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Being A Digital Optimist

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I’ve long held the view that digital progress, however destabilising in the short-term, will lead to long-term benefits for humankind and Planet Earth. That’s why I label myself a Digital Optimist. But, until quite recently, it’s never felt like a minority opinion.

With the global media and the public now scrutinising the activities of leading technology players like Facebook, Google and Apple, it’s quite reasonable to feel concerned about the adverse effects that technology is having on our lives. When scandals like Cambridge Analytica’s alleged mishandling of personal data come to light, it’s right to be worried about how your own data might be misused. And when hyper-targeted personalised advertising is placed on social media channels to covertly and very effectively sway mass public opinion, it is our duty to demand that our democratic rights should never be abused or taken away.

But for all these worries, it’s clear to me that we enjoy and will continue to enjoy a net benefit from technological progress. Robotics are helping free humans from repetitive, mundane and dangerous tasks. Artificial intelligence is helping us see patterns in vast quantities of data to unlock new solutions to previously intractable problems. And new forms of communication are steadily bringing humans closer together, ushering in the potential for a new era of enlightenment, tolerance and societal cohesion.

In 2019, the phase we’ve reached in our technological development is not dissimilar to the storm of cultural conflict experienced in any large scale societal evolution. In business, when we put a new team of people together we understand that there are often four key stages the new collective will go through on its path to peak performance. These are Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing (from Bruce Tuckman’s 1965 model).

Of the four stages, storming is perhaps the most interesting and significant. It signifies the point where the different personalities in a group identify their roles, compete for opportunities and work through differences of opinion that might otherwise prevent the team from attaining a high level of performance.

Perhaps we’ve reached that storming phase on our journey with technology. For most of us in developed countries, the excitement of the new is largely over—although there’s much, much more to come—and we’re now able to assess what we like and dislike about the new world order. Most communities and organisations have opted to use their new technology-fuelled capabilities for good, while others, the minority, have exploited technology to take advantage of others or to embrace criminality. Many of us feel conflicted over the way things are panning out, and we’re unsure if we want to play or simply turn back the clock to how things used to be.

This is the storming phase. It challenges us to work through our differences and find a longer term arrangement—a new norm—that will lead us to a collectively beneficial future. Storming is uncomfortable, it’s confusing and it’s emotionally draining. But we have to work through it.

The alternative is seeking to stand still while others race forward without us. Technological progress will always advance, largely at exponentially-accelerating speeds. As we figure it out, much good will come from the new norm, as well as some bad. Our ways of living will change. Our frail human capabilities will extend. And our capacity to make the right choices for the benefit of everyone will grow. Ultimately, technology may be the only path available to reveal the crucial answers needed to make our tiny planet habitable and sustainable for the long term.

I’m proud to call myself a Digital Optimist. I’m not blind to the negatives either. And I’m excited by the role I play in helping others understand and run towards the wonderful opportunities technology can bring to help us achieve our collective potential.

Storm on!