According to Digital vs Human, we need to start talking about the way robotics, AI, automation and the web are going to affect our future – but we aren’t. Instead, we’re wowed by the next app or website that mints a billionaire and, in the words of an online commenter, only really solves the problem “what is my mother no longer doing for me?”.
Author Watson thinks the technology itself is distracting us from talking about it – the big picture is taking shape out of our sight while we obsess over status updates and celebrity selfies. Like Watson’s last book, Future Files, Digital vs Human is partly the story of ageing and our relationship to tech as we grow older. The book has a slight “harrumph, these kids and their phones” air about it, but he admits fears about technology are as old as papyrus scrolls. He cannily quotes Douglas Adams’ pearl of wisdom: “Anything that gets invented after you’re 30 is against the natural order of things.”
But Waston draws on some fascinating research that seems to reveal how secretly unsure we all are, even selfie-obsessed kids – a poll found 27% of 18-24-year-old Brits felt “left behind” by digital communications. He documents how sectors such as healthcare, transport and medicine are on the cusp of revolution. While those sections sum up interesting case studies of things you’ll see over the next decade or so, the book’s real value is in the philosophical positions Watson takes. But his assertions and beliefs will spark different responses depending on your own position on technology. Your perspective is coloured by your individual prejudices, age, even where you’re born, and thus the technological infrastructure you’re used to.
For example, there’s a little Ludditism. In talking about Ray Kurzweil’s concept of the singularity (when machine intelligence outstrips ours) and the notion that machines will design and build machines in turn, he says, “let’s hope these machines are nice to us” – seeming to give in to bias formed by everything from Frankenstein to The Terminator.
Watson raises the fact that the data we produce with all these updates and posts is making some companies rich off us, something little talked about to a degree that’s almost catastrophic. It’s a well-argued salvo in a social dialogue that needs to be constant, because the future is already here.