Many are wondering what is in store for humanity after The Great Pause. Beyond asking “When?” Or “How?”, a better question may be, “Where will our futures take place?”

Only a few short years after the Internet humbly changed the world as we knew it in the late 1980s and early 1990s, researchers and social scientists were already speculating about the vast potential that could emerge from our newfound web of connectivity. In an article entitled “Rules For Radicals: Settling the Cyber Frontier,” Riel Miller, Head of Foresight and Futures Literacy at UNESCO, explored the ways in which the Internet might both alter and evolve how we define life as a species:

  • Universal ‘cyber-citizenship’ or a means for affirming and controlling one’s existence — on-line identity, avatars and reputation — in the virtual worlds made accessible by the net

Approximately 30 years later — and despite the fact that the Internet has become an integral part of our daily lives — we are still no closer to making this list of digital attributes a common reality for the majority of humanity. We have certainly seen e-commerce and social media alter the global zeitgeist, but these practices have arguably had more negative than positive impacts on the health of governance, economics and social cohesion. Instead of controlling our online identity, many people feel that their personal data has been misused by large corporations and political parties; virtual worlds as landscapes for transformative access to education and innovation are seen as playgrounds for those on the fringe; and, the transfer of physical activities into web-based platforms as a means to reducing our carbon footprint is still an afterthought.

It’s not as if many amazing individuals and groups haven’t been working on these ideas (and many more) over the past 30 years. Rather, we have yet to see the great need to shift our paradigms concerning the intentional development of virtual environments for humanity. Our long-standing (but also obsolete) system of short-term thinking and aversion to complex realities has created a mass deficit of imagination, and we have subsequently ignored the need to continually evolve humanity into these emerging landscapes. We’ve trained and educated almost no one to inhabit new worlds of thought and activity, and our collective potential still lies dormant — or worse yet, it is rapidly deteriorating. As Miller noted in a recent article, “Why do we think that the best strategy for our survival and well-being is to build heavy, imposing, rigid fortresses when we live in a swirling cloud?” (2), we have continued to stand by as the Internet has been hijacked by political and economic interests from an obsolete era, and very little has changed in the population at-large.

And then came COVID-19.

Suddenly, everyone has been thrust into the virtual world with little to no preparation or training. Teachers and parents are expected to educate our children online when the dynamics of the digital landscape are very different than the old-world systems with which we are familiar; the digital divide and lack of access to the Internet for large swaths of the population have thrown chaos into the face of our inequitable and non-resilient systems; organizations have scrambled to employ virtual platforms to save work as we know it; and, individuals have sought to leverage existing social media, e-commerce and collaboration websites to expand their presence into an exploding gig economy to take advantage of low-hanging fruit or stay afloat during the crisis. Coupled with a mounting list of civilizational threats such as climate change, growing inequality and a distrust of intellectualism, this pandemic is acting as an accelerant to reimagining life inside of Miller’s “swirling cloud”, but the great migration will require a much more purposeful, diligent and concerted effort if we are to see those clouds produce the much needed rain that can enrich the fertile ground of the web.

While speaking at The Long Now Foundation on the topic of “Six Easy Steps To Avert the Collapse of Civilization,” famed neuroscientist and bestselling author David Eagleman posited that

“We have accidentally invented a technology which I think obviates many of the threats that have caused previous civilizations to collapse… I think we are at a watershed moment in our history, and this may just be the thing that saves our future.” (3)

Among the many civilization-saving (as well as life-altering) capabilities that he assigned to the Internet, several ideas resound with unavoidable clarity:

  • Ancient civilizations would often physically congregate during viral epidemics to demonstrate their compassion, solidarity and fortitude. Our relatively nascent science around viruses has revealed that this is the opposite of what we should do, but the need for social distancing and isolation while also connecting for civilizational advancement can be accomplished through the virtual nature of the Internet in practices such as telepresencing for work and social development, telemedicine for public healthcare, and digital tracking for optimal delivery of resources.

Indeed, Eagleman’s talk is timely — except it’s not. Interestingly, he gave this talk in 2010 — a full decade before the presently unfolding COVID-19 pandemic. The idea of creating a digital evolutionary platform that holds the potential to positively transform the human experience and aid in ecologically regenerative outcomes is not an idea whose time has come — it’s an idea that is long overdue.

In a 2017 paper entitled “The Body, Technology and Translation: Mapping the Complexity of Online Embodiment,” Seweryn Rudnicki addressed this unfolding exploration of the virtual human experience where body, identity, technology, reality and social constructs all intertwine. Speaking directly to our failure to keep pace with the ever-growing potential of a virtual world, he noted that, “Since the first decade of the 21st century, the Internet has become much more mobile, accessed in multiple channels, with numerous devices and used across a number of daily activities. It has also ceased to be commonly understood only as the World Wide Web accessible in browsers, becoming rather an infrastructure for a number of devices (from smartphones to cars) offering a vast number of services. For the sociological interest in the body, it is important that these changes have enabled new forms of interaction between physical bodies and Internet-related technologies, which can now be used not only to represent the body in specific virtual environments in the form of a picture, avatar or description, but also to offer a possibility to track, livestream and record a number of bodily parameters and activities. Yet the social theory of the body seems to be somewhat reluctant to respond to the challenges posed by the increasingly digitally saturated world.” (7)

Today, this infrastructure offers us a number of exciting ways for humanity to accelerate our great migration to the digital cloud:

  • Simulate “Mirror Cities” for testing every aspect of physical development or social interaction in digital spaces.

These ideas only scratch the surface of the possibilities that exist in a more intentionally designed and inhabited digital world, and ideas of how to best utilize life in the cloud — ideas that hold the potential to solve many of our existing wicked problems — are exponentially multiplying by the day. However, purposefully fostering a great human migration to the web may no longer be the plot of some Sci Fi movie, and the Internet has certainly grown beyond being an external technology that can be viewed as a luxury. Rather, our present time has given us the opportunity to create new life-giving metaphors for this virtual world, and we would be wise to foster a more deliberate transition to a blended and generative digital reality.

References

  1. Riel Miller: https://www.yumpu.com/en/document/read/43089928/rules-for-radicals-settling-the-cyber-frontier-riel-miller

Kedge is a global Foresight, Innovation & Strategic Design firm. www.kedgefutures.com TFS is a premiere foresight learning ecosystem. www.thefuturesschool.com

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