12.1 Operating system or ecosystem?

On July 10, 1990 in Washington D.C., the Electronic Frontier Foundation, led by Mitch Kapoor and J.P.Barlow published a Mission Statement for the new world of code; the place known, back then, as cyberspace.

This statement said, ‘Over the last 50 years, the people of the developed world have begun to cross into a landscape unlike any which humanity has experienced before. It is a region without physical shape or form. It exists, like a standing wave, in the vast web of our electronic communication systems. It consists of electron states, microwaves, magnetic fields, light pulses and thought itself.

It is familiar to most people as the “place” in which a long-distance telephone conversation takes place. But it is also the repository for all digital or electronically transferred information, and, as such, it is the venue for most of what is now commerce, industry, and broad-scale human interaction. William Gibson called this Platonic realm “Cyberspace,” a name which has some currency among its present inhabitants.

Whatever it is eventually called, it is the homeland of the Information Age, the place where the future is destined to dwell.’

From the earliest inception of the coded world, then, people have been talking about new domains and states of being.

In 1979, twenty or so years before that, James Lovelock was writing about Gaia theory. At the time, it was a revolutionary way of thinking about life on Earth.

Lovelock’s point, as we are beginning to understand through technology, was that we, and the world around us, are connected.

So is the same true in the Digital Era? Arguably even more so.

Lovelock was describing a one-world system. Today, the conversation about the rise of the robots, second machine ages, and the idea of a time when we will inexorably become one with code as part of a ‘singularity‘ puts the metaphors we use and the ideas of ecosystems and operating systems into sharp focus.

At their simplest, an ecosystem emphasises the organic. An operating system, or OS, emphasises the artificial.

We’ve been fixated about machines for a long time now. Ever since the first days of the flint and horse, it’s been obvious to us how vitally important machines and tools are. Boosting our capabilities, they are an indispensable part of what we can do. But the machines are not who we are inside, not yet anyway, and our ecosystem is one that stretches far beyond us.

Technology and machines are devoid of feeling and machines are becoming embedded into our lives in ways that objectify both ourselves and others, treating all content as digital objects. In doing so, we potentially lose a connection with the human spirit. When we can Google everything we lose, perhaps, a sense of wonder about the world around us.

Is Tinder a dating apocalypse? It’s too early to tell how essentially illogical and asynchronous feelings of compassion, bravery or falling in love will stack up as part of a nurturing human spirit in a digital world, or how a fearless or an instinctively fair human warrior spirit standing up for oppression might fare when running against the numbers.  It’s too early to tell if humans will be as irrelevant as cockroaches. What I think we have to think about and consider is the state of humankind we wish to see in the context of the big picture.

A new operating system for digital humans may be on our horizon, but it is nothing without a sense of how code will benefit our own ecosystems and an appreciation of the complexity of those systems, systems that have been up until this time beyond the reach of man.

The world as it is being programmed today, the connected, digital world, can provide the opportunity for a new kind of social fabric woven together out of a connected intention. This offers us a kind of co-operation that can be the fabric for an emergent civilization. As the Global Commission on Internet Governance highlights, we need some basic principles for good global governance.

So far, in their ‘The Internet is’ series of videos, GCIG commissioners have described the internet on film as ‘a technology that links the world together’, ‘infinity’, ‘a garden’, ‘a network of networks’, and ‘freedom’.

Deciding on how we will live in the future is a big deal, and we are just at the earliest stage of picking our metaphors.

Is the coded world going to be capable of cultivating the organic value of the planet or will our efforts be about reformatting it to suit today’s interests? We need to choose whether the coded world is ultimately here to cultivate organic value or to re-programme us.

This is a video from three years ago asking the question.

In the virtual world, mind over matter determines the outcome and the outcome is for all of us to decide. Let’s keep going with the conversation.

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