1.19 About digital genomics
The human genome was fully mapped in 2000 C.E.
It may follow that the entire universe of human activity and all its technical connections is fully mapped and monitored in just a few short years.
If that sounds a little dramatic, consider how information relays work as the central nervous system of a wired planet. Connections from human to human are increasingly traceable using the social graph. Soon, those connections between us and the technology that augments us as digital humans will be too.
So in a random and not entirely ideal way, this is what’s already happening. This is digital genomics.
What determines how well things go from here – AI safety, global ethics and virtual governance – are big subjects and we’re currently a long way from fully understanding them.
We’re on the edge of discovering what makes us coherent as a digitally enhanced human species, figuring out how far we want to take our new digital capabilities and considering whether, instead, we might be taken down by them.
We must distinguish between what’s safe and what’s risky, what makes sense to try out in the cause of satisfying the relentlessness of human curiosity, and what we should have the wisdom to leave well alone.
The value of the free willed maverick is a spirit in each of us, a life force. It’s part of human DNA. Deviancy has been core to all our greatest achievements. In a connected society, how much free will might we have? What are the useful limits of conformity and compliance? Can algorithms sufficiently cope with deviancy as we try to nurture a sustainable, vibrant and diverse digital world? These questions sit at the frontier of our intelligent digital development, waiting to be answered.
Big data and behavioural surveillance are unearthing new insights about the human condition, triggering new lines of enquiry about it. And, as we become increasingly dependent on digital technology, our data trails are exposing new human vulnerabilities.
Donald Brown is an anthropologist who has been studying ‘human universals’ for many years. These are the characteristics, rites and rituals shared by human beings across the world, irrespective of culture. To date, he has identified there are around 400 of these human universals. By embarking deeper into our digital genomics, we might find many more.
We might also come to appreciate the rarer and more exotic characteristics that constitute people who we refer to as ‘the greats’, the people who kick against convention, unique individuals who have made an impression on the way we think, who’ve enchanted, inspired and added something to the world and who are utterly irreplaceable through their character and talent. They show that human uniqueness matters as much as universals do.
Clones and cookie cutters are two a penny in a ‘cut and paste’ world. Andy Warhol had that down.
In developing digital genomics, our real opportunity is that people become better able to define their individuality, fully realising who we are, each of us, as unique identifiers, people of digital influence, part of an emergent code.
How we contribute to the wired world is not as pale versions of robots, or branded automatons, or simply as tagged data; it is as fully fledged, connected, and wired, individual-to-the-point-of-being-gloriously-deviant, humans.
The work of Donald Brown supports the study of the human genome and our understanding of the human condition using neuroscience. Social intelligence, combined with technology, is moving us closer to a complete inventory of who we are and can be as human beings.
Thinking about pyramids, again
In the same way a step change in civilisation happened in the time of our ancients when they could first record real-world inventory, digitized tracts of human content make way for a new kind of human state.
Our new civilization is a more joined-up and connected humanity, a wired world in which every digitally included person is part of one molecular structure, a global brain.
In the Digital Era, the focus is on the sustainable good management of our global resources, where once it was on the creation of nation states. The thing has scaled. As codes and symbols today, we have # and </>, instead of hieroglyphics. The characters might have changed, but the purpose of human expression remains the same.
New age state
We might be a long way along on in the timeline from our earliest ancestors, but the parallels between their lives and our own are there to learn from.
The ideas behind mapping and tracking digital inventory are the same as those that led to the beginning of analogue state formations 5,000 years ago and, with the benefit of hindsight, we can identify that much of the universal nature of human existence is timeless.
During the history of humankind, our DNA has changed surprisingly little. Now a connected global state is forming and we are becoming powered by code. There are implications for us on our timeline, as the digital footprints we make today unfold into the future.
What we do with code today will affect the quality of our memories, what we recognize as the human condition from the past, and those memories will exist up in the cloud, every bit as much as in our own heads.
Social networks give us the means to create patterns of existence as well as individual voices online. In this sense, the value of our uniquenesses has never been a greater asset. At the same time, social networks blur the conventional boundaries of ourselves and the rest of the web, creating a kind of fuzzy logic in terms of what we are when we interact with it and others. A global web and operating at tremendous speed is a super-intelligence of sufficient potency and power to have substantial influence over our individual choices.
As far as livelihoods are concerned, not everyone has the skills to carve a living out of this kind of world; the rise of robots is making a raft of careers redundant. As code become prevalent, there’s a challenge on the table – to enhance the soft human skills of connectivity and interrelatedness alongside lines of script and hardware.
Some people will have the freedom and strength to use digital technology for their own enablement; others may become slaves to the machine. That’s the other direction digital genomics can go in.
One thing seems fairly certain: While human memory spans are being put to the test by the deluge of information that comes with being digital, we no longer need history to repeat itself as part of an endless dumb loop of human fallibility. We can learn from it instead, moving on from making the same mistakes and evolving at a networked level.
The digital, coded world online offers an opportunity to combine technological hardware with the best of human resourceful and initiative. If we wish, we can use this moment and dedicate ourselves to developing more of the rare senses that make us who we are – fine tuning our senses of wonder, bliss, intuition, intimacy and a sophisticated connection to our emotions. If we want to, code can play a part in elevating what it means to be human, to develop our core essence, our fibre, and digital genomics.
That’s perhaps the greatest gift humanity has ever been given. Being wired gives us that. It would be a shame to waste it.