May 24, 2013

7 Necessary Narratives for the New Digital Age

In the future, nearly everyone will be connected to the Internet and to each other, claim Jared Cohen and Eric Schmidt in The New Digital Age.

Mass connectivity will transform our relationships, our governments, our work, our bodies and the objects around us.  But even these dramatic transformations will not change the fact that we are corporeal creatures, and that we will still live lives grounded in phnew digital agephysical circumstances, whether those are urban or rural, rich or poor, lucky or unlucky.

We will also come into the world with a set of inherited stories about who we are, what our lives mean, and what the future looks like.   These stories will have the same universal threads they always have: we will still have stories of love, stories of family, stories that try reconcile life’s fundamental unfairness.  But they will also fail in important ways to explain the transformations of our lives, and the new ways in which we will do old things.

We need new stories

We need new stories.  Creating them is of necessity not only a collective task, but a transnational one. As we grow even more connected, we also grow more capable of exporting our ideas about who we are and what is important on others, wherever they are. Yesterday, two Nigeria-descended men hacked a third to death on a London street, and then stayed on the scene to tell how they saw themselves in a world at war: “We must fight them as they fight us.”   As we grow more connected, and more willing to share our selves with others, maybe pernicious forms of shame—that universal emotion—will be knocked out, and we’ll be more healthy.

It all depends on how we decide to tell our future. Here are seven of the areas where we will need new stories in the new digital age, as described by Schmidt and Cohen.


7 Necessary Narratives for the New Digital Age

1. The Body

Both religion and science fiction have long dreamed of worlds in which humans transcend bodies, to become virtual souls. In the new digital world, however, we will shape our identities online but experience them in the physical world.  How will we understand health and illness, and mortality, if we have the capacity to monitor our daily rhythms in minute ways?

2. Personal Identity

Schmidt and Cohen tell us that identity will be each of our most valuable commodity in the future, and that our true personal identity will be the one that we shape online.

How will we choose to tell our life stories and in what ways will the autobiographical form change in a world in which there is essentially no privacy?  Where will we think our “real” self resides. Where will the associations with privacy as a space of intimacy, daydreaming, erasable exploration, unrecorded experimentation with who we are, in order to practice who we could be, relocate, when we have no privacy?

 3.  News

Our concepts of journalism and news reporting have already undergone dramatic changes; journalism has become in many ways a collective task that falls to professional reporters and citizens alike, and to groups and organizations that put out versions of the news that support particular causes or points of view.

As an increasing number of voices join in the journalistic task, the work of professional media will evolve.  The media might become a trusted validator of unsubstantiated accounts, or an integrator of news from different kinds of sources.  The value of objectivity may fade, while versions of what subjective news that maintains its integrity will emerge—this will be the new narrative of news.

 4.  Cybersecurity

Different forms of public security – whether they are in the arena of health, or counterterrorism, or child safety – operate according to different metaphors, storylines and images.  Those around cyber-security may coalesce around metaphors of health and hygiene: we are told to practice “cyber-hygiene.

Schmidt and Cohen introduce Microsoft Chief Research and Strategy Officer, who has also recommended a “World Health Organization” for cyber-activity, and the practice of quarantining computers that have been infected with viruses.  As Adriane Lapointe, a National Security Agency official has observed, the public health metaphor may serve as the basis for a meaningful public narrative:

Like any good metaphor, it invites us to consider illuminating similarities between two overtly dissimilar things—malware on the internet and infectious disease in a community—similarities that can lead us to reframe a familiar topic. It also identifies a policy precedent, reminding us that we do, as a society, recognize the need to impose some restrictions on individuals who involuntarily pose a certain kind of threat to others, and that we have a mechanism to do this which might be relevant to cybersecurity matters. Whether we ultimately decide that this mechanism or approach is appropriate to the cyber challenge, the metaphor has certainly helped to broaden thinking about the subject.

 5. National Identity

The nation-state has been the bedrock of our civic identities for the last couple of centuries, and the idea that every nation deserves its own territorial state a driving narrative of the 20th century.  But new diasporas resulting from increased migration, coupled with digital connectivity, are decoupling the nation from the state, creating virtual, de-territorialized nations.

How will a de-territorialized nation narrate its future? How will cultural practices that have been grounded in place be translated into practices of other place? Will other forms of bonding, such as investment in the home country, become a standard part of an individual’s narrative of their national identity? Will the idea of a relationship to a particular land wither for some communities, and if so, to what effect?

 6. Dissident Leadership

There is much to protest in this world, and the low cost of entry to share dissident views will lead to a widening number of protestors seeking attention for their cause.  Many of these causes will be worthy and compelling, so it is no longer enough to offer the platitude the most persuasive stories will gain our attention. Rather, we—the public that dissidents must win over–may begin to change the meta-story, or standards, by which we evaluate leaders and causes.

Schmidt and Cohen offer that dissident leaders likely to become popular will be able to: “command a following and crowd-source their online support,” will know how to exploit digital marketing tools, and  will show their commitment by putting themselves at physical risk.

We can already guess that digital marketing skills are not the most important skills for someone seeking a leadership role in a dissident setting.  We can use this recognition starting now to inoculate ourselves against easily accepting simply the most digitally skilled. We can ask, instead, what are the qualities—what is the story—of a leader who is likely to be successful, who understands the institutions they want to change, and lead that change on the ground as well as in virtual space.

 7.  Justice

Cameras in our smallest devices make it easy to record the human capacity for barbarism in its many forms. Violence, sexual assault, cruelty to animals, hate speech all find their way into digital form on a regular basis, easily arousing our instinctual repugnance. As Schmidt and Cohen observe, these recordings can become the basis for “crowd sourced justice,” which may take the form of  mob retaliation, from harassment to violence.

But we could instead form new habits of collective responsibility—using our connectivity to make sure that those who commit bad acts are dealt with according to our legal precepts and best values, and to explore together how to deal with bad behavior at the community level.  Which narrative, and which set of practices that prevail, depend on how we decide to narrate our opportunity to ‘crowd source justice,’ which behaviors we highlight and celebrate, and how we talk about what we see online.


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