What if, somewhere in the universe, there existed a world identical to the one we know? What if there was not only one, but many Parallelwelten, i.e. parallel worlds?
There's so many different worlds
So many different suns
And we have just one world
But we live in different ones
–Mark Knopfler, Brothers in Arms (1985)
For decades, the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics has puzzled even the greatest minds. But before digging into quantum mechanics, let’s halt for a second. Aren’t we talking about the digital versus the analogue world (or universe), for example? Or the digital divide between those who have access and those who don’t? About filter bubbles and corporate silos? And about the future that is already here – just not very evenly distributed, to quote author William Gibson.
Different parts of our world develop at very different speeds, in different directions, with different outcomes. Digital technology adds layer upon layer to our lives. Artificial intelligence creates a whole new world of possibilities and possible dangers. Augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), mixed reality (MR) or cross reality (XR) all show, by their names alone, that there is more than one reality. Reality becomes just another word for world (or universe).
Increasingly, our reality is defined through digital products, which afford us infinitely more freedom than in the analogue past. Filter bubbles, fake news, and alternative facts: they‘re just bits after all, bits that can be easily and cheaply manipulated. We now live in multiple realities that are increasingly losing touch with each other. That’s typical for serious epochal breaks. And so the common world view of the past 500 years – what we know as modernity – is fundamentally shaken.
Reality has been turned into bits
In the infancy of the web, back in the early nineties, there was a clear distinction between real life and life on the internet. Real life was defined as not on the internet. Over 25 years on, this distinction appears naive, even quaint. Real life and life on the internet have merged, but have spawned multiple realities in the process. Reality has been turned into bits. Or is it the other way around?
For millennia, arts, media, philosophy and physics have all dealt with Parallelwelten, so we should be well equipped for what’s happening in this day and age. But are we?
Per definition, parallel universes don’t communicate with each other. They are separated. But there are traces that lead us to believe they might exist. Quantum mechanics has made some predictions that could be proven correct by experiments. While this is no proof of the existence of parallel universes, it nonetheless supports the many-worlds interpretation.
So there is hope, even for the Parallelwelten of quantum mechanics. By comparison, our own parallel universes are tiny, and not entirely parallel. But at least we know they exist.
Our societies are fragmented into tribes which increasingly separate themselves from each other, each tribe residing in its own Parallelwelt. Via social media, especially Facebook, these parallel universes can easily be addressed, and mental or digital filter bubbles preserve the integrity of their respective world views.
Parallelwelten don’t exist without a reason. Their raison d’être is coherence and segregation. It’s making sense. Systems theory tells us that the basic process of social systems is communication. And communication is always selective, just as information is. With information technology, we’ve encoded our world, and this encoding facilitates the segregation and, up to a certain point, disintegration of our societies.
Value creation is moving from analogue to digital
The digital world, aptly named so, follows its own rules of operation, which are quite different from those of the analogue world. But, as Hal Varian and Carl Shapiro pointed out twenty years ago, while technology changes, economic laws do not. If the global stock market is right, then value creation is moving from analogue to digital at a rapid pace, so much so that the digital world already seems to be dominant. It turns the analogue world into data, which it then processes into information.
Increasingly, the digital world defines, controls and governs the analogue world. Tech companies take human experience and turn it into a raw material that can be bought and sold. In her book on Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshana Zuboff describes how companies like Google and Facebook, by reengineering the economy and society to their own benefit, are perverting capitalism in a way that undermines personal freedom and corrodes democracy.
They’ve effectively closed the loop of behaviour control. Our human behaviour is turned into data, which is processed into information and then manipulated and fed back into our information diet to control our behaviour. Data is the raw material, and information – not content – is king. Information even defines reality. Quantum physicist Anton Zeilinger postulates that reality and information are closely related:
I often say that quantum theory is information theory, and that the separation between reality and information is an artificial one. You cannot think about reality without admitting that it’s information you are handling. So we need a new concept that encompasses the two. We are not there yet.
This idea was introduced by John Archibald Wheeler, who famously stated:
Every physical quantity, every it, derives its ultimate significance from bits, binary yes-or-no indications, a conclusion which we epitomize in the phrase, it from bit.
In other words: bits, or binary digits of information, are first, and they give function, meaning, even existence to every particle, field of force, and even the spacetime continuum. If that’s true, the consequence bears a great irony: since our reality is just bits, and we have mastered the art of manipulating bits, our reality is now prone to manipulation in a way that was inconceivable just a few decades ago. Welcome to the Matrix.
Quantum physics requires a new view of reality
Wheeler first presented his it from bit notion at a conference in the spring of 1989, the same year Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web, now thirty years ago. Even more mind-boggling is the fact that a qubit – the quantum bit in quantum computing – can exist in superposition of two classical bit values. According to Wheeler, quantum physics requires a new view of reality. Indeed.
While the theory might still be missing, in practice there already is information technology, which does just that: define reality. The Matrix might not exactly turn out to be as the Wachowskis imagined, but instead materialises as the digital superstructure we imposed upon ourselves with a little help from the internet, the smartphone, the cloud and the markets.
Hence, digitisation is the process of incorporating analogue stuff into the digital superstructure, to make it computable, i.e. manipulable through digital means. The next step is digital transformation: the creation and capturing of value in the digital superstructure. Through digital transformation, analogue stuff is devalued, converted into data and processed into information, which then has value.
Data as the new oil? Well, not really data, which is an almost infinite resource, but information, which is processed data and thus valuable.
This leaves us with a paradox. If we follow Wheeler, reality and information are the same thing. Thus, information technology is the powerful force to rule reality. It is reality technology. How can we then have multiple realities, or Parallelwelten? Are they mere illusions? Is this a feature of our Matrix – a simulation? Have the machines already taken over?
What is real – the human perception, or the digital code?
It all comes down to another key term that has been almost beaten to death: experience. In all its different flavours, from user experience (UX) and customer experience (CX) to human experience (HX), it is about perception. So now we face a tough decision: what is real – the human perception, or the digital code?
On the surface, this is a philosophical question. But in practice, it’s about which defines what. It’s a question of power. Power is real. In a recent essay, George Dyson asserts:
There is now more code than ever, but it is increasingly difficult to find anyone who has their hands on the wheel. Individual agency is on the wane. Most of us, most of the time, are following instructions delivered to us by computers rather than the other way around. The digital revolution has come full circle.
Dyson’s essay provides an elegant solution to the question of power: large hybrid analogue/digital computer networks. This is how he describes the digital giants of our time.
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. If enough drivers subscribe to a real-time map, traffic is controlled, with no central model except the traffic itself. The successful social network is no longer a model of the social graph, it is the social graph. This is why it is a winner-take-all game.
When the digital world merges with the analogue world, there’s little room for the second social network, traffic map or knowledge base.
These new hybrid organizations, although built upon digital computers, are operating as analog computers on a vast, global scale, processing information as continuous functions and treating streams of bits the way vacuum tubes treat streams of electrons, or the way neurons treat information in a brain.
The tribe is a powerful entity. It can itself be seen as a hybrid organisation in Dyson’s sense. An analogue tribe manifests itself in the digital world, and vice versa. But, as Michael Marinaccio put it in November 2016, under the fresh impression of the Trump election: “What happens as our offline lives (led by institutions) take a backseat to online lives (fueled by tribalism)?” And he continues as follows:
What if every single person in the world used one social media platform that allowed them to instantaneously communicate text, photo and video for free all the time; and they used that platform for nearly every thought that popped into their heads. What would be the effect on politics and institutions? The answer is straight-forward to me: offline life and interactions with institutions would largely cease to exist. Instead, fickle tribalism would randomly and wildly fluctuate major policy interests like a broken polygraph needle. The whims of the masses would destroy politics because politicians would no longer be able to keep up in any meaningful way. Lawmakers, reacting to culture, would have to accommodate by also shooting from the tribal hip. It would be total chaos all the time. If this seems like this is already happening, that’s because it is.
Bear in mind: this was written before Trump was sworn into office. Tribalism has taken over.
When Seth Godin wrote his influential book on tribes a decade ago, he was quite optimistic about all the good things tribes and their leaders could do for us. A mere ten years later the world has flipped to a more pessimistic view. To put things in perspective, let’s keep some of these aspects in mind.
Tribalism has taken its toll
First, human beings always gathered in tribes. In a way, tribes have been living in their own Parallelwelten since time immemorial. Second, the compulsion to create one single, commonly shared world, and corresponding world view, is a quite recent phenomenon. It can be seen as a by-product of 20th-century mass production and mass communication, 21th-century globalisation, and the collapse of the bipolar post-war order after 1989.
Francis Fukuyama captured this moment in his book The End of History and the Last Man (1992), in which he argued that Western liberal democracy would be the endpoint of history. More than 25 years later, we still haven’t reached this point. Globalisation and digitisation led Thomas L. Friedman to his bestseller The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century (2005). But viewed from a different angle, the world doesn’t look flat at all, but spiky.
This leaves us with the question whether the long-term trend is geared towards globalisation, i.e. one world, or towards tribalisation, i.e. Parallelwelten. And indeed there is data that points to a flattening of globalisation, while tribalisation is on the rise. Shortly after Friedman launched his opus, the globalisation trend started to slow down. Since 2015, it has been flat.
Tribalism has taken its toll.
Like every -ism, tribalism overamplifies something that is not inherently bad. The tribe as organisational principle is powerful and probably part of the human condition. By contrast, tribalism introduces black-and-white, good-vs-evil, exclusive and authoritarian thinking and behaviour into the equation. So why do people resort to tribalism?
Because they have lost confidence in governments, security services, the free market and the banking system, Koert Debeuf argues. These institutions, pillars of globalisation, left too many people behind. When those people are traumatised, the (long-term) line of globalisation breaks down. According to Debeuf, whose reasoning is pretty much in line with Samuel P. Huntington’s work on the clash of civilisations, this breakdown eventually may lead to war.
A new renaissance
Parallelwelten at war - this looks like the main conflict of the 21st century. The world is not flat. At least not yet, as even Thomas L. Friedman himself concedes.
On a slightly more positive note, we could well be at the early stages of a new renaissance. Technological breakthroughs and exciting discoveries not only dislocate a lot of people, they also create rapid progress in areas like health, literacy, wealth and education. Optimists like Steven Pinker never tire of reminding us of that.
And quantum mechanics, the harbinger of Parallelwelten, may well have already provided us with another breakthrough, quantum computing, which is about to leave the R&D labs and move into the production cloud. It is a fascinating technology, moving beyond the digital, binary logic that has dominated the world of the early 21st century.
The Parallelwelten of our VUCA world, which is characterised by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, are highly (and sometimes strangely) interconnected. Thus, the despair of a Tunisian fruit seller can lead to groundbreaking events like Brexit. Maybe, globalisation and tribalisation aren’t opposites, but rather the two sides of the same coin. Like wave and particle in quantum mechanics.