It was a privilege to have been invited to contribute to the panel on Digital for Life? at the Club of Rome’s annual conference today along with luminaries such as Carlos Álvarez Pereira, Ndidi Nnoli-Edozien, Anders Wijkman, Charly Kleissner, Mariana Bozesan and Bolaji Akinboro. I fear, though, that my perspective was a little different from that of many of the panelists who were from a business, financial and entrepreneurial background. It was also challenging to convey the nuances of what I had intended to say in my opening 4 minutes!
So, for anyone who might be interested, I’m posting my speaking notes here. At least, this is more or less what I had intended to say!
Digital for Life?
I think of two things when presented with this question:
- First, that many of those developing digital technologies and indeed in the biotech sector more widely are working hard to extend human life through digital tech. The work of Calico (subsidiary of Alphabet, Google’s parent company) and Elon Musk’s creation of Neuralink are just two examples (claiming that “that people would need to become cyborgs to be relevant in an artificial intelligence age. He said that a “merger of biological intelligence and machine intelligence” would be necessary to ensure we stay economically valuable”, Guardian, 2017). More widely, the increasing blending of human and digital makes me think that within a relatively short period of time, perhaps already, it will not be possible for “pure humans” to survive, in a world increasingly dominated by cyborgs. For many this does not matter; for others (including me) it does. We need to think such thoughts so that we can debate them openly, thereby enabling people to reach wise judgements as to the kinds of future “we” wish to create. This in turn of course depends on who “we” are, and here I would err on the side of relativism and diversity. I find one single universal “we” frightening; just as I do the idea of universal individual human rights, without the balancing necessary responsibilities to ensure that diverse individuals can live side-by-side (see Unwin, 2014).
- The second idea I would like to share is that digital technologies are becoming increasingly harmful to life (of all kinds) on planet earth. We need to understand the negatives of technology on nature/earth/the physical environment, as well as the positive potential of its use. This is obviously important in the context of the upcoming COP26 jamboree. Although much effort has been expended on trying to show how digital tech is squeeky-green-clean and can contribute much to a reduction in CO2 and thus “save the planet from climate change”, the truth is much dirtier. Increasing research shows just how anti-sustainable many digital techs are: fast fashion business models (smart-phone life/owned span around a couple of years); companies preventing right to repair; environmentally harmful mining of rare-earth minerals; bitcoin using more energy than Argentina or the Netherlands; satellite pollution of outer space (akin to the way we used to treat the oceans); digital tech creating twice as much carbon emissions as the airline industry; and energy demand spiralling upwards as 5G, AI, smart cities and a world of sensors come to dominate our lives. The Digital-Environment System Coalition (DESC) that I founded earlier this year, and to which anyone is most welcome to join, is committed to rethinking the relationships between digital tech and the life of nature, focusing on both the benefits and the harms that it can be used to create.
We had a fascinating, albeit attenuated, discussion and I look forward to continuing the exploration. I have much to learn from what others think and say. These are critically important issues if we wish to leave a better world to the next generation, and not have it transformed irrevocably by the scientism of those creating ever more enslaving and destructive digital technologies.