The Digital Divide: An Existential Crisis



When we talk about the digital divide, people often become sympathetic for the developing countries or indigenous peoples that do not have the technology and resources that we do. ("We" being those living in developed countries).

But what if I told you that we, the "digitally apt," might have reasons to fear for ourselves?

I will now attempt to make you wonder how the digital divide is changing us.

Note: I have chosen to focus primarily on the impact of the digital divide as opposed to the digital divide itself. Hence, when I use the term digital divide, I am not specifically speaking of the gap in communications, but rather the gap between those who have fully integrated the web of communications into their daily life (the digitally apt) and those who have not.

Less resources do not necessarily inhibit human progress and creativity - rather, less resources challenges us humans to be more creative and progressive.

My good friend John Ferry shared a video with me about a 15-year old genius from Sierra Leone. Kelvin Doe "literally goes to trash cans, finds broken electronic parts from the garbage, and makes stuff on his own. He's taught himself how to do incredibly intricate things with very, very little resources." Kelvin even made his own batteries to power lights in people's homes. He also created an FM radio machine and broadcasts every day.

We the digitally apt look at trash bags and limit their use to garbage. But those who lack in resources are forced to be more creative.

People from multiple developing countries have figured out a way to create soccer balls out of plastic bags and twine. Our reliance on technology and the increase in shared ideas has taught us that we do not need to be the problem solvers for ourselves - if we have an issue, we hire the services of someone who knows how to provide what we want.

Constricted by our lack of creativity and apathy towards the amount of resources we consume, we would never think of using water bottles as sources of light during the day.

There's one major hole in this argument that must be addressed. Even though these inventions speak into the superior creativity of humans who are relatively lacking in resources, there are few hurdles stopping a developed country from 'stealing' or adopting the innovations or particular strengths of developing countries. (Most of these hurdles would revolve around resistance to change).

The question must then be asked, "Is there anything that developing or technologically-rising countries can do/have done that leading countries cannot do or do not have?

Quite possibly.

Ibn Kaldun, a North African Muslim historian from the 1300's, formulized the idea that 'prestige' declines over the course of four generations.

For example, the first generation could be a nomadic tribe that develops strong characteristics due to harsher circumstances - this generation typically accomplishes significant feats, such as overthrowing another civilization or founding their own. The second generation grows up having already been provided for by their parents. Thus, they take on some of their parents' characteristics, but do not fully actualize them because they did not live out the accomplishments and hardships themselves. The third generation, even more distant from the first, simply imitates tradition without the independent judgement of their grandfathers. The fourth generation, then, is so far removed and detached that they believe that it was merely their 'noble blood' that created their 'edifice' of glory, rather than the effort of their ancestors. Now imagine how easy it would be for another lineage (a first generation) to topple this fourth generation.

An example of this idea actually occurring in history could be seen in the rise and fall of the Roman Empire or China's Dynastic Cycle (although perhaps not specifically carried out in four generations). We may even be seeing it happen right now as China and India continue to rise as world powers.

Carrying these thoughts over to the digital divide, one might begin to wonder if those who live without become stronger within. Yet oddly enough, it was precisely those stronger characteristics that brought us - the digitally apt - from gather/hunters to couch potatoes.

I am amazed at the ability for indigenous peoples to continue their lives without change.

Virtues and strengths aside, we the digitally apt may even be saying goodbye to abilities that humans used to be able to do.

The Tarahumara are a small tribe for their 'superhuman' running ability. They hold a record of having run 435 in just over two days. Even the way that their feet hit the ground is different from us, because we use comfortable shoes and can strike heel to toe. In a video on the Tarahumara, Daniel E. Lieberman, Professor of Human Evolutionary Biology admits that "the Tarahumara's ability to run distances really comes from our evolutionary history as hunters. We live in a world that's so different from the world from which we evolve, that we've lost a lot of those abilities."

Someone from a developing country could adapt to our lifestyle. But someone from a developed country would have a much more difficult time adapting to theirs.

It would be somewhat akin to sending a domesticated Chihuahua out into the wild.

Just about every story you read as a child revolved around a hero who had to overcome the odds - and the odds lost every time. Congratulations, we are the odds, the powerful at present. Not only that, but we are the abnormals - the unnatural. We increasingly lean on the supports of technology, and modify ourselves with it - medicine, supplements, makeup, footwear, etc. We desire natural and organic foods, while by the same definition we ourselves are inorganic. We are more divided from the natural world than we like to realize. There is a digital divide between 'organic' humans and technologically-adapted humans.

Is the human race moving towards a split into subspecies? Can we survive without our technological supports? Can we reverse the path we have taken?

But I digress. So how do we prevent our excessive lifestyles from crumbling down?

Well, one way for us to maintain our 'prestige' and livelihood is for us to reach a 'threshold' in technology that furthers exponential growth without the expense of human creativity: self-learning AIs that are programmed to innovate and form new ideas for us. These AIs could create more powerful AIs, and so forth. This would continue to exponentially increase technological innovations.

This 'threshold' would mark a point where we could almost entirely overcome the cycles of nature itself, because AIs would provide the solutions to most of our problems. We would no longer have to be more creative, because the AIs and a select few individuals would be creative for us. There are some who are infatuated with the idea.

There is, however, one problem with this notion of allowing the robots we create to simultaneously serve us and dictate our needs, because today, most of us despise the idea.

Nonetheless, robots continue to become smarter and more powerful.

Within this, one of two things will likely happen: one, that our perceptions of who we are as humans will change, or two, that we will find a way to reconnect technology back into our nature.

Path One: Our Perceptions of Who We Are As Humans Will Change

The first would happen quite simply. As we become more and more numb to the 'human touch' as we integrate ourselves in a digital society, we would increasingly rely on technology and become more comfortable with allowing it to leads us by the hand. We would surmise that since we are nothing more than a set of chemical reactions and molecules, we are no different from the AI we create.

Path Two: We Will Find a Way to Reconnect Technology Back into Our Nature

But the issue with the above idea is that inventors and disruptive companies are not intentionally looking for ways to make humans more disconnected from the natural world - they are seeking to provide whatever digitally apt humans want.

That being said, there are rising technologies that are allowing us to integrate technology more closely with our past nature. Take Augmented Reality Devices for example; in speaking of Meta's new augmented reality device, founder and CEO Meron Gribetz asks us to "imagine how we can create this new reality in a way that extends the human experience instead of game-ifying our reality or cluttering it with digital information." He concludes his speech by saying, "the future of computers is not locked inside of these screens. It's right here inside of us."

This kind of technology opens a window of escape from the fears we have within movies like The Matrix. Instead of becoming detached from our nature and living our lives as slaves to our innovations, we may instead be able to use technologies that actually strengthen our human characteristics and creative abilities.

Another example of using technology in a natural way is through self-sustainable technologies.

This, I believe, is the direction that we as digitally apt humans are headed in, because over success and maximized profits we long for quality of life.

But I doubt that 'naturally integrated technology' will be laid down by our lineage. The first and second generations of rising countries like China and India may very well lead us into this new era.

Conclusion

The path we the digitally apt will take depends on whether we will harness technology, or technology will harness us.

Let me summarize my stream of thoughts; if we remain (or become) slaves to technology, then our existence will integrate itself into the robotic world we have created. But if we can make technology slaves to us, then the possibilities are endless.

So what is left to conclude other than mentioning the amount of existential crises it took to write this post?

The digital divide is not just a disparity between the wealthy and the lacking, nor between the successful and unsuccessful; it is a disparity between who we are now and who we used to be.

It is a disparity that forces us to wonder who we will become.


© 2017 Daniel Folta