Digital Myth: Digitalization is a Force of Nature

Digital Myths: #3 Digitalization is a Force of Nature. So should we sacrifice a goat to please the gods of digitalization? Where is the altar?

This idea comes in various packages, sometimes described as sea waves washing in over the shores, sometimes as a higher power – technology as a jealous god that can punish or kiss depending on the faith of its devotees. It is a cousin of Myth#2 You Can’t Stop New Technology. When digital pundits use the word understand – as in ‘you don’t understand the digital revolution’ or ‘you must understand that technology makes everything different’ – that means to embrace this idea that technology is bigger than humans (to ‘drink the Kool-Aid’ as Americans would put it). It is presented as a matter of insight rather than opinion.

Except, digitalization is obviously not a force of nature. Digital services run on electronic circuits with semiconductors made from silicon (or tin in the old school); materials that need processing in order to be useful – tin ore must first be mined, refined, delivered and soldered onto the circuit board; silicon must be purified from ferrosilicon ore (from mines) and turned into semi-conductive circuits; cables are made from copper or fibreglass, and they too must be made from raw materials and put in the ground or on poles; and communication satellites must be positioned in space using powerful rockets, etc. All the basic structures that must exist in order for digitalization to be possible in the first place rely on complex human interaction, delivery chains, efficient organizations and sophisticated financial systems, all of which are man-made, have evolved over decades or centuries, are intrinsic to society and, in turn, to a large, extent, are supported by digitalization, providing new opportunities or efficiencies. But there is nothing natural about it; it’s 100% man-made.

It’s as if history is predefined, only the world we have today is possible and there’s nothing we can do about it.

Infrastructure aside, what if it’s metaphorical? It’s not actually a force of nature like the weather or gravity. Perhaps it’s more like the opportunities are irresistible and if it’s possible someone will do it. Like, for example, when criminals hack into your bank account and transfer all your money to theirs, because they can. Sure that happens, but we also put in place all sorts of systems to prevent it: the law says you’ll go to prison if you do that. Banks will pay back the money to the victim’s bank accounts. Criminal investigators work together with bank security and technology companies to find the guilty and disrupt organized crime. We have passwords, encrypted connections, secure servers. Perhaps it’s inevitable that someone will try to hack your bank account, but we don’t accept that inevitability. We come up with a dozen different ways to deal with it. Understanding inevitability is not the same as embracing it. I won’t give you my bank login details.

But what if it’s not individual technological inevitabilities, but all the opportunities put together that make up a combined inevitability? It’s as if history is predefined, only the world we have today is possible and there’s nothing we can do about it. That makes human endeavour pointless, democracy empty, all your efforts to influence the direction of your own life futile. That is not the normal human experience; we keep trying to improve our situation or influence the world or volunteer to make somebody else’s life better. (But if you really believe we live in the best of all possible worlds, read Candide, not this book. Voltaire says it better than I could ever hope to do!).

Maybe it’s the combination of technological progress, globalization, corruption or diminishing government influence, economic factors, legal developments, individual choice and business interests that bring the inevitability? Yes, but if that’s the case, technology plays only a minor part and all the others are consequences of human choice or ambition.

If the forces of nature change, it is normal for humans to respond. Even on a very large scale. In 2015 in Paris, the world’s leaders signed a deal to limit climate change. Even if digitalization were a force of nature, we would put rules, systems and institutions in place to make it useful and limit downsides. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.

Digital Myths is a series of posts published from the book 21 Digital Myths, Reality Distortion Antidote  where Netopia editor Per Strömbäck takes a closer look at some of the concepts that have shaped the way we think, talk and make decisions about digital technology and the internet.