiwan, etc. At least some of that has to be recognised as a result of the strength and capability of government leadership.

There are numerous examples of government failure and organisations rebelling (e.g. UK school re-openings, US state re-openings) or making up for government deficiencies (see Facebook’s donation of face masks from the stocks they had privately where the US government didn’t).

One of the more extreme views on this is that “Silicon Valley is going to war with Washington”. Who would you rank as more capable at this point?

If you want to really feel how starkly the UK government has let us down, listen to this podcast with the Estonian president. Estonia have approached the institution of government in a digital-first way for many years now and the groundwork they’ve put in now stands them in good stead, as demonstrated by the very low infection and death rate in the country now.

At an economic level, the fact that so many people are now unemployed (or will be as soon as furlough ends) has accelerated and demonstrated the great decoupling of human effort from economic value that the internet and software has brought about.

In summary, COVID-19 is a force that’s pushing us to be more online – more digital – than ever before. 

What does this mean?

My prediction is that many of these changes will be permanent. Habits take ~2 months to become embedded. Many of us will end up being locked down for longer than this. That’s plenty of time for us to change bad habits.

For many of us, this crisis has been a chance to reflect that what we had wasn’t necessarily what we wanted. Sky News reports that only 9% of Britons want things to return to the way they were. That’s pretty profound.

“I don’t want to go back to how we were

I want us to be something better”

https://twitter.com/daihenwood/status/1249033905803390981

The economy should become more globalised as in-person matters even less. Dutch economists have put together a manifesto for “degrowth” which asks great questions of our previous headlong rush towards GDP growth at any (and all) cost. The fourth industrial revolution of AI, robotics and digitisation is underway, sooner than it would have been otherwise.

We should be very wary of this: inequality is one of the tensions in the system that I don’t see COVID-19 helping. Being able to work from home – earning and income whilst maintaining the best safety posture for yourself and your family is  now a privilege – and one that many don’t enjoy. When mass unemployment kicks in, this is going to become even more stark. Maybe furlough will need to transform into Universal Basic Income?

This economic revolution, and the technologies we’re increasingly using will be a permanent change to our cognition and cultures at a very human level. Post-digital human culture will be as different as pre- and post-literate cultures.

“Then I read Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy, a book about the impact of the written word on oral cultures… It suggested to me that there might be a parallel to be drawn between the last time a technology changed our cognition and the next time.”

from “Exhalation” by Ted Chiang

A significant and irreversible step towards increasing digitality and global connectedness.

I hope that these technologies give us the opportunity for checks and balances to counter some of the unilateral trends that have been causing tension to build in the system. For example, Gen Z feeling disenfranchised from the economic system by zero hour contracts and crazy house prices may now turn their back on the systems they were born into and simply choose their own institutions. For example, don’t like paying tax? Just use anonymous cryptocurrencies. Don’t want to start your working life with a pile of debt? Teach yourself the skills you want via the internet.

Of course, this crisis isn’t over yet and no one knows what the end of it looks like. I enjoyed this Twitter thread thought experiment into a post-COVID future.

I’ll leave this post (which has grown daily) with this quote that I loved.

“We’ve always believed in the Internet. Originally conceived as a communications network for humanity during a crisis, it’s come a long way since then. But in this moment, it’s being put to use for that original purpose.”

Cloudflare

This is a once-in-a-generation chance to create a new and better future. Let’s take it – who’s with me?

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