It's the Digital Age: Ethically speaking, things here are different

Jim Blasingame

As arrogant occupants of 21st-century Earth, who can rightly boast of creating exciting innovations, like the computer, talking paint, and the margarita blender, it serves us to believe we're also the more enlightened generation.

But honesty demands acknowledgement that contemporary applications of wisdom, morality, and ethical behavior are in fact derivative of concepts first proposed long ago by the ancients.

For example, in addition to the almost four-millennia-old, legendary Mosaic Laws, consider the 10,000-year-old Chinese wisdom, I Ching, The Book of Changes. Then there's the 5,000-year-old Upanishads from India, and finally, King Solomon's first millennium BCE wisdom from Ecclesiastes and Proverbs. It must be noted that some of this awesome self-awareness was first contemplated at a time when receding Ice Age glaciers were still carving Scotland's Loch Ness and the Great Lakes of North America, while others came to light barely on the threshold of the written word.

Alas, ethically and morally speaking, we moderns are merely the new models, not the better ones. Hold that thought.

Contemporary humans must remember one immutable fact that ties us all together: You and I are, have always been, and always will be, analog, made of the exact same stuff as our forebears. From Euclid to Edison to Eddie, your brother-in-law, we're all physical, analog beings. And our analog-ness has suited us completely as we have, for 10,000 years, created and thrived in a 100% analog world.

Until now.

Today, we're increasingly occupying a digital world and things here are different. For the first time in human history, we've created something truly unique by not being analog. It's a new force that's more than different, it's unprecedentedly disruptive; an innovation with its own energy. Digital leverage.

Analog leverage is a pry bar, a wheel, or an elevator. Analog telephonic technology allows you to sit in one place and in minutes, make nine phone calls to deliver news to family and friends. Analog leverage: 1:9.

Digital leverage is the same message posted once on a social media platform, potentially available to millions in a millisecond. Digital leverage: 1:∞. Pretty exciting, huh!

But what about digital leverage applied with greater implications than a family report? Slow your digital adoption long enough to consider the awesome leverage sitting under every "Enter" key on every "keyboard." For good or ill. Take a minute to think about that.

In analog history, humans have innovated tools over epochal, if not generational chronology. But in transitioning from an analog to a digital world, our leverage has gone from speed of sound to speed of light. From RPM to GHz. In less than two human generations – a nanosecond in geologic time – an IBM Mainframe as big as a refrigerator, a ball-point pen, a telephone, a typewriter, a radio, and a mailbox have transmogrified into a magic wand in our pocket – the smartphone. No human generations have ever before experienced such a disruptive and sexy conversion of leverage as those alive today.

Remember that thought you're supposed to be holding? Ethically and morally speaking, we moderns are merely the new models, not the better ones. As analog beings, we possess a primordial requirement of trust as the foundation of every aspect of our lives that's informed by our DNA and learned from the ancients. Unfortunately, we've yet to perfect how to deliver that trust requirement with the digital leverage of a 9 GHz, nitrogen-cooled, 28-core processor connected to the Internet. We have a lot of work to do.

And yet, you and I are still arrogant enough to think that knowing how to physically navigate a browser interface somehow results in the ethical employment of digital tools that wield unprecedented leverage with a fingertip twitch.

Just because no one ever taught a class on the ethics of using a hammer doesn't mean it's okay to go from RPMs to GHz in 30 years with essentially no conversation about the ethical use of digital leverage. It's different. In the Digital Age, things here are different.

Ever wonder why we're increasingly anxious about technology? It's because while digital leverage is seductive and compelling, it's simultaneously disrupting our analog experience and challenging our primal nature. It's troubling our analog requirement of trust. And as we continue to race into the ever-more-digital 21st Century, hell-bent-for-light-speed, there's the rub.

Write this on a rock ... Being ethical – fulfilling our trust requirement – in the Digital Age is different from anything we've ever done. And so, therefore, is the conversation.

Jim Blasingame is the author of The 3rd Ingredient, the Journey of Analog Ethics into the World of Digital Fear and Greed.

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