Welcome to New World Same Humans, a new weekly newsletter by TrendWatching’s Global Head of Trends and Insights, David Mattin.
This week a viral video got me thinking about how new technologies are set to collide with the highest forms of human experience.
Plus the regulation of Big Tech. And new possible futures for capitalism.
Life inside augmented modernity
Online, we swim in an ocean of media. Most of it is forgettable. But occasionally you see something new and the world seems forever a little altered. One such moment came last week, via a video that had everyone talking.
In this two-minute video we see a mother interacting with her young daughter inside virtual reality. They are being reunited after a long time apart. The mother sobs and reaches out to her child. They sing a birthday song, and eat seaweed soup. We see the woman’s husband and three other children looking on via a monitor in another room.
The mother in the video is Jang Ji-sung, from South Korea. Jang’s daughter, Nayeon, died three years ago from a rare blood disease. The Nayeon that appears to Jang is a virtual entity, created by the producers of a documentary called I Met You. Those producers used a child actor and motion capture to reproduce the movements of a seven-year-old girl, and then superimposed a representation of Nayeon’s face on to that digital mannequin. They synthesised a digital version of Nayeon’s voice. The result inside the VR environment is an apparently living, breathing, talking child.
You can see the full clip here. It is not easy to watch, and some people will prefer not to. Indeed, part of what is striking about this virtual encounter is the diversity of reactions to which it gives rise. Some have labelled the clip dark, even dystopian. But others have found it heart-warming; an encouraging signal of a future in which VR technologies help us process grief, and stay close to those we’ve lost.
The only really important opinion on the value of this event, though, belongs to Jang Ji-sung. ‘Maybe it’s a real paradise,’ she says in the documentary. ‘I met Nayeon, who called me with a smile, for a very short time. But it’s a very happy time. I think I’ve had the dream I’ve always wanted.’
Apart from its obvious emotional impact, this video was striking to me for another reason. It taps into an idea that I first wrote about back in 2017, when I assigned it a label: augmented modernity. That idea grew in turn out of a number of trends being spotted by the TrendWatching team, including the observation that people were starting to have meaningful experiences inside virtual worlds. Three years later, augmented modernity is still much on my mind.
At heart, this idea is about an emerging techno-consumerism that is taking aim at a new frontier: not the world around us, but the world inside us. As the name suggests, it can be understood via an analogy that draws on a more familiar phenomenon: augmented reality (AR). In AR, our view of the world is altered by the overlaying of digital representations. We know those representations aren’t real. But they can be persuasive; enchanting even. Augmented modernity is like this. But it will go far beyond simply overlaying visible representations across our view of the physical world. Instead, to live inside augmented modernity will be to see new kinds of technologies superimpose their own representations on the highest forms of human experience: love, friendship, politics, death and the search for ultimate meaning.
The result is a new kind of modern experience. After all, since its inception the project of modernity has been principally about serving our material needs. And in that respect the project has been a stunning success. In 2020 we moderns in the affluent world are rich, safe, healthy and long-lived to an extent our great-grandparents would not have dared dream. But on the whole, that hasn’t satisfied us. Instead, the fulfilment of our material needs has freed us to address a set of higher-order needs and values. Am I loved? Am I happy? What is the meaning of my life? We moderns obsess over these questions. And its that obsession — not a blissful wallowing in our material comfort — that characterises the subjective experience of life inside modernity for billions around the world.
So far, modernity hasn’t had much to say — at least directly — about this predicament. But now all that is changing. Because now we’re seeing the emergence of new technologies — principally AI, AR and VR — that will for the first time address the highest forms of human experience; that means the higher-order needs and values we like to think make us uniquely human.
Back in 2017 I wrote about Replika, an AI-fueled chatbot that engages its user in free-flowing conversation. Replika wants to be a new kind of companion and counsellor; the idea is that over the course of many conversations it learns about the personality of its human interlocutor, and becomes a kind of mirror in which users can see themselves reflected back. Over 7 million people now Replika according to CBS, which recently ran a segment on the app.
Of course, Replika is far from perfect; even at the best of times the conversation can feel clunky. But it’s a powerful early signal of the world we’re heading towards: one in which people can have meaningful relationships with AI-fueled virtual entities. After all, billions around the world are already having conversations with AI entities — Siri, Alexa and others — that have some emotional content. It’s not a huge distance from there to a place where people draw counsel, connection, even companionship from AI conversational agents.
Meanwhile, virtual worlds are becoming domains of meaningful human experience. Those worlds don’t have to exist inside VR; look, for example, at the way millions are questing for achievement, status, and social connection inside the online video game Fortnite. Back in January more than 10 million people gathered inside the game for a live concert by DJ Marshmello. But look, too, at this startup church inside VR. Look at the video with which I began this discussion.
Where is this heading? In the decades ahead we’ll surely see the creation of immersive virtual worlds that offer millions the chance to explore and fulfil higher-order needs as never before. Worlds that offer the chance of new kinds of relationships. That allow their inhabitants to live out their creative dreams. Even worlds that cultivate new forms of religious belief, and offer the chance for us moderns to experience the pre-modern conviction that our lives have a transcendent meaning.
Of course, we’re not there yet. But the early, faint signals are there. The technologies of the fourth industrial revolution are coming for the highest domains of human experience.
Just as with the clip from I Met You, this idea inspires widely divergent responses. Some see the idea, for example, that people will have meaningful relationships with virtual entities as simply absurd. Others as deeply dystopian, a harbinger of a future in which authentic experience is replaced by an empty simulacrum. Others, though, see a future that offers us the chance to fulfil the highest aspects of our natures — those we like to think make us uniquely human — as never before.
As for me? I’m somewhere between those extremes. It’s far too easy, I think, to dismiss these phenomena as absurd or far-fetched. On the other hand, there’s no doubt that the emergence of augmented modernity poses huge challenges. Not least: who will create and own the new platforms, virtual worlds and AIs that deliver this new world to us? It’s fashionable these days to talk about late capitalism. But augmented reality suggests entire new domains of human experience are about to become raw material for the relentless techno-consumerist machine that surrounds us in 2020, and which, it can sometimes feel, is determined to eat everything in its path. (There’s more on possible futures for capitalism after the quick snippets that follow.)
Whatever happens, it’s going to be an intriguing ride. I’ll be watching — and writing more about augmented modernity in future instalments of NWSH.
The technologies of the fourth industrial revolution will change life in ways, no doubt, we can’t yet imagine. In the meantime we’re still struggling to adjust to the changes wrought by the last wave of digital innovation.
One key question: can we hold social media giants responsible for the content they display? Is Facebook a publisher or a platform?
In the UK the government is charging its media regulator, Ofcom, to oversee internet content. Ofcom will have new powers to penalize sites that display illegal material, and could even hold senior executives criminally liable.
Meanwhile, similar rumblings in the US. In a new Medium article, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand proposed a new independent Data Protection Agency:
‘The tech giants — Google and Facebook among them — have been the clear winners of our transition to the digital age. Companies have declared that this data is theirs for the taking, and they’ve repeatedly rejected responsibility and accountability for the greater impacts of any bad behavior.’
The proposal has been endorsed by Shoshana Zuboff, author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: a must-read if you’re in interested in all this.
If Big Tech really is set to become a regulated industry, we’ll look back on 2000 to 2020 as the Wild West years. But it’s not going to happen without an almighty showdown.
Degrowth, capitalism and new frontiers
Should affluent countries act to reduce or even reverse economic growth? This was the subject of a fascinating article in the New Yorker this week.
‘Can We Have Prosperity Without Growth?’ examines the rise of the degrowth movement. The fundamental ideas are familiar to most of us. A philosophy of endless GDP growth sits at the heart of contemporary capitalism. But we live on a finite planet. Looming environmental catastrophe, say proponents of degrowth, is proof that we’re already hitting the edges. If we go on as we are, we’ll destroy our only home.
Now some mainstream economists and thinkers say it’s time to act. Environmental scientist Vaclav Smil — Bill Gates is a big fan — says we must rid ourselves of ‘physically impossible narratives of continuing growth that guide decisions made by national governments and companies.’
Everyone accepts that there are huge challenges. Will people in the affluent west ever accept falling living standards? How would we distribute the pain? Could we persuade the most affluent in each society to take the hit, so that relatively poor inhabitants of rich countries don’t have to see their conditions fall further? What about the developing world? The path to economic success for poor countries has traditionally been to make and export cheap products to the rich west. If people in the rich world decide to stop buying those products, doesn’t that path close?
Via this week’s ruminations on augmented modernity, possible futures for capitalism were already on my mind. I read this essay with all that looming in the background. And that, in turn, reminded me of a 2018 book that also circles these subjects, A History of the World in Seven Cheap Things, by Raj Patel and Jason W Moore. In particular, I was reminded of the clarity with which Patel and Moore demonstrate capitalism’s relentless quest for new frontiers to exploit. For most of its history those have been new frontiers of nature: territories, natural resources, and sources of labour. But as I noted earlier in this newsletter, part of what augmented modernity means is, it seems to me, the advent of entirely new frontiers for capitalism. Frontiers not out there in the world, but in here — inside ourselves. If 20th-century consumerism wanted your body, its 21st-century incarnation — via a commodification of happiness, creativity, intimacy and meaning — is coming for your soul.
So does the emergence of augmented modernity point to new growth routes for capitalism? Growth that doesn’t depend on the exploitation of finite natural resources? After all, Fortnite players spent $1.8 billion on virtual goods in 2019. (Although we shouldn’t forget the internet has a carbon footprint too.)
But perhaps even that is to limit our view of possible futures too severely. After all, augmented modernity doesn’t have to be mediated by the economic system we currently inhabit. Indeed, perhaps its advent means a chance to forge deeper, systemic change. Maybe, via the technologies of the fourth industrial revolution, we can find new forms of life and new kinds of exchange that happen outside the boundaries of the endlessly ravenous monster that is advanced consumerism. New ways to serve, enrich and entertain that are nothing to do with ‘economic growth’, and everything to do with one another and the bonds that tie us together.
I’m conscious this all sounds somewhat utopian. The pioneers of the early internet also thought they could rewrite the rules of our shared economic life. In the end, not so much. But that shouldn’t stop us from trying again. If we want a better future, our first task is to articulate it.
Whatever you need
This became long! Time to go.
Wishing you a week in which all your higher-order human needs are fulfilled,
David Mattin is Global Head of Trends and Insights at TrendWatching. He sits on the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council on Consumption.