After seeing announcements last week of Eric Schmidt's and Jared Cohen's new book The New Digital Age, I ordered it. It has arrived, and I've begun reading it. The book contains their predictions on the changes being wrought by digital technologies. They contend that we have "barely left the starting blocks" but that we will get the future we create. They write, "Most of all, this is a book about the importance of a guiding human hand in the new digital age."
I found that last quote interesting and am considering how that could be used in church advertising or to structure some series: "A spiritual guide in the new digital age."
Chapter one is entitled "Our Future Selves" and contains their predictions for how digital technologies will transform everyone's lives, from business to health care. Many of the ideas are very fascinating. I was startled by the statistic that there are already 6 billion mobile phone users on the planet! Many of the changes will result from new connectivity that democratizes access to information and one another. They imagine employees spread around the globe, poor people being able to innovate businesses that will take off globally, devices that will analyze our health and send the data to our physician, etc.
But I was left with a few questions that weren't addressed, (in this chapter at least, maybe they are in later ones?).
Where is all the electricity going to come from to power all these new things? There seems to be what I think is a false assumption that the energy required to power the future life they describe is available (on page 21 he casually mentions that power and electricity are problems to be solved). Other thinkers write about how our current energy use is unsustainable, so how is all this expanding digital technology going to be? As fun and exciting as the future herein desribed might be, is it immoral because it is ecologically unsustainable?
I also wonder what will happen to all the waste, a question first posed for me in the 1990's by Don Delillo's novel Underworld.
They imagine that it is possible that in the future the best graphic designers will come from Botswana and will be employed by global companies (or something like that). I know we have moved into a new era of human existence (I said that in the 90's as well), but doesn't this forecasting overlook how significant living around other creative, innovative people in creative, innovative centers can be? Of course digital technologies do allow for some fuzzing of these historical connections, but I still think it is most likely in the future that most innovation will still come from people living and working in major cities and near research universities where interesting, creative things are happening and interesting, creative people live.
Their discussion of education made me realize that our church needs to catch up with on-line activities and curriculum for Christian education.
They mention that in the future "People will have a better way to curate their life stories." Until recently none of us (or at least most of us) even thought about "curating our life stories."
This, and the entire chapter, raised another question I've been pondering. As we trained for the foster care system, one thing we learned is that foster kids cannot be pictured or have videos on-line. I don't even think they can do it for themselves. So, when we had a foster teen, he didn't have any on-line presence. This is a problem (though I know it is trying to solve and prevent other problems).
These kids are already disadvantaged and behind their peers in many other areas, and now they will be far behind in the new digital age. Generationally, they are digital natives, though they are being denied that core generational experience. They will not have learned the skills necessary to compete in the future economy. And, they will not have "curated their life stories." Already the foster agencies push foster parents to help kids create physical life books to keep them in touch with their life stories, but this is not how people do this anymore (physically, I mean). Decades from now when their peers are looking back on-line at what they did as kids and teens, the foster kids won't have that. I don't know the solution; I only know the problem. As they write, "those that can best navigate this multidimensional world will find themselves ahead in the future."
All the new robotic technology imagined in this chapter will deny lots of people employment. Is that moral? How are we to transition all those blue collar workers to the digital economy? Won't some people just not have the aptitude, temperament, and/or desire to do the jobs of the digital economy?
I'm just imagining Wendell Berry reading this chapter and freaking out.
So, how do I reconcile my Berry side with my professional and personal needs and desires to stay relevant and up on cultural changes?
They think having microscopic robots in our circulatory system monitoring our health will one day be "as uncontroversial as artificial pacemakers." That's a little difficult for me to imagine. Though I know that I have already succumbed to lots of things I didn't think I would -- cell phone, Facebook, loss of privacy and control on-line that I once fiercely defended, etc.
They write about how everything we use personally and professionally will be on the cloud and available to all our many devices. I for one have always liked to keep these things separate and sometimes am very frustrated with how they currently merge. There are also ethical implications here. For instance, working for a church, I cannot engage in partisan political activity, but personally I can. Right now I work diligently at keeping those two separate. In this new digitial future, how will that be possible?
I found really humourous their discussion of a future nephew who will not understand the phrase "A dog ate my homework." Here is what they say:
How could a dog eat his cloud storage drive? He had never gone to school before digital textbooks and online lesson plans, and he had used paper to do his homework so rarely -- and used cloud storage so routinely -- that the notion that he would somehow "forget" his homework and come up with an excuse like that struck him as absurd.