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The digital era – boon or bane?

24 Sep 2019 / 20:18 H.

THE prime minister sounded a warning recently about the digital era amid the almost “unchallenged” urge to go digital. He reportedly was wary about the erosion of values and norms, as well as cultural tradition in the rush to be “successful” as defined in the world of automatons. Inevitably, he cautioned against the tendency to be “trapped” as if one is unable to shake off the techno-addiction because of the fear of being left behind.

There is merit in what he said since there are always possible “blind spots” that could lead us into the “trap”. Unless we are sure of what we are talking about. In the same way, we cannot be too sure when it comes to any emerging era. Lessons from history tell us that almost every so-called new era has its major downside. And often the downside is glossed over until it is too late to do anything meaningful about it.

Go back to the first industrial revolution some 300 years ago. While it brought improvements to industrialisation per se, it brought bad news too (though unintended) to the environment‎ for example. In fact, it sowed the seeds of climate change, albeit in a subtle way. This was later made worse by the second industrial revolution as the previous downside fell into oblivion. Hence, environmental pollution got heightened as industrial mass production took hold and set the norm for the future. There were other factors causing socio-cultural dislocation. They are obvious “blind spots” given that no one was sure what industrialisation stood for. Yet it was pursued full steam and humans paid a high price as things got more complex as it moved on.

Fast forward to the digital era – a combination of the third and fourth industrial revolutions, while the world gets destabilised by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. How can anyone be sure where the “blind spots” will be?

For instance, the phenomenon of “transhumanism” or “humanity +”‎ where humans transcend themselves in entirety, as described by biologist Julian Huxley. Or turn into “cyborgs” – the machine-powered “human” that shapes human behaviour (if not consciousness), not unlike the ubiquitous smartphones. The latter is fair indication that “cyborgs” are indeed in the making. And what about “homo deus” as predicted by author Yuval Noah Hariri?

Things are moving in such a way that we can no longer be sure if humans can fit into the algorithmic world of tomorrow. Never mind the loss of cultures or values when humans are unsure of their future.

No apology is required if any of these phenomena are not easily recognisable. They are “blind spots” to most of us. And there are more to come with the explosion of the digital era. By most indications, all these will come into being before the century runs out. We do not have to wait long to experience the possible “blind spots”.

To know what this can translate into is to appreciate what took place last Friday in many places. An estimated four million people took to the streets demanding urgent action to put an end to global warming and climate change. It took just over a year for Greta Thunberg – a 16-year-old Swedish student to voice out her concern. Last week, adults also threw their weight behind the event when they walked out of workplaces and institutions. An estimated 185 countries witnessed the rallies targeting issues which until recently were within the purview of the adult world. But now the youth have taken control. They urged the UN secretary-general to urgently arrest the rise in global temperature as agreed under the 2015 Paris Agreement.

Some of the triggers for these events can be traced to the start of the industrial era. Imagine what the consequences will be like in the next era where digitisation is predicted to reign supreme with “transhumanists”, “cyborgs” and “homo deus” roaming free and humans (or what is left of them) registering their concern like what many people did last Friday. Let us learn from the past to create a better world.

With some four decades of experience in education, the writer believes that “another world is possible”. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com

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