Inevitable – What is really inevitable about digital change?
“Inevitability in the digital realm is the result of momentum of an ongoing technological shift.“ Based on this thesis statement, Wired Magazine co-founder Kevin Kelly identifies unavoidable trends in his book “The Inevitable — Understanding The 12 Technological Forces. Indeed, there seems to be little doubt about the inevitability of transformation. But this makes it inevitable to discuss the topic of change and its possible expressions in an open and unbiased way – if we want to co-shape the digital future.
Our world in present progressive tense – where are we heading to?
By naming 12 major trends, Kelly provides a description of how our world, driven primarily by digitization, is changing:
- Becoming: „We are constant newbies“,
- Cognifying: „ubiquitous artifical intelligence“,
- Flowing: „stocks to flows“,
- Screening: “all information will become liquid”,
- Accessing: “the availability of anything … immediately without owning”,
- Sharing: “everyone creates and it’s all shared”
- Filtering: “an exponentially expanding universe requires filtering based on who we are”,
- Remixing: “whatever is new is a remix of what exists”,
- Interacting: “interact with our devices and with others”,
- Tracking: “We will track and be tracked everywhere and everywhen”,
- Questioning: “creating a new level of organization where questioning is the norm”,
- Beginning: “These forces will shape our future and we are only at the beginning”.
Without going into every detail of these trends (or being able to do so in this context), we could summarize by saying that it is, in general, about transformation, dynamization and potentiation on an unprecedented scale.
The potentiation of human possibilities
Taking a closer look at the trends described by Kelly, we can – aside from the “liquefaction” of products into processes – make out a potentiation of human possibilities. Here, a good example is the trend of “Remixing” (8.). In this context, Kelly gets to the heart of matters, stating:
„All new technologies derive from a combination of technologies … [which] creates an unlimited number of new technologies“.
After all, the digital world itself is the result of remixing, using knowledges, techniques, and technologies from all times like, for example, numbers, letters, codes, cables, electricity, electronics, audio-visual media, etc., thus enhancing the possibilities of humankind. Of course, there are issues arising in this context like those of intellectual property, patents, etc. However, according to Kelly, it would be nearsighted to only call for regulation since the traditional concept of property is based on the principles of agrarian societies, which do not correspond to the realities of the digital world any more. The property of the future will not consist of material goods, but “intangible bits”, i.e. immaterial things. Service and product providers as well as manufacturers will gain value from things that are “better than free”: Immediacy, Embodiment, Integration, Accessibility, Authenticity, Discoverability, Personalization, Liquidity. Though, as Kelly states, legislation is lagging far behind developments, it will eventually follow them. The trend of “Sharing” (6.) provides one good example of how little technological development can be delayed by legislative regulations. In 2001, the p2p sharing platform Napster was taken off the net after intervention by the music industry. Now sharing is being commercialized and legally offered by net giants like Apple and Amazon – with consequences for the whole music industry.
Tracking – Problem or opportunity?
Describing the trend „Tracking“ (10.), Kelly addresses a topic which is considered especially problematic by critics of the ubiquitous digitization. In this context, some buzzwords are “glassy” citizens, consumers, humans. However, Kelly focuses on the opportunities of the surveillance of everyone by everyone (e.g. in the Internet of Things, IoT), leading to a better self-knowledge, the possibility of optimized health care, but also – and this is really interesting – to an expansion of the sensual possibilities of man. „Coveillance“ is considered much less a threat than a “natural state“. Societies must be transparent, because anonymity would be destroying any social system. In ancient times, as Kelly points out, clans were strangers to the idea of privacy as we understand it today. But he goes even further, saying:
„The internet makes true anonymity more possible today than ever before. At the same time the internet makes true anonymity in physical life much harder.”
To sum it up in a simple way: digital anonymity will be increasing in the digital world while, at the same time, it will be decreasing in the real world. As a result, tracking will be providing enormous opportunities, coming along with the risks. So then, we are on a journey toward two “singularities”: one of them the enslaving dominance of Artificial Intelligence (AI), which is referred to as “hard singularity”, the other an AI which will be, fortunately, not smart enough to enslave us („soft singularity“). Although Kelly considers the soft variant to be more likely, there is still enough potential left for disturbing visions. But we have to face these developments if we want to be able to influence and control them in the direction of a “soft” singularity anyway. Apart from the question of which ’singularity’ will prevail, Kelly uses the example of ‘Tracking’ to shed a light on the potential for change coming along with digitization and as well as on its enormous potential for change, deeply impacting both our lives and the societies we live in. Without doubt, his point of view has the potential to raise a great deal of contradiction, especially in regions and societies with a totalitarian heritage or present. Hence, it is all the more important to lead and maintain and open and unbiased discussion on the most critical topics and issues, always aiming to find viable solutions to present and future challenges. Only in doing so, we will be able to properly seize the opportunities of digitization, provided, for example, by innovation areas like the IoT.
Mind the trap of self-fulfilling prophecy
Already the title “The Inevitable“ gets Kelly’s point across: „We can or should attempt to prohibit some of results or manifestations the technological shift, but the technologies are not going away. Change is inevitable. We now appreciate that everything is mutable and undergoing change, even though much of this alteration is imperceptible“.
Nonetheless, he recognizes that, although human beings are exposed to the universal forces of digital change, there is still scope for action with regard to the expressions of digitization: “But while culture can advance or retard expression, the underlying forces are universal”. And elsewhere:
„We are morphing so fast that our ability to invent new things outpaces the rate we civilize them. These days, it takes us a decade after a technology appears to develop a social consensus on what it means and what etiquette we need to tame it.”
This raises the question of the inevitability of certain technological developments. Basically, it can be said that few things have proven to be unavoidable in history in the long run. There is, and always has been, the possibility of refusal, withdrawal, or regulation. The latter may come late but will come all the same. Even though many evangelists, but also companies, challenge the option of regulation, we know that there is always counter-movement to every movement, resulting – at least in the majority of cases – in mutual compromise.
The problem is, however, that we can only understand and recognize any result and process in retrospect. And even a supposedly ‘fixed’ status quo such as the nuclear phase-out can be changed at a later time when the use of nuclear energy would become socially accepted in a modified form again. In this context, the term “inevitable” generates the embarrassing feeling of being trapped and at the mercy of our desires and peer pressure – the need to fit in. At this point, the term becomes a “self-fulfilling prophecy”.
Invitation to an ‘inevitable‘ dialog
As apodictic as Kelly’s theses come across, and as much as we agree that (technological) developments are unavoidable for a period of time – at least as long as we want to participate in them: they should be understood less as a prediction of inevitability, but as an offer to start a fruitful dialog on the matter of digital change. And this is the special merit of Kelly, helping us understand present developments, identify and interpret them. Describing, for example, that there are many various forms of intelligence, and pointing at the fact that machine intelligence is very different from human intelligence, Kelly provides valuable insights into the huge potential of digitization. At the same time, it is becoming clear that there are risks that could far exceed the possibilities and opportunities of “Artificial Intelligence” (AI).
If we want to further influence developments and keep control over them, we have to deal with them in a constructive manner. And this is what we want and will do. In retrospect, it has always been public discussion and the coöperation of economy and society that enabled a “social consensus”, helping turn the benefits of technology into genuine progress.
Technological aberrations do not fundamentally disprove progress, but can be seized as an opportunity and used as approach to make corrections. Opening up whole new dynamics for us, the ongoing digitization calls for completely novel dynamics of questioning things. Already today, we can see new dimensions of how people challenge or argue – a development outlined by Kelly as a future trend (Questioning, 11).
If digitization is inevitable, we must understand it as our inevitable task to ensure that new technologies will be used as an extension of human possibilities – but not as a means of limiting humanity. Technologies create opportunities and options. They will gain acceptance only if they support us in solving problems and helping us meet the most pressing challenges we face today and tomorrow.
One of these big challenges is the question of how we deal with the infinitely increasing amount of knowledge being generated every day and making us “permanent newbies”. Due to the fact that we are becoming such permanent newbies, we will not be able to fully master things anymore. We will be, on the contrary, subject to constant change. If we want to make use of this ever increasing amount of knowledge, we will have to accept change and develop new skills to tackle with upcoming challenges – which also includes the use of new technologies.
And this is where we experience a tremendous expansion of human possibilities. At the same time, this is the point where we face the need to think about the topic of ‘resilience’. We should think, in spite of all the euphoria, about possible negative effects and how we can prevent them. It is important not to bury our heads in the sand, but to follow the call to think ahead.
For example, ’smart home’: It is very good when smart home technologies help us protect privacy and prevent damage from burglary. At the same time, the same technology can be used by burglars to gain easier access to our homes. In addition, the constant collection of smart home-generated data could lead to negative effects on privacy, although they were, by definition, designed to improve the quality of services and products as well as to develop new applications.
The example shows how important it is to think ahead and make corrections if necessary. Only if we address present and future developments and trends openly, we can prevent their concrete expressions from becoming inevitable.
Thinking ahead and leading an open and unbiased discourse secures our further participation in change. This way, we will be acting and creative subjects and not objects. One the other hand, both hostility towards technology as well as uncritical enthusiasm would lead to inevitability at the end of the day. Risks are not collateral damages, but only a consequence of the refusal to think ahead, treat customers with respect, and understand problems within the context of change.
And this is where the challenge for innovators starts – and where the wheat is sorted from the chaff, separating the winners from the losers.
 Kelly, The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future, Hardcover Edition – June, 7, 2016, p. 4.
 Kelly, pp. 193 ff.
 Regulation without balancing the interests of economy and society is often seen as an obstacle to innovation (cf. https://www.bearingpoint.com/de-de/unsere-expertise/insights/droht-der-digitalwirtschaft-eine-regulierungsbremse/).
 Kelly, pp. 207 ff et passim.
 Kelly, pp. 237 ff.
 Cf. a more critical view on innovation in: Ai Weiwei lebt in unserer Zukunft, https://netzpolitik.org/2015/hans-de-zwart-ai-weiwei-lebt-in-unserer-zukunft/
 Kelly, pp. 261 ff.; on the development of modern privacy cf.: P. Aries, G. Duby, The History of Private Live, 5 volumes, 1993.
 Kelly, p. 262.
 Kelly, pp. 294 ff.
 Kelly, p. 5.
 Kelly, p. 4.
 Kelly, p. 5.
 Kelly, pp. 269 ff.