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 an acknowledgment that contemporary applications of wisdom, morality and ethical behavior are in fact derivative of concepts first proposed long ago by the ancients.

Consider the 10,000-year-old Chinese wisdom, I Ching, The Book of Changes. Then there are the 5,000-year-old Upanishads from India. And of course, the new kid on the block, the four-millennia-old Mosaic Laws (Thou shalt not …). Indeed, no wisdom is handier than that of King Solomon, from the first millennium BCE in Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, and the Psalms. 

It must be noted that much of this awesome introspection and 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, on the threshold of the written word. 

Alas, ethically and morally speaking, we moderns are merely the new models, not necessarily 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 for dozens of millennia as we’ve created and thrived in a 100% analog world – including our analog ethics. Hold that one, too.

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 merely 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, an elevator, or a potato masher. 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 digital 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 sec to think about that.

In analog history, humans have innovated tools over generational, if not epochal chronology. But in transitioning from an analog to a digital world, leverage has gone from RPM to GHz. From speed of sound (760 miles per HOUR) to speed of light (186,000 miles per SECOND). In less than two human generations – a nanosecond in geologic time – we took a lumbering IBM Mainframe as big as an SUV, squeezed into it a ball-point pen, a telephone, typewriter, television, radio, and a mailbox, and transmogrified all of that into a magic wand that fits in the back pocket of your jeans. The smartphone. No previous human generation ever experienced such a disruptive and seductive conversion of leverage.

Remember those thoughts 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 in every aspect of our lives. Humans require trust, regardless of whether the leverage is analog or digital. 

It took humans 10,000 years to go from slaying a mammoth to operating a mainframe, but we’ve accelerated from mainframe to mobile in the lifespan of this Baby Boomer. That sounds exciting until you realize that we’ve yet to perfect how to install our primordial trust requirement into the digital leverage of a 9 GHz, nitrogen-cooled, 28-core processor and deliver it over the Internet at the speed of light. 

You’ve likely never owned a railroad or factory, but you have more potential power in either of the several “Enter” keys you own than all of the Robber Barons combined. And once that key is pressed, there are no backsies or mulligans.

Are we so arrogant to think that knowing how to physically navigate a browser interface somehow results in the ethical employment of digital tools? Are we so ignorant as to believe that wielding unprecedented leverage with the twitch of a fingertip promotes trust? We have a lot of work to do.

Just because no one ever had to teach a class on the ethics of using a hammer doesn’t mean it’s okay to go from RPMs to GHz in 30 years without a conversation about the ethical use of digital leverage. This is different. In the Digital Age, things here are different.

Ever wonder why analog humans are reporting increasing anxiety about technology? It’s because while digital leverage is sexy and compelling, it’s simultaneously disrupting our analog expectations, challenging our primal nature, and troubling our 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. 

Want a good place to start your own transition to digital ethics? Next time you’re about to press that “Enter” key, say this to yourself: “Just because I can, doesn’t mean that I should.”

Write this on a rock … Being ethical and fulfilling our trust requirement in the Digital Age is different from anything humans have ever done. Let the conversation begin. 

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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