Homo Digitalis - Part One
Few things move me as profoundly as the display of true virtuosity. And it doesn’t have to be a master craftsman blowing, spinning and retouching half molten glass into the most fragile flowers or a pianist which keeps all the voices of a Bach polyphonic partita dancing.
The other day it was a girl, a young woman actually, I saw on a train in Paris. She was crouched into a ball over her brand new Samsung Note smartphone locked most likely into a WhatsApp dialog with someone very much like her. Rocking slightly to accentuate her phrases (she was French after all!) her fingers sped over the screen so fast I instinctively bunched my shoulders in expectation of a sonic boom. I’m ever so glad I could recycle my early childhood piano lessons into an extra bit of dexterity on a computer keyboard, but these tiny and virtual smartphone keyboards and I find very little common ground. There was none of that in her case, not the slightest hesitancy or loss of fluidity as she rocked and danced those phrases out into The Net, answered another one’s volleys with returns at speeds that simply seemed impossible for any human to achieve.
She and her phone had become one, matching woman and tool into a perfect symbiosis, giving her body and her mind a direct connection to another human through cyberspace, becoming another class of being, a homo habilis digitalus. It is this ability to add teeth, claws, spears or a sewing needle to our naked bodies which sets us apart from other animals. And it’s the ability to invent such sophisticated pieces of technology as these smartphones which we’d rightfully call miracles if only we’d step 10 years back in our minds.
We think it normal to drive a car to work because we walk too slowly and most naturally we’d want to use our smartphones as an extension of our brain, because our non-augmented body cannot communicate beyond the reach of our voice and smartphones turn out so much better at keeping track of things.
And since it’s become socially acceptable to take the equivalent of a 1980’s supercomputer or 1990’s graphics workstation to a date in a restaurant or even to bed, there is a huge incentive to make that smartphone the one and only true personal computer, which stores, maintains and even acts as your digital self, which is in real danger of turning schizophrenic.
I have both a pretty good memory for ideas and concepts and a very bad one for where I have seen or read about them. Anything my wife reads, she can quote literally for years, but she doesn’t read that fast. I read very quickly, but actually never really seem to read a text literally: Instead I find that I’m simply patching it together. When I read to my daughter, she’ll point out every word that wasn’t really there or different from the way Mama reads it.
I freely admit that very little of my thinking is original, nor do I believe that many other’s thoughts are truly novel. I believe that the evolution of ideas and culture is mostly about copying from who you like best and blending it in your own way. That’s why just like Bach, Händel or Vivaldi I even like copying from myself.
Recycling material I’ve either read or written is very important for me to cut down on time and for “I told you so!”, but my inability to remember literally or even the context makes finding it terribly difficult as I don’t even know how to formulate the search. To make things worse, I regularly need to communicate in several different languages and communication splits from e-mail into WhatsApp, Facebook, forums, Wikis, Whatnots many of these platforms become dead-drops because, unless I keep a private copy in my e-mail, there is no chance to find it, unless I remember where to look.
As if this wasn’t bad enough add to this schizophrenic horror the fact that as an IT professional I have plenty of personal and professional computers, tablets and, yes at least one personal smartphone.
In theory that phone has sufficient power and capacity to keep a transcript of everything I’ve ever written, everything I’ve ever read, perhaps even everything I’ve heard and certainly references to every video clip I’ve ever seen on Youtube. Moreover it could tag all of that data with plenty of contextual references, time, location, project context, parallel activities, people present or in conference and it could attempt to continuously apply a semantic network mapping independent of the natural language used.
It would be a memory crutch, the ultimate mind enhancement tool or a perfect brain extender and grow and adapt in capability and value the more I learn to use it. It would be my digital eyes, nose and fingers, my Internet nerve and legs. It would replicate all data with cloud copies around the globe to ensure that my “legacy” would both survive the loss of that device as well as any major disaster, old age and beyond. It could turn me into just the cyborg I want to be, no more no less.
Another way of looking at modern technology is that it elevates us all to the point where we have as much or more power and reach than ancient kings, giving us more horses they could ever dream of pulling their state coach inside an ordinary car, instant global communications and a library that makes Alexandria’s look puny in the palm of our hand wherever we go. It gives us slaves to wash our dishes and our dirty clothes as well as that loyal Greek personal secretary of old Rome who are all happy with a bit of cheap electricity.
Today that spark of electricity is on the verge of entering every single thing devised and produced by man: The Internet of Things has every toothbrush and razor scrape and bow, asking directly to be used to our benefit should we become remiss ourselves.
Everywhere we go every thing will do its utmost to serve us as best it can, every seat will accommodate itself to our shape, every step shall raise itself to the proper height or just keep on moving to make our passing a delight. Every Amazon delivery drone will kindly skirt us at the proper distance to avoid disturbing our peace or drop a Latte macchiato, decaf with vanilla caramel sugar, in our hand once we have resolved wanting it. They will serve us because our smartphone major domo will announce our presence, preferences and pretenses as we pass to any thing that has an electronic brain.
Look out here for the 2nd part of my blog post: Homo Digitalis - Part Two.