Even the most analogue people can fulfil their potential via the digital world; the two are not at war but comple-mentary. The suggestion algorithms used by Spotify, Netflix and Amazon – while controversial – can often lead us, like Ariadne’s thread, through a labyrinth of genuine discovery. Those who complain that the world has been ma-de smaller by the internet by facilitating a vapid and uniform global pop culture are missing the fact that it is allo-wing personal needs to be met in an ever more segmented world, in industries ranging from aviation to anti- quarian books. Rather than a global village, it may be more cogent to think of a connected cosmos.
This richer, more complex world is being experienced in the business arena, too, where – as I have learnt from writing about Artificial Intelligence and the Internet of Things – the cult of simplicity in technology and manage-ment theory has been supplanted by the pursuit of complexity. Instead of models in which one size fits all, digital technologies are creating increasingly splintered and fragmented markets – and offerings all designed to provide something “unique”.
For unique individuals navigating a world of complexity, the internet may be seen in its optimal manifestation as a powerful vehicle for the “self-actualisation” that sits atop Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” – an influential theory of psychology advanced in the 1940s. At the bottom of the five-tier pyramid lies physiological needs; it ascends through security needs, relationship needs, esteem needs and ends with the fulfilment of self. Today the web provides unlimited pathways for achieving potential. But with the promise of self-fulfilment comes the paradox that the web undermines the very notion of self in profound ways.
In his seminal essay, The Death of the Author, Roland Barthes calls writing “that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body wri-ting”. The theory finds concrete and radical expression in online collaborative endeavours such as Wikipedia, collective storytelling and open-source software – which in the space of only a few years have eroded the modern (and Western) cult of the individual and romantic ideas of the text springing from the mind of a single genius. Artificial Intelligence will go further in this, subverting and reinventing the very sense of what it means to be hu-man. The cult of individual consciousness will crumble further as our minds become entwined with the musings of a cognitive computing system. Even as digital technologies allow us to become ourselves, we may begin to lose the very bearings, or illusions, of what the self actually means.
We should also be careful not to think that the web necessarily enhances our talents or shrinks inequalities, be-cause it can only build on what you already are. If you are a brilliant shepherd’s son in Ulan Bator, you now have Richard Feynman’s legendary lectures at your fingertips – possessing tools to super-charge your talent at phy-sics. On the other hand, if you are obsessed with Taylor Swift, you can literally spend the greater part of your day tracking her every move – and cocoon yourself in a global community of like-minded people.
The most ambiguous internet blessing of all may be its very power to “allow you to be you”. It is the gigantic mirror – and enabler – of our inner selves. It magnifies those tendencies that already exist within us. It allows the curious to feed their curiosity and the shallow to become more so. The internet is the greatest gift to aspiration and meri-tocracy ever created – though not necessarily egalitarian. In fact, it may be the tool that bathes and enslaves countless masses in a pleasant opium of mediocrity, as brilliant minds from Almaty to Lagos to San Francisco reimagine the world – perhaps developing the very technologies (in a post-industrial, post-workforce age) that will feed the happy lotus eaters.
We must celebrate the internet’s transformative power – while perhaps being a little wary of how the digital fire-giver is also the facilitator of our emptiest (and indeed darkest) desires. Yet here neither praise nor blame lies with the World Wide Web – like evolution itself, a fundamentally blind and neutral force. It lies with us.