As our physical and digital worlds increasingly converge the process by which we give meaning to our collective experiences (i.e. sensemaking) are undergoing profound shifts.
More and more of our time is being spent in a parallel digital universe where physical distance, time, culture, identity, and context collapse.
Digital sight, sound, and language become the primary ways in which we apply our 5 human senses in an attempt to navigate and make sense of this virtual world.
This digital environment is being shaped by transnational organisations, algorithms and our behaviours, which interact through complex feedback loops to present a personalised version of reality for “people like us”.
Information and knowledge no longer roam freely.
Our attention has become the economy, we are the product, data is the new oil and new forms of hyper and surveillance capitalism have emerged that benefit from network effects, algorithms, artificial intelligence (AI), automation and prediction.
The promise of this digital utopia has been anchored in making our lives “easier & simpler” by “removing the friction” in everything we do.
Our mobile phone has become the “remote control” for managing our life.
Emerging technologies such as bots, AI, apps, voice search, and the blockchain are seen as ways of extracting any remaining “friction” from the “customer experience” thereby further streamlining, automating & optimising our interactions.
What if the universal embracement of this narrative poise new risks for our Society?
What if “context” really mattered?
What if “friction” and humanity are central to trust?
The US Editor of The Financial Times and a former anthropologist – Gillian Tett – recently raised the issue of a digital “context collapse” and the importance of ancient rituals and shared physical experiences in providing both personal & collective meaning.
She notes that whilst these digital technologies at times feel wildly liberating, they can also be terrifying & disorienting.
“In the cyber world there is a constant problem of what anthropologists and psychologists call “context collapse”: it is hard to discern the contours of social interactions because the factors that used to frame our cultural lives are only half-present”
Adding to this, Oxford lecturer and author Rachel Botsman has spoken extensively about the nature and importance of Trust to a well functioning modern society and how digital environments alter this.
She has eloquently and succinctly defined Trust as a:
“confident relationship to the unknown”.
At its core are the elements of “relationship” – a concept anchored in humanity – and “unknown” – a reflection of the uncertain nature of reality
She believes “friction” is essential for us to be able to demonstrate we are “trustworthy”.
To become “trustworthy” it requires 4 human traits to be present:
- Competence – The How?
- Reliability – Responsiveness, consistency and time (How?)
- Benevolence – Do you care? (Why?)
- Integrity (Why?)
Our human relationships, behaviours and time are essential for both the How? and the Why?.
As we make the accelerated leap into digital platforms, networks, AI and even digital trust (blockchain) it will raise some profound issues.
How can we demonstrate Trust without “friction” (i.e. requires time), our behaviours or a human relationship?
Does the algorithm care?
Does the AI have our best interests at heart?
Are the Machines right?
UK Nesta CEO, Geoff Mulgan has raised similar emerging issues around the adoption of AI.
In thinking about ethics in the context of AI, our initial response seems to be anchored in a desire to simplify complexity and prescriptively “codify” a series of “algorithmic principles” or “rules” for areas such as bias, privacy, safety, transparency, explicability, truth etc…
What if reality was far more complex and “context” dependent and human sensemaking together with rules or code were urgently required?
What if all our perspectives ( both humans & machine) have an inability to grasp the complexity of Reality?
What if it was impossible to “codify” the truth?
What if the central question we should be asking is whether the technology is right for the future we want to create?
In closing, US Rice University Computer Science Professor Moshe Vardi recently asked an important question in these colliding worlds:
“Technology is driving our Future but who is doing the steering?”
A question that is becoming more apparent as every day goes by….