Tag Archives: Digital revolution
Tech enthusiast Kevin Kelly asks “What does technology want?” and discovers that its movement toward ubiquity and complexity is much like the evolution of life
When a particular concept of revolution occurs, it changes a number of things. One good sign to understand whether we are witnessing a cultural, conceptual revolution is to look at whether that revolution is changing our conception of reality. Now, the information revolution, understood as a Fourth Revolution and so forth, is doing exactly that. It’s changing our conception of what it means to be an entity, an object, something that you deal with. In the good old days we could call it Newtonian metaphysics, or Newtonian ontology. It had to be space and time, it had to be kickable, it had to be something that would bang against something else, billiard balls on the table, that was the ideal object for anyone.
Slowly we have acquired a different conception of what is real. Real is no longer something that is in space and time and causally connected to everything else, but it can be touched, and so on. As long as it is something that is interactable, as long as they can interact with it, then I consider it real. I don’t mind if it is a virtual entity on the other side of the screen, as far as I’m concerned, that is as real as it gets. So it could be in Second Life, it could be on Facebook, I could be on a particular game, I could be playing with other colleagues, friends and so on – if the entity with which I am involved, responds to my actions in a particular way, and I can see that, I can handle it, I can get some interactions going, then that thing is, is going to be assumed as, real.
Now, this is a major transformation in our ontology. To simplify, we can move from ‘things were real if they never changed,’ those were the most real things in the Universe. For Plato, the most real things were the unchangeable things. It had to be something that was subject to your perceptions: you had to touch it, to taste it, kick it, and so on. It had to be, above all, in space and time, with those particular values. And then we moved to an interaction criteria. Now, today, a digital ontology is an ontology that has a bias, privileges the interactability of entities, over their Newtonian features or their Platonic features.
Now, the interaction here, and here is my concern, is that it doesn’t have to be digital, as in sort of zero-ones. We could just talk about informational entities, and they can be continuous, they don’t have to be analogue. As long as it’s something that is subject to interaction, then that thing is real. And that is where we are slowly moving towards, at least in a sort of popular understanding of what is real.
The Fourth Revolution is an attempt to provide a vision, an interpretation, to what is happening in our eyes today, just in terms of the mobile phone that one may use, the time we spend on Facebook and so forth. So, the simple idea behind it, is the following. We all perceive that something extraordinary is happening today. The first reaction of any generation, we just have to check the history books, any generation of human beings more often than not has felt that it was living at a special time. That’s the first step, everybody thinks he or she is special.
The second sort of more reflective concern is: thinking that there are so many other previous generations who thought everything was special, and it wasn’t, and to consider that we should relax, and say: “No, there is no revolution, it is just more of the same. Only because we’re living it, only because we are going through it, we feel that it is special. But I’m afraid there is nothing special about us or this 21st century, the information society and technologies.
But sometimes, and that’s what people forget, there is a third point. Sometimes it is a revolution. Sometimes, you are in Paris at the right time. Sometimes, you are in the United States at the right time. Sometimes you do live in the information society. So that feeling is very widespread. You ask any kid, or any grown-up, and they will say: “Things are changing in an amazing way.” There is what we normally call a digital revolution, an information revolution, a communication revolution, they are different labels.
Now, why calling it a Fourth Revolution? Because as long as we try to understand these extraordinary changes in terms of the amount of things that we can do, how I can talk to my mum over the phone and see her picture, and I can have a conversation through Skype etcetera, we are missing the real point. The point at this stage in our human history is not so much that our technologies are empowering us to do extraordinary things. Because otherwise we would have a philosophy of cars, and a philosophy of the wheel, and we don’t.
So it’s not about what the technologies are enabling us to do with the world, the point is that by allowing us to interact with the world and other human beings, in such extraordinary ways, they are putting in front of us a mirror, and they are telling us that we are changing our self-understanding. We are changing the picture that we have of ourselves. It’s like trying to do X, and by doing X, all of a sudden you realize that your self-understanding, your understanding of who you are, has changed.
Now, this has happened before, and I’m coming to the end of the story. It has happened when we as humanity, discovered that we were not the centre of the Universe. That was Copernicus, who didn’t mean to change our self-understanding, but realizing where the Earth was placed in the whole Universe certainly put a different sort of spin on our history.
Then it happened again with Darwin: We’ve backtracked and said: Look, okay, we’re not the centre of the Universe, but we are the centre of the animal kingdom. We are the special animals. And then we realized that that was not true, it was not the case either. So we sort of moved a second change. Again, if you read Darwin, he seemed to be aware of the transformation that he would bring about, but it was not meant like that. The idea was to change our understanding of biology, it wasn’t to change our anthropology, what we are and who we think we could be.
So there was a final line of defense, which was the idea that we are not the centre of the Universe and not the centre of the animal kingdom, but at least, we are the rational animals. Sometimes in text books you find this as the Cartesian picture: we can think about ourselves, we can see exactly what is going on in the mind and we know exactly all the contents. And then Freud came, and says: “I’m sorry, but that third change has to go as well.” So these three revolutions, the Copernican, the Darwinian, the Freudian revolution, some people would probably prefer to talk about neuroscience, but those three revolutions have done something to science which has sent a different message to us.
The suggestion I have, is to look at the information revolution or the digital revolution as what has happened today by driving your car using a GPS and so forth, as a force of revolution along this line. It is the view that what is really changing, of course is the extraordinary things that we can do with the world and to the world through the technologies. But the message there is who we are, the kind of informational organisms that live, flourish, interact, not as stand-alone entities but as networked agents in a world that is made of information. Now that further movement is what I call the Fourth Revolution.