Homo (Sapiens Sapiens) Digitalensis A future written in the past
After a flourishing era, in which humankind discovered the steam engine, standardization and electricity, a new beginning was on the horizon. Even though society reached unbelievable levels of productivity and new levels of wealth throughout the world, we were missing the last piece of the puzzle.
The spark of a new beginning
The beginning of the Third Industrial Revolution has brought us a new way of communication that enabled us to send and receive data instantly. We have to look back to the 1950s when the base of the digital was laid and, after that, the world, as we know it, changed forever. Fast forward to the 1990s, the “.com” phenomenon reached its first all-time high, and new ways of interaction were created. We are talking about Google, Amazon and many others. The 2000s brought more core services through Facebook and YouTube, social media and streaming respectively. After people started consuming more and more digital content, technology needed to keep pace with demand; as a result, 4G communications (fourth generation data transfer speeds) are now a very common thing, 5G is becoming the new standard and we already see how 6G is ramping up its marketing drive in countries like China, Japan, South Korea and more.
Why are all these innovations in data transfer so important?
Well, their applicability extends to various fields, such as medicine, education, personal security, the automotive industry and many others. For instance, taking a closer look at the medical field is informative for all those shifts, because, thanks to telemedicine, more and more medical work including difficult surgeries are done remotely, in poor areas, with robotic arms. In addition, during the recent global pandemic, many children were able to attend online classes thanks to these new ways of communication and thanks to almost ubiquitous infrastructure.
A glimpse of the singularity
The question here is not a matter of “if”, but of “when”…
First, we must acquaint ourselves with the meaning of a technological singularity. This idea came to life back in 1993, when Vernor Vinge wrote about it in one of his articles, and back then it represented a place like “the knotted space-time at the centre of a black hole” where humanity will reach to when artificial intelligence will be created so that it will exceed humans’ technical ability.
Things have not changed so much, considering that today the technological singularity represents the “point in time when all the advances in technology, particularly in artificial intelligence (AI), will lead to machines that are smarter than human beings” (Futurism.com, 2017).
According to Ray Kurzweil, the father of this concept, we are going to arrive at this point in 2045. This will be a turning point for humankind, because the technology, from this stage on, will have the ability to improve itself at an outstanding pace, and human intelligence won’t be able to keep up.
The road is also strewn with troubles
“The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom”, Isaac Asimov once said. Even though these thoughts belong to one of the most prolific Sci-Fi writers, who addressed topics such as robotization, technological utopias and many others, his words are deeply rooted in today’s problems.
One of the main topics that will seize the news will be the big unemployment rates in the short run – the “useless class” in Yuval Noah Harari’s words –, caused by the accelerated automation of industry and services. Despite the improved performance, ethical problems will have to be debated, and the big corporations will have a tough time finding the ideal compromise.
Another problem seems to be some sort of paradox itself. It is well known that technology helps to improve performance, to make tasks more efficient, but more often the opposite effect is observed. This is caused by the large number of distractions we encounter during the day. For example, notifications on the phone, social media, and e-mails are the top 3 eroders.
The following drawback is strongly related to the idea discussed earlier. The new ways of consuming online content have affected short-term memory and the way the brain evaluates its stimuli. This effect is most visible in the younger generations who mostly use applications like TikTok.
The following two problems are going hand in hand. If you find yourself reading this article, I assume that you like free speech, the right to say and dream whatever you want. All of this is a reality in a democratic-oriented society, so here is the catch: if we allow algorithms to make decisions for us and we don’t know what beliefs they are built on, we could end up with a shaky democracy that will no longer serve the people, but the companies in question.
This is only one side of the coin because, in a democratic society, we should have freedom and privacy. We already talked about freedom and now we have to take a closer look at the privacy polemics. With greater technology comes greater power, meaning that the surveillance agencies and companies will be able to reach unprecedented levels of control. If we do not pay attention to how technology will be used, we could find ourselves in an Orwellian dystopia, where Big Brothers are protecting our interests.
A shift in behaviour
After this whole pandemic, things are starting to take shape. There is much talking about consumption habits and job preferences.
Figure 1. Retail e-commerce sales worldwide from 2014 to 2026
Source: Statista, 2022
The e-commerce industry gained more and more of its market share. In 2020, after the Covid-19 pandemic outbreak, people started to change their shopping behaviour and shifted to online shopping, at the expense of classic stores. As shown above, in 2019, the market was about $3.4 trillion, surging to $5.7 trillion in 2022, when the pandemic was over. After this rough time, consumers behaviour changed forever and today Forbes estimates that by 2026 e-commerce will be responsible for 24% of total retail purchases.
How we spend our money is not the only thing that changed over time. Let’s take a closer look at how jobs started to shift from physical to hybrid or fully remote.
According to the latest McKinsey & Company study on the US labour market, a lot of jobs have been shifting to hybrid or fully remote in the past years, and this trend is on the rise. This study revealed that 58% of the US workforce (approx. 92 million), say they can work remotely at least part of the time. And when employees were asked, almost everyone voted for a flexible job if the options were given (87% of workers offered at least some remote work embraced the opportunity and spent an average of three days a week working from home).
Here it comes the Digital Man
The past two decades have been an oasis for research and development. The human race made a huge leap forward, and today we can enjoy new communication channels, advanced technologies that make our lives easier, and even artificial intelligence is taking shape. The next phase of humankind will be spectacular but full of unprecedented challenges.
It is clear as it could be that the populations are changing their habits and conducts. People want more flexibility and more convenience, but tend to stop noticing that, step by step, they are willingly giving up their freedom.
In the next decades, we must take care of our rights and how technology is seemingly used on our behalf. We must always look beyond the convenience of the present, to ensure that our future is a brave new world, not a… Brave New World.
Photo source: W O L F Λ R T.
Baluch, A. (2023). 38 E-Commerce Statistics of 2023. Forbes. 10 Mar. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/advisor/business/ecommerce-statistics/.
McKinsey & Company. (2022). Americans Are Embracing Flexible Work—And They Want More of It. Available at: https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/real-estate/our-insights/americans-are-embracing-flexible-work-and-they-want-more-of-it.
Reedy, C. (2017). Kurzweil Claims That the Singularity Will Happen by 2045. Futurism. Available at: https://futurism.com/kurzweil-claims-that-the-singularity-will-happen-by-2045.
Statista. (2022). Global Retail E-Commerce Sales 2026. Available at: https://www.statista.com/statistics/379046/worldwide-retail-e-commerce-sales/.
Vinge, V. (1993). Technological Singularity. Available at: https://frc.ri.cmu.edu/~hpm/book98/com.ch1/vinge.singularity.html.