Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Second Age of Enlightenment

How technology, culture and society need to find a new harmony

Remember the Industrial Revolution?  OK, maybe not but it was in the late 18th century that the concepts of technology, culture and society began to be inextricably linked and have remained so ever since.  The Industrial Revolution was a time of incredible technical discovery and innovation, heralding a shift from agriculture and artisan craftsmanship to mass production.  But it also transformed society, driving the establishment of the major cities we know today, making old jobs redundant and creating new ones.  But equally it changed culture, with the birth of a new generation of art, literature, philosophy and the new political ideologies of liberty, fraternity and democracy.  It was during the Industrial Revolution that we reinvented the concept of how the world works and our individual and collective roles and responsibilities, in it. 

We now refer to the Industrial Revolution and the movements that arose from it as the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment, one in which technology, culture and society found a new kind of harmony.

The same principles still apply today.  For a new technology to succeed it must of course have a practical purpose, to solve a problem and be useful.  It must serve a cultural purpose in that it contributes to our shared ideas, language, rituals, beliefs and behaviours. And it must serve a social purpose in that it must make the world a better place in some way and have a benefit beyond just the individual user.

Let’s take the iPhone, which solved a problem we didn’t even know we had.  Before iPhones we didn’t know that we’d rather have a computer in our pockets than a telephone, but it was perfectly obvious after the fact.  Similarly, it never occurred to us that 2D printing was a limitation until we saw the endless possibilities of 3D.

At the same time, the iPhone has had a profound impact on our culture and by buying an iPhone we’re not just buying an easier way to manage our day but a personal membership to the cult of excellence at the heart of Apple.  By buying Apple, we’re displaying our badge of belonging to the culture, which explains people’s passionate, often irrational, devotion to the brand.  The cultural perspective also explains why we’re so interested in technology entrepreneurs – from Elon Musk and Daniel Ek to Satya Nadella and Travis Kalanik and love the myths and legends that surround them.  The more charismatic and mysterious they are, the more culturally powerful they become.

Similarly, every successful new technology has an impact on society. It shapes how we organise ourselves as social groups, how we define our place and role in society and how we collaborate and contribute to it.  It improves how we live and work, how we connect and communicate with each other.  The advent of mobile phones gave undeveloped communities access to education, health and financial services, the connections to establish small businesses and, more recently, a lifeline for refugees on their perilous journeys to safety.   Take Twitter, and the way it has created a culture of ‘everyone’s entitled to my opinions’.  To many people, ‘society’ means the Twitter community and if they want to know what the world is thinking, that’s who they ask.

At the same time, both culture and society drive the development and help to define the applications, of new technology.  The best new technologies arise from our social and cultural needs, as well as our functional requirements.  Take the recent PayPal advertising campaign: New money.  The campaign doesn’t ask us to open a PayPal account so we can pay for things more conveniently, it’s inviting us to join a movement and show the Old Money who’s boss now.  Similarly, products such as noise-cancelling headphones play to our sense of social obligation as well as our individual needs and give our fellow commuters, as well as ourselves, privacy and peace.

Disruptive innovators such as Uber and AirBNB have arguably succeeded because they solve a problem – in Uber’s case that of replacing the uncertainty of the meter and the complexities of the tariff, with the certainty of a fixed fare paid via PayPal and a driver you could plot on a map.  But what Uber and other brands in the Sharing Economy have really enabled through their technology is a new form of social culture.

The balance of power is more equal than in a black cab, we’re not just a passenger, we’re an investor in a social enterprise. We like the way we’re catching a ride with an enterprising car-owner than a slave to the Knowledge. We could be an Uber driver or an AirBNB owner whereas we’re very unlikely ever to be a black cab driver or a hotelier. AirBNB and Uber simply provide the platform and the process, it’s up to all of us to provide the people.

When Cisco refers to a digitized world of connected people and devices as the Second Industrial Revolution, what it’s really referring to is a Second Age of Enlightenment in which technology, culture and society are not only interlinked but inseparable.  This is an era in which technical connectivity brings with it social and cultural connectivity and productivity. This is an era in which the concept of a ‘digital detox’ as a way of purifying your social and cultural soul, finding ‘ true’ intimacy and ‘real’ rituals and behavioural norms is an outdated concept.  A digitized society isn’t a new world, it’s the real world.

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