Digital media into digital humans

I was asked a question in a workshop the other day that got me thinking anew about the revolution going on in media. It’s not just media – it’s how we communicate, think and store our experience in memory. Ultimately, it’s about what we are as a biological species. Our brains and bodies may be in for a digital revamp.

The question I was asked is: “What is the difference between digital media and social media?” I’ve written notes on this issue before and a summary is here. Even within current timeframes, we are going through a sea change in use of media and this is having widespread effects on society.

We are facing an evolutionary leap – not all of it positive but much of it beyond our imaginations.

Think of how we are literally hooked into our Blackberrys and iPhones. You can’t function without your messaging stream, and you get anxious if no-one communicates with you via cyberspace. You sit in a restaurant with a friend and each of you is head down, pushing buttons. Kids sit on the couch next to each other and exchange MixIt messages. The human communication is there but the vehicle of technology seems strangely alienating.

Don’t get me wrong: technology doesn’t make us, we make technology. And in doing so we make things happen, like the Arab Spring, an upshot (partly) of Twitter and Facebook. The young rebels who overturned Egypt and Tunisa used these tools to spur a revolution. It looks like we are now descending into an Arab Winter of represssion but the lesson stands: the media we make help to remake us.

It’s all dependent on the digital revolution. Immediacy, ubiquity, ease of access (for those who can afford the cellphones and computers), and above all the drive to communicate across borders, has changed the communication environment and will continue to do so. More than that, we will change along with the environment. Looked at in evolutionary terms, this is not the first time human beings have changed in response to environmental changes.

Yet this change is manmade. How amazing that a technology built on simple 1’s and 0’s could alter the complex living organism that has developed over millions of years of evolution. But the signs are there already in our use of media. I have never agreed with Marshall McLuhan that the medium is the message or that we live in a global village. As a matter of fact, we are the message in the way we adapt to and use media technologies; and our globe is not a village but an ever-expanding universe of ideas and networking nodes. It is not getting smaller but bigger.

All of this is happening against a background of accelerating violence, change and destruction as militarism grips the globe. Let’s not forget that it was military minds that first developed internet communications and it is military technology (including rocket science) that has produced the miniaturisation on which modern digital media increasingly depend. We mustn’t fool ourselves that technological progress equates with civilisation. Humans are aggressive,  competitive, and exploitative.

That’s the downside. The upside may be that we learn to use technology for human betterment, although our record so far does not inspire faith. Maybe digitisation will put us right. The time may not be far off when computers equal or surpass human intelligence. The consequences of this for human society could be catastrophic – or heavenly. Imagine if computers make us their slaves… or on the other hand imagine if we could computerise ourselves to fill our brains with all existing knowledge, equip us with infinite powers to calculate, and monitor our bodies to deal with disease and aging.

Maybe the most important digital step forward would be wireless communication between human brains. That would encourage (I hope) empathy and mutual understanding. If we could truly know and feel what others are going through perhaps we’d be a more co-operative. But don’t count on it – the military would soon work out ways to use telepathy to raise the kill ratio. We would either be on the path to Nirvana or total enslavement to technology.

The technology revolution is speeding up although we as humans take time to assimilate and adjust. Prophets of doom contend with visionaries who have seen the future and are raving about it. Meanwhile the rest of us continue to push buttons, addicted as we are to messaging. I wish I could leap 50 years into the future and bring back a report but alas our technology isn’t there yet.

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