Beyond digital childhood: a new, more nuanced, tech utopianism

George Dyson wrote that we're at the end of the digital's world's childhood. How do we make sure it grows up into a well-rounded adult?

Growing up isn’t easy. The teenage years are difficult both for teenagers and the people that love them. For most people, a new and refreshed relationship will emerge from that process, but it might be years away. And while you’re going through that process, for a while you mourn the simpler years of childhood. And, right now, we seem to be in tech’s troubled teens.

George Dyson’s essay that greeted the new year — Childhood’s End — captures that moment nicely. We’re no longer in the simple joys of childhood, but neither are we yet fully immersed in an adult tech world. Over the last couple of years in Hamburg, we’ve discussed how tech’s utopian phase is coming to an end. I don’t know about you, but I miss it terribly. 15 years ago, I was building connections through the early years of my personal blog, exploring new ideas and engaging with debates I couldn’t have hoped to met in real life.

Ah, such innocence. Those childish days are clearly gone, even if I remain reluctant to put away childish things

And yet, we’re clearly not in adulthood yet, are we? On any given day, the internet doesn’t feel very grown-up. People are being “cancelled” on Twitter for saying the wrong thing. Streams of articles that start “We need to talk about…” actually contain the hectoring of the newly-converted political activist not yet open to nuance in debate. The passion of the young is wonderful — often moving, in fact — but it often needs the tempering of experience to turn it into real change.

And, right now, it seems an awful lot of humanity’s collective energy is being wasted fighting on the internet, to very little positive effect — and some dramatically negative ones.

The Binary Divide

Is it a coincidence that as we have made the world more binary, we ourselves have become more polarised? The very nature of digital systems is to have “on” and “off” states. You are one thing or another. And as the politics wars rage on Twitter and Facebook and WhatsApp, we find ourselves forced into one camp or another, with us or against us, with no room for nuance. We have turned ourselves into binary beings.

Nuance in a digital system is, essentially, a simulation of meaning build out of polarised states: the polarisation is inherent in the system. Is it any wonder that polarisation is infecting us all?

As Dyson puts it:

Digital computing, intolerant of error or ambiguity, depends upon precise definitions and error correction at every step.

And yet, the best human conversations are built of error and ambiguity. The interface of the analogue and the digital is not going well: digital is winning, and depriving us of the beautiful messiness of human thought.

Quantum conversations

As Martin put it earlier in the week, technology may, in the long term, offer us a way out of this bind, as the evolution of quantum computing gives us more nuanced systems, ones that allow for uncertainty – and benefit from it:

It gets even weirder when we take quantum computing into account, which deals with qubits instead of bits. It turns out to be even more efficient than classical computing. At least in theory, but increasingly also in practice, since quantum computing is already leaving the lab, moving into commercial use.

Dyson’s call for a return to analog computing echoes that beautifully:

Analog computing not only tolerates errors and ambiguities, but thrives on them. Digital computers, in a technical sense, are analog computers, so hardened against noise that they have lost their immunity to it. Analog computers embrace noise; a real-world neural network needing a certain level of noise to work.

The messy confusion of the early internet has been replaced by a hegemony of a handful of sites which were designed to bring order to that chaos, but which have eventually supplanted it. Dyson again:

The genius — sometimes deliberate, sometimes accidental — of the enterprises now on such a steep ascent is that they have found their way through the looking-glass and emerged as something else. Their models are no longer models. The search engine is no longer a model of human knowledge, it is human knowledge. What began as a mapping of human meaning now defines human meaning, and has begun to control, rather than simply catalog or index, human thought. No one is at the controls.

Our sense of meaning, of importance and of relationships has been handed over to systems that just don’t deal in nuance. Like so many errors, it’s easy to see only in hindsight.

So, perhaps the childhood that needs to end is multi-faceted. We need to end our child-like trust in algorithms and digital technology. Those who have built that technology need to accept the responsibility for what they have created, rather than trying to blame someone – anyone – else, like a six year old caught slapping her sister.

And we all need to accept that the next few years will be full of tantrums, bad decisions and things that we will look back on with amused regret. But that’s OK. For all its burdens and stresses, the joys of adulthood are worth it.

If we need a new tech utopianism, let us find it there: in working towards a more nuanced, more adult vision of a wired world.

Photo by Jelleke Vanooteghem on Unsplash