The Digital Ocean

Written by Marc Atherton, Psychologist & Behavioural Scientist

As a species Homo Sapiens evolved on the savannah’s of Africa. The land was essentially two dimensional and threats came at us on a single level. The savannah trees and rocks also provided shade and shelter from threats and the environment. Our minds, habits and assumptions about our world are still strongly conditioned by that ancestral heritage.

We now live in a different environment entirely – what I have come to think of as the Digital Ocean. The ocean is technically a desert with nowhere to shelter from threats and the environment (except in the shallows) and our digital life has evolved similarly.

Our digital lives are laid out in a way that gives us nowhere to hide. With Google, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, mobile phone data and a multitude of other digital footprints we create constantly, our lives are no longer shaded or sheltered from view.

With AI and Machine Learning able to analyse our data in an ongoing instant, and the ability to understand not just our outward lives but even our psychological profile accurately from the data trails we leave I would argue that we have moved into a different environment – albeit one that on the surface looks unchanged.

David Attenborough’s TV programme ‘The Blue Planet’ about the world’s oceans offers a way to think about where we are as individuals in this reality. In the ocean there is no place to run to that offers shade or shelter – our digital reality puts us totally in the open and at the mercy of the predators, even ones as cute as dolphins.

In this Digital Ocean there is a real risk of people simply being the equivalent of a digital bait-ball of small individuals at the mercy of the challenges that can come from unexpected directions and in many forms. Grouped together for a sense of safety and community, individuals are still at the mercy of the larger creatures that can navigate the ocean and chew up the bait-ball for their own political or economic interests. The big beasts of the digital world are not there for altruistic reasons in the main – if it is free you are the product as the saying goes.

The Chinese State has instituted the Social Contract System using AI and Big Data to profile every citizen and give them a Social Contract Score equivalent to a Credit Score in finance similar to that generated by Experian or CreditScore in the UK. In a Chinese context this is being well received – different cultures have different mores.

The Social Contract Score will integrate all the digital aspects of an individual’s life and the number you get (between 300 and 1000 apparently) will determine your life chances in terms of education, housing, healthcare, employment and freedom to travel. Not having a digital Social Score puts you off the grid entirely so you are outside the system and simply don’t exist. No Social Score no Social Goods.

Do something to lower your score (post something critical of the government, get a speeding ticket or friend some ‘undesirable elements’ online) and you get a life downgrade for not being the best citizen you could be. A smaller apartment, poorer quality healthcare, less educational opportunities for you and your family – all these could be yours automatically courtesy of your friendly neighbourhood algorithm.

In Europe GDPR will provide you with protections in terms of personal data and data usage. The UK will hopefully keep that legislation as a framework post Brexit. Of course nothing directly analogous to the Chinese system could be instituted here – could it?

What this means for individuals is that your digital life is currently not your own. The power of AI, Machine Learning and Data Analytics resides in both corporate and government hands and is awesome in terms of not only the insight it gives but also the ability to impact individual lives both directly (access to Social Goods) and indirectly (manipulating your worldview, beliefs, attitudes and behaviours).

Knowing we are not on the savannah anymore should be enough to prompt people to understand the environment they live in now and make informed choices about how to manage their lives proactively – decide who you are and who you want to be and create that reality for yourself in the Digital Ocean. Use Google to learn, not just watch cat videos. Use FaceBook to connect and discuss, not just collect likes. Use social media to create your own reality, not just go with the herd default assumptions.

The Digital Ocean offers freedom and a new reality for humans to exist in, but without the correct balance of rights, responsibilities and authorities in a socially just framework we could just become so many bait-balls to be consumed. If you are already in the ocean learn to swim, watch out for cute looking predators and thrive.

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