I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:
Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things. (Douglas Adams)
For the past month I’ve been wandering around Brussels where we held our most recent Brave Conversations with a view to more fully understanding the European Union, particularly from the perspective of my new role as President of DEF. Through the DEF network I have attended numerous EU sponsored events and met with some wonderful people within the Brussels Bubble who are working to create Europe’s digital future.
A few things in particular have struck me during this time:
- Europe is an idea which the European Union holds together through its institutions, processes and people
- The average age of a Member of the European Parliament is 52, fairly similar to the UK and other countries including Australia
- The Europeans are the absolute masters of developing Legislation, which, a number of people commented, was ‘our number one export’!
- There seems to be a palpable fear of Europe being left behind in the digital ‘race’ which is currently driving the global economy – this was most evident at the EIT’s Grow Digital and Digital Europe’s Summer Summit.
Very conveniently during this period Apple held it’s annual World Wide Developers’ Conference (WWDC) where it annually releases it’s new products and this year didn’t disappoint with the launch of Vision Pro. Many are sceptical of the move in to metaverse but personally I think this will be a defining moment as Apple continues to play the long game (this article is well worth reading on this).
Why? Because the Vision Pro gives us a glimpse of a human future in which our mediated communications are finally released from the physical realm and can blend seamlessly with the digital world.
As I watched the presentation of Apple’s Vision Pro I kept thinking about J. J. Gibson’s Theory of Affordances which I first came across when I read Shoshana Zuboff’s 2002 book The Support Economy. Zuboff had begun to explore this idea in her first book, In The Age of the Smart Machine (1988) where she saw that the digital computer enabled the process of informating which would ensure that everything that could be translated into information would be – exchanges, events, objects – and could be used for surveillance and control.
The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill. … It implies the complementarity of the animal and the environment. (James J. Gibson, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, 1979)
In The Support Economy Zuboff explores how this applies to the individuation of consumption, where the convergence between Consumers’ desires, Technological capabilities and Organisational innovations means that
The new individuals seek true voice, direct participation, unmediated influence, and identity-based community because they are comfortable using their own experience as a basis for making judgements.
Zuboff uses the Theory of Affordances to describe the characteristics of digital information:
- It bestow global transparency and enable the capacity to inform in a way which is visible, sharable, knowable, mobile and manageable. This provides greater accountability and responsibility but also results in a demand for better business practices
- It enables humans to more effectively and efficiently deal with complexity
- It provides the opportunity for comprehensive understanding through collaboration and co-ordination as a result of distributed learning and customisation
- It provides immediacy – – anywhere, anyhow, anytime
- It enables infinite plasticity in the manipulation and shaping of products and information
- The result is that supply chain relationships become kaleidoscopic rather than linear processes, without reference to geographical location.
So let’s begin to think about what Vision Pro could potentially offer as compared with three other vision-products.
The flawed but extraordinary Vision shows that the technological struggle to make spatial computing a reality is being won. The next race is to discover what it is for. Apple has just fired the starting gun. (The Economist).
The beauty of thinking in Affordances is that it is we humans who will figure out new ways to use anything … be it Vision Pros or walking paths.
Which brings me to some of the conversations I heard in Brussels.
A couple of years ago the World Economic Forum started talking about Industry 4.0 which they defined as the merging the physical, digital and biological worlds in ways that create both huge promise and potential peril.
Personally I never bought in to this … I felt that even the use of the word industry was completely missing the point of the digital revolution and told me more about the mindset of the people coming up with the idea than what was going on.
The word industry has a number of definitions:
- a group of productive enterprises or organizations that produce or supply goods, services, or sources of income (Britannica)
- manufacturing activity as a whole; a distinct group of productive or profit-making enterprises; a department or branch of a craft, art, business, or manufacture; systematic labour especially for some useful purpose or the creation of something of value (Miriam Webster)
At Grow Digital the Panel of speakers talked about Industry 5.0 which they see as being complementary to Industry 4.0 and providing a shift from a focus on economic value to a focus on societal value, and a shift in focus from welfare to wellbeing.
According to the International Society of Automation
While the theme of Industry 4.0 revolves around connectivity through cyber-physical systems, Industry 5.0—while also aligned with platforms made possible by Industry 4.0—also addresses the relationship between “man and machine,”
Which means that people are beginning to see the word industry as linking to social and societal change – which is what Web Science has been talking about for two decades. There is a teleological elements to Affordances here because as we perceived the uses of things this changes how we integrate them in to our lives, which then has social and even political consequences.
In his book The Goddess versus the Alphabet polymath Leonard Shlain postulated that the invention of writing led to an increased linearisation of human thought which became more logical and process driven which then impacted how we structured our societies and systems of governance. Shlain believed that two inventions in the 20th Century would radically change this: the typewriter (where we use both hands for input) and the television (where we receive information spatially and through moving images).
Another perspective is that of psychologist Iain McGilcrist who argued that Western thinking has oscillated between being left-brain and right-brain dominated (The Matter of Things):
[Y]ou could say, to sum up a vastly complex matter in a phrase, that the brain’s left hemisphere is designed to help us ap-prehend – and thus manipulate – the world; the right hemisphere to com-prehend it – see it all for what it is.
If even some of what Shlain and McGilcrist say is correct then Spatial computing is going to have as significant an impact on our societies as the invention of writing did 5,000 years ago and we are already seeing evidence of this in the generations now who rarely hand-write (and certainly can’t read hand writing) and who predominantly communicate through visual or aural social media – personally I find that I would often prefer to listen to a podcast or watch a video than read reams of text.
Much of this comes down to personal learning styles and different types of intelligence, as well as age and demographics. Which brings me back to Douglas Adams’ quote where we started. I think the use of the term Industry 5.0 reflects much of the above – linear thinking and demographics – most senior managers globally are in the age bracket of Adams over thirty-fives and thus have a natural inclination to see things as they have been, not as they could become.
We are still largely seeing the world through the prism of the industrial age.
This is where I think we are now approaching an event horizon in terms of how we see the world, which I began to write about last year. I think that this means we are now extremely limited in our ability to imagine the future that is emerging as the result of the technologies we have already created – Artificial Intelligence, Spatial Computing, BioEngineering, Limitless Energy – and the speed with which it is coming is something totally unprecedented in recorded human history. Even creating new Science Fiction is a challenge (which Charlie Brooker found when he tried to get ChatGPT to write a Black Mirror episode) because it is all based on our experience of life living in a human physical analogue world and the affordances this provides us.
So where can we look for clues as to what might be evolving?
- With young people, the so-called digital natives, who have grown up post internet, who don’t necessarily thinking linearly and are not as shackled with the industrial mindset. Some of these people are finding everything cool and exciting, others are downright terrified, but as with each younger generation they are the ones challenging the status quo whilst simultaneously being caught up in the distraction of media consumption.
- With older people, those who are aging and are the ones needing to use technologies to help them live and enhance their lives. These people are among the last to remember life before the internet and to fully appreciate that changes to our human system that have been wrought and often they are highly tech-savvy – we used to call them Silver Surfers!
- Aligned with this are those with physical and learning difficulties who don’t fit in to the stereotypes that society has imposed on our physical and learning systems – those with dyslexia, visual and hearing impairment, and those who have problems interacting with the world of text and linearity we have currently constructed. (Azimov’s Stranger in Paradise is a beautiful short story that is well worth reading on this).
- Then there is the non-Western world where millions of people are using the technologies in ways that we WEIRD people don’t necessarily think of or understand.
In other words we need to first recognise and then seek to move beyond own human filter-bubbles and be open to diversity in the greatest possible sense. We need to recalibrate as human beings, be open to and harness our human emotions – be they fear, anger, excitement, frustration – in order to prepare for what is coming and then do what we humans do best – work together to proactively use these incredible tools we’ve invented to help us solve the problems around us rather than mindlessly be distracted with our online shopping and obsession with immediate satisfaction in the vain hope that they just go away.
This is the work now. It is not easy, but nothing about our survival as a species has been up until now, nor should it be.