New realities

Code permeates our lives like an invisible dimension. We talk to voice systems, allow our knowledge to be controlled by algorithms, analyse our emotions with machines, observe ourselves through computers, and fight digital wars.

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?

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.

Information defines reality

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.

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.

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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.

Models are no longer models

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.

This is an excerpt from a recent essay on Parallelwelten, the main theme of NEXT19. Photo by xandro Vandewalle on Unsplash