The Inevitable

Technology is an inexorable force for change that is accelerating the evolution of our species, argues Kevin Kelly in The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces that will Shape our Future. He shares 12 forces that are shaping our immediate and not so immediate future, all fascinating, but a chapter titled ‘Screening’ really captured my attention.

Historically culture revolved around the oral tradition of lecture and storytelling but was disrupted by the mass production and access to books through the invention and spread of the printing press.

In the subsequent years, an author was considered an authority, with the ever present and fixed nature of the written word etched in ink, that could be referenced, referred to and cited with the understanding that what was written was true, verifiable and immovable.

The ubiquity of digital screens and the ability for amateur creators to publish, journal, share and comment has created an interesting period of tension with the segmentation of people into two categories that Kelly refers to as the People of the Book and the People of the Screen. People of the screen prefer the dynamic flux of pixels – the fluidity and flow of ideas, opinions, tweets, half-baked thoughts, memes and social commentary. Truth is no longer what is written, but rather the assembly of multiple streams of information interpreted, evaluated and re-interpreted through an individual and social construction and reconstruction of truth. Authors and authority are not given the same weight as an individual seeks to discover for themselves the validity of that which appears through their state of conscious and unconscious acquisition of knowledge and evaluation of arguments, counter arguments and opposing viewpoints.

Truth with a capital T, becomes truths, plural. Is this what we might refer to as a post-truth society? Maybe. Maybe not.

The call for children in schools to be able to distinguish between the ‘real’ and the ‘fake’ is the necessity for them to develop finely tuned bullshit detectors as they navigate a multiplicity of streams of information from different sources. I sit right in the middle of this Book V Screen tension. Having grown up with the first personal computers and gaming consoles (hello Atari 2600), I find that I read a ridiculous amount on a screen. I also read many books each year. I am currently studying a PhD which requires me to search online databases of relevant literature. I find that if I want to read something deeply however, I prefer a hardcopy. A print out of a research paper allows me to physically highlight relevant sections. Indeed, the tactile sensation of a hardcover volume somehow facilitates a deeper contemplative state. Why is this? I’m not sure but my guess is that a hardcopy text creates a more relaxed and passive conscious state as opposed to the activeness, interconnectedness and hyperlinked online environment.

Herbert Simon is quoted as saying that “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention” and this creates for me an interesting conundrum. What do I focus my attention on? Is it ok to wander down a rabbit hole of ideas, new media and tangentially related topics? Do I read a paperback non-fiction book or do I read it on a kindle and allow the sharing of my highlighted passages and annotations with an almost unlimited audience? Is reading a solitary or a social pursuit? Can I benefit from the collective commentary of and interaction with potentially thousands of other readers or am I ok with individual contemplation and reflection?

Kelly suggests that much like Wikipedia, the future is a state where all the books in the world combined with all the digital text on the web will become a single liquid fabric or interconnected world of ideas. This is both exciting and terrifying. A challenge to the identities of the People of the Book for sure. Identity, capital I, is a focus of my research as I seek to uncover the factors that inhibit and enhance an individuals ability to engage in identity formation and reformation.

In a recent Virtual Reality (VR) experiment at Stanford University, participant’s arms became their legs and their legs became their arms. That is to kick in VR, participants had to punch with their arms in ‘real life.’ This experiment resulted in what I think is a mind blowing outcome – it took a person on average four minutes to completely rewire the feet/arm circuitry in their brains to make this feel natural and allow action without conscious decision-making.

Our identities are far more fluid than we think and despite the tension that always exists between the new and the old, perhaps Marshall McLuhan was right when he said, “first we shape our tools, and then our tools shape us.”

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