Is this the age of digital enlightenment?

sun shining through skies

Written by Rubi Kaur FBCS MBA, Senior Technical Architect at Vodafone Group and Chartered IT Professional

Step back in time 300 years: you will find yourself in the age of enlightenment. This was the great awakening, where humanity and society advanced through the central themes of reason and rationality, paving the way for innovation and transformation to flourish.

Rousseau, Voltaire, Adam Smith, Mary Wollstonecraft and many more pioneers of the time nurtured the seismic shifts of forward thinking and progression; they opened portals on a time continuum of discovery, when humanity fundamentally began to lay down rights, question, and understand what it means to be human and our impact on society. Fast forward to the present day, to our tech data-driven 21st century society; how far have we progressed and enriched the key themes of the enlightenment in our modern, digital lives? Are we now living in the age of digital enlightenment?

Our digital destinies

The evidence of a digital world is certainly there. Just look around you. Walk down any shopping mall, sit down in any coffee shop and witness the tethered digital world before you. Here, we cultivate our online selves: browsing, searching, tweeting, posting, and chatting via WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram or twitter. We are enriching our digital selves.

Our virtual spheres of influence grow with every online post, carving out our digital footprints as we go. Social media platforms have become our arenas for ideas and collaboration, where we, as instinctive social animals, connect, exchange ideas, seek real-time feedback and instant gratification.

Disrupt or die

It is hard to argue against the disruptive power of the digital world. In less than half a century, it’s revolutionised the way we work, live, love and die. Over two thirds of the world are now connected and Facebook has over 2.4 billion users. The estimated worth of the digital industry stands at over 300 trillion dollars.

This relatively new industry is bursting with tech entrepreneurs and innovators. It has given birth to new shared economies, where disruptive business models have been born. By earlier standards, these businesses are hard to value, qualify and even understand sometimes. Consider these two paradoxes: Uber is a taxi company that owns no taxis and Netflix is a movie streaming company that owns no cinemas.

Access to online services opens new job opportunities, new business opportunities and even new love possibilities. The online world has given us both reach and influence we’ve never had before. But, it’s equally a place for cyberbullying, the dark web and invasion of privacy. It has given rise to new political parties, altered political elections and changed our interpretation and trust in democracy and free society. Like it or not, the online digital world has changed our modern society forever.

Who’s got my data?

Data is powering our digital world. It is incredible to think that online activities like emails and social postings form part of the 2.5 quintillion bytes of data being produced every day. And these vast seas of data will not recede, but rather swell to raging tempests. Smart cities of connected sensors and IoT devices will further contribute to create the world’s greatest data oceans.

This vast abundance of data presents untold opportunities to further collaborate and innovate. With an estimated worth of 40 billion dollars attributed to the data industry alone, our ability to unlock the data, share it at scale, enrich it, and gain insight for economic good, will benefit the whole of society. Across health, banking and education, the movement will create new products and services.

However, to use many online services, we must give away our own personal data – our digital identities. Our privacy is a human right – whether online or offline; if data is the new oil, our personal data and our identities are like unique rare earth metals. This information unlocks the very core of who we are.

Instinctively, we give away our data on trust. Doing so enables us to use public and business services in the online world. The problem is, distrust starts to happen when our data is harvested, exploited and used against, rather than to protect us.

Recent events have illustrated this point – whether through covert means, like unlawful digital surveillance by facial recognition algorithms, or for political manipulation means by Cambridge Analytica. Does society’s view of the online world change, knowing there are undercurrents of distrust, harm and betrayal out there?

You, me and AI

AI is no longer the talk of science fiction. AI is here now, and it is for everyone. It is encroaching into every facet of our lives, whether we know it or not. Apply for a job and, almost certainly, your CV will be sifted by some algorithms.

Have you ordered something on Amazon? Then your item has been handled by some form of intelligently programmed robot. Do you want a cosy film night in? The algorithms powering Netflix will curate film suggestions before you even think about what to watch. Are you going to bed sad and lonely? Not anymore: take Somnox to bed. It’s a soft and warm, AI-enabled body-shaped pillow, which breathes (and snores) softly in your ear, sending you to sleep. You’ll never feel lonely again.

Using machine learning (the real part of AI) we now have the means to deep mine our data like never before and can predict outcomes and control our future – more or less. In our connected world, AI fridges will send out for milk when we are running low before we have even put milk on the shopping list. Elsewhere, our advanced AI health apps will predict when we are going to have a heart attack and summon the ambulance before you are even remotely aware.

AI will integrate into our lives, but not without controversy. AI learns from the training data and policy algorithms supplied by humans; biases can, therefore, be built into the algorithms unless checked.

Who do we leave behind?

Social inclusion can be defined as the right of everyone to be a part of – and contribute to – the digital world, upholding the principles of building an equal and fair society.

But, in our race to become a digitally connected society, who will be left behind? If we do not design our digital world correctly, or put the right measures in place, we risk leaving behind those unable to participate in the digital world due to barriers such accessibility, affordability, or even trust.

We are heading towards a divided digital society – an unequal place where some can participate, and some can’t. Some can progress, and some can’t. This race to the bottom is becoming a frightening reality: in 2018, 10% of the UK population had never been online and this means they are deprived of the many benefits of a connected society.

Bye-bye, I’m going offline

Our insatiable need for on-tap information, 24 hours a day, has led to a demise in our wellbeing; we check our smartphones every minute.

Addictive behaviours have increased our, already high, anxiety levels. I in 5 people now need to take regular digital detoxes. Yet the digital world never sleeps, the tap never runs dry – tweets and online posts fly throughout the digisphere continually.

The rise of fake news and disinformation has become the new enemy. What is real information and what is not? And most importantly who and what can we trust in the digital world? It’s enough to make anyone want to log off.

The arc of digital enlightenment

As we travel the arc of digital enlightenment, there is no denying the digital world has transformed our lives beyond recognition and given us enormous opportunities for enriching our lives, benefitting all of mankind. The internet has enabled us to solve world problems through greater collaboration and innovation, bringing the world closer than ever before. The digital world has no country or class borders and, equally, must have no social borders.

Our pursuit to uphold the ideals of the enlightenment have not faded nor lessened in the digital age, but they are being tested like never before. Our rights to digital privacy, identity and personal data are being compromised and democracy is under threat. We sometimes struggle to find truth, authenticity and a haven amongst disinformation, fake news, trolls, online harm and echo-chambers.

The power base of the establishment now lies with the tech companies, who must hear the rallying calls for more responsible technology. We cannot uninvent the last half century, but we can evolve in the new era of digital enlightenment – taking with us new principles of Trust, Privacy, Ethics, Compassion and Good Governance; not only for the good of society but for the good of our planet, too.

Originally published here.

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