The Coming Split of Humankind: Into the Digital Darkness or a New Dawn?
The Rise of the Millennials
Millennials, also known as the Millennial Generation, are the generation of people born after Generation X (of which – apparently – I am a member). No one seems to agree exactly when this cohort came into being, though “born after the year 1982, is often quoted.
My spell checker seems to think ‘Millennials’, is a misspelling which suggests it is a relatively recent term. Most spell checkers were born before Millennials it would seem.
The traits of Millennials are also not easy to pin down. They are the generation born into, and perhaps for, the digital age. Millennial babies appear to have ditched the silver spoon for an IPad and take to Clash of the Clans as if it were a baby rattle.
Confused? Stay with me. I’m going to dig into my intuition, my recent observations and do a bit of intuitive “futuring.”
Enter Generation Z
Generation Z seems to have come along pretty fast. If Generation Z came to the digital world as a new invention, Generation Y adopted it and immersed themselves in it willingly. Generation Z were born into it, and born for it.
If Generation X haven’t joined Facebook, join it later in life, or join it without knowing fully what they are joining, or have even been digitally ignored, Generation Y dived in and grabbed it (and many are regretting it), Generation Z, the “screenagers”, are leaving it for cooler platforms, or are heading back to the woods, less influenced by money. Generation Z have ones and zeros in their blood, and it is starting to annoy them.
Generation Zders prefer honesty, and hate the “spin” and manipulation of corporate social media, they want to work for authentic people and organisations and – you might be surprised – though digital naturals, they prefer face to face communication over hiding behind texts and emails. Cafes are riding the wave of Generation Z and are popping up everywhere, with recycle bins, favourite charites and organic coffee. Oh, and fibre-optic, free WiFi.
So, when they find themselves in social settings – at work or at play, when people are spinning, bullshitting, jargon-spouting and being digitally distracted, Millennials switch off, get bored and zone out.
True, some escape into the digital realm and start app-surfing and checking in on Twitter. But many simply drift out of the conversation. Staring off into space (see picture above) is a Generation Z-Millennial reaction to inauthentic communication more than any other.
The World of Work
Whereas Generation X faked it, colluded or made excuses to leave boring meetings, Generation Y became digitally distracted or were rude, cutting short meetings that lacked value for them, whereas Generation Z often escape into their imaginations or “float”. This floatiness bemuses and even irritates Generation X and Y folk, especially managers and leaders. X folk see it as rude, Y folk see it as unprofessional as well as rude. Generation Zders simply choose to be in the space that feels most right for them at the time.
The Disappointment with the Digital Realm
Though often escaping into digital distraction, Generation Z people find it largely disappointing (in its current state of evolution). They often escape into carefully chosen advert-free digital spaces – a mind-numbing or stimulating game that allows them to retreat from the physical bullshit in their immediate physical space.
So, Generation Zders switch off from physical interaction by withdrawing from it – either into devices or into day dreaming. They come late to work because a good, slow wake up is their human right. And, for many of them – as Einstein reminded us – imagination is more important than knowledge. But not all people these days know how to imagine and day dream any more so they either sleep with their eyes open or choose the easier option of immersing in a digital device. Imagination isn’t only making stuff up or fantasising. Imagination is about being in your own authentic, inner space.
What? WHAT? Choosing the physical over the digital?
Unfortunately with the rise of the digital inferno – the replacement of the high street with screens, the loss of physical world free or low cost activities near to our work and doorsteps, opting for the physical world is much harder than a bit of digital escapism. Gaming is big among Generation Z, as are transient apps such as Instagram and shared videos. Over time though, as Generation Z folk realise the corporate agendas hidden behind freemium apps and games, they feel greater disappointment and seek ways to switch off altogether.
You might have noticed that there is a yoga or meditation class on every street corner, Volleyball is on the rise again in many cities, people are buying tents and opting for festivals over hotels. This was the case with other generations, but none more so than Generation Z. The Glastonbury festival sells out in minutes.
Is humanity splitting down the digital middle?
Living in Brighton, I’ve become aware that Generation Z is splitting in two. The signs are there…
One part is willingly surrendering, diving in. The mobile phone becomes a prosthetic device and we dream our digital gaming in after-images. The concerns of privacy or loss of individuality is nothing to worry about. The digital future can cure cancer, make us live forever and give us the power of flight. the digital future is a journey to utopia. And even if it isn’t, it’s cool and the wagon to be riding on. The view runs as follows: It is a crime against humanity, a sin not to embrace what is coming. Technology is a miracle, the speed of change an exciting necessity; questioning it is uncool, party-pooping, even irresponsible. At the extreme, we are waiting to leave our bodies and plug into the eternal pleasure of virtual reality that offers new, unimagined worlds.
The second part of the Millennial generation is heading elsewhere, finding the digital “utopia” distasteful, a possible deal with the devil, juvenile, unwanted and inhumane. It is really attempting to flee the boredom of old hierarchies, feeling controlled by “systems”, and the spin of marketing, through creating more authentic “projects”.Projects with purpose. Purpose they feel they own. Projects they have chosen.
Many, ironically make use of the digital world – 3D printing, new, cool apps and plenty of music events, film projects and a host of activities in the “green” space. And they go directly to the rest of humanity for “crowd”-funding.
This part of humanity is forming the world of “meetups”, where we meet up to laugh, to hang out in cafes, to brainstorm the solution to this or that, to find cool empty spaces to work or play in. There’s also a rediscovery of near-to-zero minimalism – simply walking on the beach, swimming and, of course, rollerblading.
The first part of the this split represents, I believe, the generation that will utterly embrace the digital future – plugging in to chips and racing to escape into, or positively commit to artificial intelligence, virtual reality and the cyborg-human. They’ll seek a newer form of “truth” which may involve solving the problem of authenticity and honesty by discovering pure, cold truth – the human without morality. We’ll engineer feeling and put it in a designed place in the human experience. We’ll find cold authenticity by removing the troublesome and confusing nature of moral questions in life, by designing them out of human experience. Why do I say cold? Because the nature of digital technology is binary (“Either you are with us o against us”). And that coldness is already demonstrating itself as a core value in the digital realm. the notion of “acceptable losses” or collateral damage is already becoming embedded in innovation models. A small percentages of uses experience crashing PCs, even plugs set alight in the rush to mass reach audiences. When systems are updates, support for older systems suddenly ceases with little compassion. Research into the negative impacts of the digital realm is under-funded and often brushed aside by product designers. And clunky, pain-causing algorithms are launched on us with little imagination of the possible impact. Innovation in the digital realm has become religiously more important and urgent than social impact. Change precedes sensitivity. Launch precedes social concern and deep dialogue. We might be building a new utopia, or we might be building a new Tower of Babel.
The second part of the split will involve a possible total rejection of the digital, in its current binary-based form. There may be a period of total “switch off”, even banishment. I’m not kidding about heading back into the woods. But this heading back may not be a backward step but an evolution of human awareness. The current varied and often disturbing market for mindfulness and meditation may give way to a quest for higher quality human awareness. We may pause more, commune with the world more in artistic as well as scientific ways. We may explore the meaning of community more and develop new forms of communication and connection.
A Polarisation of the Human Race?
These two groups may well cut off from each other, or even come to blows. Certainly one will have the technological fire power to physically wipe out the other. But the second group may well have the power to elude and even tame the first. Only time will tell. And in even polarising these two “parts” of a split humankind, I’m being as binary and either-or as the digital realm itself. I’m doing it as a means of communication. I’m doing it because I’m drinking from the very cup I’m warning you to be wary of, in order to let just enough of the healthful and harmful qualities add to my perspective.
I believe this process is already beginning. Through Generation Z, humanity is splitting. Some seek self-realisation and purpose through becoming binary-creatures, mediated by digital technology, by 3D printed guns, bombs and into a world where beheading is simple, quick and even satisfying for some who have traded complexity for simplicity, nuance for clear brutality. Others seek to disengage from this, to find ways to be together in smaller groups, in circles, to engage in enquiry, to realise themselves through dialogue with others and to experience the spaces in between Ones and Zeros. They may find ways to enhance and consciously “place” the digital into their physical lives. The internet of things can either shape and control humanity, or serve its physical needs, defined by it and not the corporation. That really is an either-or.
It leaves Generations Y and Z a bit bemused, needing to choose, wondering where their place fits. The digital realm has becoming enormously powerful, very quickly in our history – a power for good, for evil, and for both.
Yet its current trajectory of development has created concern for even its pioneers.
Yet it isn’t the path of development of robots that we should be most worried about. It isn’t the rise of the machines that I most fear. It is what we, human beings, may become.
Beyond Generation Z. Back to A
Let’s look further forward. So, humanity splits, diverges, parts company with part of itself. Out of Generation Z comes Generation A.
Generation A is now in two parts. Generation A1 takes a physical and, dare I use the word, spiritual route. By that I mean it embarks in a route to enhancing its own awareness, not through augmented digital reality, but through enhancing perception and awareness through mental, emotional and physical development. it begins to self-realise through community, connection, through the “breathing in” of others through dialogue, enquiry, playing and working together, through collaboration and exploration. It lifts itself away from dogmatic spirituality, from fixed religion, into curiosity, openness, experimentation, and experiments in freedom – of thought, feeling and action. it explores, reflects, learns and enquires further. It builds stuff, including technology but practices placement – placing technology and other social forces such as money, in mindful purpose. Humanity grows up, but never loses its love of innocence and childhood openness. I wonder if you are shocked that a recent interview with Apply founder, Steve Jobs, as well as many silicon valley senior managers and business owners, reveals that they limit or even ban their own kids’ use of Ipads and other digital devices in favour of fully experiencing a more “natural” and “creative” childhood, making them more ready to face the adult world with freedom and creative originality. Generation A1 steps away from relentless digital invasion in favour of a new encounter with the physical, only consciously and selectively served or enhanced by the digital.
Generation A2 looks on with scorn at A1. They are uncool, even outrageous – damagers and delayers of inevitable progress. A2 readily plug in to augmented reality, wearing it, implanting it, happy for it to amend and re-design their cognitive and even physical selves – as less used muscles fall into decay, and thought patterns become trained in the ways of designed algorithms and evolving digitally mediated behaviour models. Like the first astronauts who spend significant amounts of time in space, even those heading to Mars – this may be a one way trip or one in which, a return to original Earth may kill or damage us. Generation A2 begins to make the leap into integrating with the digital, entering the Matrix. They are no fools. Intelligence and perception become enhanced and augmented. No patterns of human behaviour emerge, new value sets refine and are born. Robotised humans are a way off in the future, but the beginnings of the human-machine are there.
Now we comes to Generations B1 and B2
B1 continue to form communities that exclude the digital in any way that attempts to control human consciousness or values. The digital is seen as a religious choice in life. “Adigital” describes a life choice. It may be that simplicity becomes a core value, or it may be that the human effort to enhance consciousness through non-digital effort creates new non-binary technologies based on the outcomes of leaps in human perception, creativity and inventiveness. “Natural” technologies as yet unimagined come into being. Generation B1ers value the quality of quality, diversity and are constant seekers of new forms of creativity and “freedom”in thinking, feeling and action.
Within B1 there are extremes. At one extreme are total digital banishers who may even evolve a kind of technophobic fascism. At the other are communities that uphold physical privacy (“sacred personal space”) over digital snooping and transparency. The digital’s potential is held in check by a deeper human-centric and physically-biased world view. It bases itself on a faith in human potential “in and of itself”.
Generation B2 are “excarnating” on the one hand – entering disembodied states, immortal forms of digital life and consciousness, less dependent on the human form and mortal processes. (Lie down, plug in the drip feed and start to fly in digital heaven). We may discover that porting consciousness into the digital realm is impossible or the first steps may be taken in eager experiments. We will never know if what arrives is qualitatively the exactly same as what left the physical but, as has become gospel in the digital realm today, if the copy is good enough, who the f**k cares? (MP3s and Oggs, digital paintings, 3D printed sculptures or organs – and the kiss from a clone or Android that feels exactly the same). But many are willing the take the leap of faith, collude happily with mediocrity, and opt for digital versions of reality – cleaner, more amazing and everlasting. On the other hand, others take the first real steps in the replacement or limbs, organs and even the brain with digital counterparts – some copies, some enhanced or new versions of the original. Robots become lovers, guides, friends, enemies and bosses. The digital realm’s functional, binary core pervades and Generation B2ers become more or less aware of how human feeling and morality, rooted so much in physical frailty and physical creation myths (both in religion and science) are changing and being modified or even suggested away. Over time fingers may grow longer, heads enlarge,eyes more shrewd in look. We may lose hair or the need for nostrils. B2ers begins to look different from earlier human beings. (This, I know, is fanciful but some futurists are already drawing pictures!). Unless human warmth and kindness is consciously digitised and recognised as fundamental, it may fell away, into decay and disuse, replaced by a colder intellectual functionalism.Currently the digital world is all about stimulus response models and functional purpose. These things are also nuanced, hard to capture and time consuming to program into models. Nuance gives way to clunkiness that delivers quick results. Generation B2ers value function over moral, output and input over gentle confusion.
Crazy Futuring Nonsense?
What evidence do I have for this seemingly fanciful bit of futuring? Only the evidence, so far, of my own eyes and ears – in the many workshops and discussions I’ve been involved in with Generation X,Y and Z men and women. I see a the beginnings of some sort of divergence. Focusing on Generation Z, some definitely describe the future as one in which we realise how dumb we were, in an age where technological invention and innovation ran faster and faster of our ability to process it, reflect on it, be wise with it. Eventually we will dump the idea that technology is there to control us and turn us into “drones” for the “hive mind“. We’ll reconnect with the natural world and the “machine” will become “placed” in that world, by us. The journey will be towards human freedom, not digital “lockdown.”
Others are all for letting the digital realise its potential. It might just save the planet or take us into realms of flight and immortality. The digital, they say, is benevolent, made by us. we have a duty to embrace it, to “go in”. Some look at the world as it is today and see humans as being poor stewards of the planet, even dumb, and that our encounter with morality has largely failed. It is time for us to reach a “higher place” through smartening our thinking and creating a true human family through the digital realm. Some want us to plug into the “Matrix“, others see a less technologised future where the digital largely invisible but which mediates and defines our experience benevolently. Yet many are using the same technology (by their own admission) to ignore family members, dump partners and even fire people. But what is wrong with that, if we solve world hunger, they say.
This really is the road less traveled, for it lies up ahead. I believe that road will split into two directions. Which one will you take?
Paul Levy is the Author of Digital Inferno