Internet, autonomous vehicles, robots, a new feeling for the world: how digitalisation is changing our lives. An essay by Erna Lackner.
A small boy stands in front of an aquarium and wants to magnify the fish behind the glass by swiping his thumb and index finger on the pane – a scene from the picture book of digitalisation. What will the boy think of as normal reality when he grows up? How will the digital technologies that shaped his relationship with the world from the time he was young have influenced his awareness? What do digital natives consider natural? How real are virtual things?
The digital revolution has turned the world upside down, not just technologically and economically, it has also had a cultural effect – mentally, psychologically and intellectually. It will be easier to determine whether we are currently experiencing the greatest transformation humanity has ever seen a hundred years from now. We are in the fascinating position of being in the midst of it, and can already say we will have lived in interesting times. Google counts 5.6 billion queries every day, that's 65,000 every second. More than a billion people are active on Facebook every day. More than one in every four people has a mobile phone today; there are 2.1 billion smartphones. Young people reach for their smartphones 160 times a day – so much so that they have almost become appendages.
The internet came into our lives like a natural phenomenon, and is arguably a force of nature. Standing in its way would mean to stand in one's own way, against one's self as a social being and against the spirit of the times. Human nature dictated that digital language and communication technology would be invented or discovered.
The most recent impetus came with Steve Jobs' stroke of genius of putting human hands back into play when it comes to technology: smartphones can be operated intuitively, in a way that engages the senses with a swipe of the finger on a touchscreen.
The internet makes sense to us today like a second sun. Swipe – and you are connected with the world. Never again can you forget this feeling for the world; you will always want to feel this connection, this magical realism. We are still living in a transition phase. Older people try to stem the flow: don't live online! Go analogue! But secretly, they are also congratulating each other on the fact that they still have the opportunity to experience this new territory. The world is fresh again – after already being completely discovered and canvassed all the way to the end of Antarctica. But now: a spirit of optimism, taking a new measure of the world that covers the old one, conquests are possible again. Restart!
We are all lucky that in 1991, Tim Berners-Lee the inventor of the World Wide Web at CERN in Geneva, was not interested in economic gain. The network was created to be open and for everyone. The British physicist gave us communicative freedom as we had never known it before. And it thus creates potential for social and economic effects. In the exponential growth race, the fastest became the lasting victors at the hubs of infrastructure: Google, Facebook, YouTube, Apple, Amazon, PayPal and other mega-players. In the multimedia age we are getting used to the reality of the virtual, and to virtual reality with temporary assistance from glasses.
To keep this in the context of America, perhaps we will reawaken the spirit of the Wild West. Like the first settlers, we have magnificently unexplored wildernesses ahead of us – with all the risks and adverse effects of course. This new territory seems endless, and not yet obscured by bureaucracy and barriers. But the signs are increasing that this grand global freedom will not last forever. Regulations, warning signs, blocks, selections, containment and meddling will increase for business purposes, on the precept of transparency, in the name of pristine democracy, because of trolls, to limit the reach of bots driven by algorithms.
Cookies litter our paths. Online targeting, the way it is done in e-commerce, has also since been used in politics. During the US elections, customer types became voter types. Apps promising convenience and happiness tempt us to open our hearts in a way we would never allow in our "real", analogue lives. But digital profiling is now real too. The old saying "everything comes to light in the end" also applies to the new networked world, especially due to the finely oiled recording machine that is the internet.
Third wave of digitalisation approaching
Just like all radical upheavals, the digital shift shimmers with an interplay of light and darkness. Mail-order companies are ousting local businesses. And the other way around, small producers can access large markets online.
Traditional media are no longer needed to deliver news. News spreads at digital speed through social media, and Donald Trump is not the only one tweeting from the top down – many politicians like to communicate directly. This is because digital platforms are accessible to everyone, from fashion bloggers to institutions and companies; the media sector has not shrunk, it has grown enormously and in many diverse directions – bravo!
Due to economic interests, digital innovators are currently shifting all of their energy to the Internet of Things: the networking and controlling of intelligent machines for everyday life. According to internet pioneer and AOL-founder Steve Case, the "third wave" of digitalisation (the first being the WWW and the second being search engines and social media) will energise all kinds of industries. Wearable technologies for patients and telemedicine, autonomous vehicles, smart homes. The refrigerator reports when the beer stock is getting low, heating systems heat up during the driverless ride home, the car parks itself. Upon arriving home, your favourite music greets you to match your mood. The floor is perfectly hoovered – if only a robot could run the rest of the house for us!
In Japan, a country that is virtually smitten with technology, robots are used as cleaning staff and porters in airports and hotels, and also as responsive assistants in nursing homes. In Germany, people may perceptively ask ethical questions like, "is it ok to hit robots with hammers?" EU legal experts are deliberating about e-people and their rights, duties and obligations, but humanoid machines make Europeans a bit uneasy. Of course, every piece of useful technology has always appealed to wide groups of buyers if it is really good. And when it comes to the Internet of Things, Silicon Valley is already congenially connected with German engineering skill and mechanical engineering technology. Many devices with intelligent control electronics originate from the research departments of German industries that focus on deep learning: machines with artificial intelligence do more than learn to operate in ways appropriate to situations and tasks; they also cognitively continue writing their operating software.
This article appeared in the spring/summer 2017 issue of CHANCEN magazine focusing on “Success in the Digital World”.To German edition
Ironically, the ancestral homeland of the automobile still greets autonomous vehicles with quite a bit of scepticism. In addition to technical work, BMW, Daimler, Volkswagen and Elon Musk from Tesla have a good deal of psychological work ahead of them to combat the fear of loss of control. Even if a driver is no longer a free person on an open road when they are stuck in a traffic jam, the car and its steering wheel are a symbol of freedom. The driver is king behind the wheel.
Smartphones are digital all-rounders that opened up endless room for manoeuvring through the world, yet the digitalised car intends to steal the joy drivers find in doing what they want? Yes, driving is still fun! Driver assistance systems are already found in many vehicles today – the transition to autonomous vehicles will be incremental. And once drivers ultimately experience the flow as they glide through the digitally synchronised evening rush hour, they will immediately be in favour of it. This flow, convenience, quality of life and other surprising gains will be allies during this digital transition. And after all, given its name, should the automobile not have been able to drive itself from the very start?
About the author
Erna Lackner is a freelance author in Vienna, primarily writes for the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" newspaper and published the book "Die Generationen Y und Z" (Generations Y and Z).
We live in exciting times. We should enjoy it and help design whatever we can, however we can. We have the wonderful tools to do it – both technical and human. In Latin, "digitus" means finger. The digital future is in our hands.
Published on KfW Stories: Friday, 16 June 2017