Children Playing with Sharp Knives - Humanity and the Digital Age

APRIL 8, 2019

This was originally drafted as the epilogue of my book The Open Revolution.

It is natural to assume I am something of a digital enthusiast, even a digital “techno” utopian, confident that digital technology will lead us to nirvana.

There’s elements of this. I couldn’t have written this book (the Open Revolution) if I wasn’t excited – even passionate – about the possibilities of this digital information age.

At the same time, as someone recently said to me about our online digital world: “everything that excites me, scares me”. For example, digital technology makes possible unprecedented levels of control and inequality. It does not have to and I want us to choose a different path but the fact remains the digital makes this possible.

I also have other fears about the impact of the digital on our well-being. In fact, I must confess I am something of a hopeful pessimist. I write this book not because I am confident of the positive outcomes but because I am so afraid of the negative ones and, as Hemingway said, the world is a fine place and worth fighting for. We have better angels of our nature and we should attend to them. That does not mean I am confident we will listen.1

My basic concern here is simple: that there is a fantastic mismatch between our “emotional-spiritual” maturity and our “techno-intellectual” maturity.

On the “techno-intellectual’ side we started from a zero base a few hundred thousand years ago without language and without tools. Having discovered both we began to progress. Over the last five thousand or so, and especially over the last three hundred we have hit the exponential fast forward button. We created cities, we built roads and railroads, we flew aeroplanes and space-shuttles, we discovered anti-septics and penicillin, made the phone, the computer and Internet. And the latter all within a generation.

And the digital really takes this to a different level because that world – the world we live in now – is the world of Moore’s “law” which states that computation power per unit cost doubles every 18 months. That’s exponential growth on steroids. It means that since 1985, which many of us can actually remember, computers have got a million times more powerful for the same cost (or, equivalently, a million times cheaper) – a computer costing $10,000 in 1985 would cost a cent today.

So here we stand, developing and evolving digital technology faster, literally, than we can comprehend.

And on the other side we have, comparatively, the emotional and spiritual maturity of a small infant. We have barely developed at all for the last few hundred thousand years. We still fight wars, commit everyday violence verbal and physical, and, perhaps most importantly, have incredibly limited self-control and self-awareness. Most of us live as dodgem cars, often out of control, careering through life bumping, sometimes violently, into things and people. Right now, as a group, we have such limited ability to coordinate and reflect that we are putting our entire environment and very existence at risk through climate change.

And its not as if we have not had guidance or been shown a path to develop. Over history there have many spiritual leaders: Buddha, Christ, Muhammed, Confucius and countless less well-known figures from Zen Masters to Christian Saints and Sufi Mystics. Whatever, your interest or creed – even if you are an atheist – it is clear these have been powerful figures, with inspiring messages of human freedom, liberation and love. If one leaves aside the distinctions and the occasional exclusivities there is also, across these traditions, a remarkable consistency in their ethical and spiritual message: be kind, be loving, avoid violence, share with those in greater need than yourself, cherish humanity and nature, be tolerant and kind to those different from yourself and have integrity in your personal and professional relationships.

Do most of us adhere to this guidance, even a large fraction of the time? Almost certainly not.

Instead, we spend much of our time consumed with petty jealousies and cravings, our stronger negative impulses – violence, stealing, etc – often only kept in check by the threat of reciprocal sanction or violence by the state or other groups.

And let me be clear, this isn’t about some puritanical hair-shirt-wearing, pleasure-denying pursuit of reward in some other life. This is a simple matter of self-interest: looking at people who are emotionally and spiritually “developed”, whether they are religious in the conventional sense or not, people who really nurture love and kindness towards other humans on a consistent and regular basis, who really put others before themselves: how are they? Usually they seem extraordinarily happy, balanced and well – and usually irrespective of their material circumstances.

This lack of spiritual development has consequences. Man, after all, does not live by bread alone. My guess – and obviously it has to be a guess – is that average well-being, how we feel and experience each day, has improved relatively little on average over the entire course of human history despite the massive improvements in physical well-being for many people.2 This would hold too even for the very wealthiest groups in, for example, even in the “West”, where we have seen truly exceptional improvements in material wealth and well-being in the last few hundred years. Compare the well-being of a Zen Buddhist master and a Fortune 500 CEO – one spiritually advanced and one materially advanced. I have little doubt which is happier and weller – and bringing more wellness to the world around him or her.

It is interesting here to contrast the rate of adoption of new methods in the techno-intellectual and emotio-spiritual realms. Imagine a new technology or intellectual idea – or simply look at a recently developed one like a smartphone. Once created it is rapidly adopted and eagerly used by all those who can afford it or discover it. By contrast, we have powerful emotional and spiritual teachings around us for several thousand years and true adoption – not simple outward conformance, the attendance at church or a mosque enforced by custom or social pressure; the real taking of those teachings into ones heart and actions, true adoption, is low.

Or think about children: the bringing in the world of a new child is probably the most significant and fundamental act we ever do as human beings – literally it creates the future. How much time and thought and reflection do we put into very choice to have children? How do we choose to nurture and educate our children once born? Given the importance of this one might imagine that these activities are some of the most evolved and perfected things we as humans do, that our resources both material and emotional are dedicated to the task. That our best minds are dedicated to thinking about how we can improve this process.

Is this the case? The answer is an obvious no. Not that we do not love our children, or give them vast amounts of time and energy material and emotional. But if you think about the education system, or the choices we make to create a great environment for our child (do we make sure we are as peaceful and rested as we can, do we prioritise time with them over our work etc), it shows that we do far less than we could – more resources and better minds are dedicated to ways of improving the new iPhone than are dedicated to finding ways to improve our children’s schooling.

To be clear, this is not to pass judgment or to create resignation. Quite the opposite. I am one of these people. Furthermore, the evidence of history is that we are capable of extraordinary acts and great wisdom both as individuals and groups. There have been mystics, saints and masters who have shown what is possible as human beings. But too often they have been the exception rather than the rule.

And I raise these points not for their own sake but because of their direct relation to the digital revolution. I raise them, because the incredible pace, potential – and threat – of these technological developments demand an equally great degree of “emotio-spiritual” maturity. We must think deeply and wisely if we are to manage and shape the development of digital technology and our use of it in a way that brings well-being to our lives and our societies.

At present, we resemble children playing with increasingly sharp knives. We can and will cut ourselves badly, perhaps even terminally if we proceed as we are – malicious AI is no longer a scifi fantasy but a clear and present danger.

Openness is one important way that we can positively shape the digital revolution and the information age. Openness sets rules of the game that help us avoid some of the pitfalls and dangers, that help us preserve freedom, fairness, and dynamic, democratic creativity. However, it is far from the only thing we should look to. Most fundamentally, it is essential that we must find a way to bridge the growing gap between our technical capabilities and our capacity, intellectual and emotional, to direct and use those capabilities.

  1. And my analysis here has almost completely ignored the looming catastrophe of climate change and ecosystem degradation. [return]
  2. There have, of course, been some major ups and downs, for example around large wars etc. [return]