The great split- Predictions on our AI future
An interesting exercise is to investigate how dormant or already obvious socio-cultural dynamics of our current time shape the future. Potentially we can use today’s value sphere to anticipate which ones of the many ICT technologies, especially AI technologies are likely to flourish and diffuse, how and among whom. So, we do not predict and derive technology demand from technological capability or industry forecasts any more, but instead we attempt to understand from our current cultural status quo what technology is likely to be consumed seen its respective power and capabilities.
For sure there are many cultural dynamics at the same time and I am only able to touch upon very few that I personally consider as key for the moment. Many of them bear the potential to split society and partition citizens into blocks of very different people that hardly continue to share any basis to communicate. This is also why this text is called “The great split”. We might, I believe, see a split of society into those citizens on one side that enter permanent distraction and lack attentiveness and those on the other side who actively engage in mindfulness. We might see growing differences between technology-enveloped urban populations, many of them single-households enduring intense phase of painstaking solitude versus a growing rural population that defends are more traditional life-style, is less hooked to social media and more community oriented. We might see a split between those nomads that are able to build their own personal brands serving the attention-economy and enduring self-employed entrepreneurship versus those who are not able to bear this degree of freedom and are left behind in instability and stagnation. We might see great insecurities around gender roles with different life models attached: traditionalists versus transgender defenders. All these cultural conditions will influence the adoption of technology at the individual level.
At the societal level there are also trends likely to influence technology R&D and investment such as ecological breakdown and mass migration. But I will not expand on these here, instead focusing on those were IT is immediately involved as a driver and bearer. Thereby I apply my thoughts primarily to Europe or the Western World and work with some necessary assumptions: That is first, I assume that enough raw materials can continue to be sourced and traded at acceptable prices for ICT service production; second that financial markets continue to function and thirdly that there is no third world-war bringing our whole current world to its knees beyond the conflicts we already witness.
Trend 1: Distracted Floating versus Mental Sovereignty
This trend is about the breakdown of attentiveness: The average number of mobile messages and e-mail sent per day is now over 200, with approximately 60+ interruptions and self-interruptions per day. 49% of the population seem to be hooked into social media living in a constant self-distraction and self-reflection habit (as of 2020). (ITU 2020, RescueTime 2019, Statista Inc. 2020) This state is furthered aggravated by the Corona pandemic, which forces people into isolation out of which virtual communication seems the only gate left to the world.
It is not surprising that this mode of living is over a decade or two changing who we are as persons. Attention span is falling as is the ability to absorb cognitively challenging content like this lecture. The brain gets used to spending its cognitive capacity to a constant inflow of information. Thus, a pathological form of cognitive need is rising called ‚information addiction’ where one is constantly looking for mentally distracting input while being unable to actually deeply process that which flows in. People in this mode need strong information stimuli, such as breaking news or online entertainment and as they consume this their ability to appreciate and sense the real-world decreases, because the real-world cannot give them equally strong impulses. What we see is a dulling of the mind, similar to a dulling of taste observed in those consuming a lot of junk food. People in this mode could become quite unhappy because joy is increasingly only created through strong mental stimuli as can be found in VR; while the body is less involved. Subjective body development will therefore suffer. People in this group will be sinking into the matrix; living in the hive-mind of their online echo-chambers (see also description of human destiny as Borgs in p. 120 ff (Spiekermann 2019)).
At the same time a smaller, but still significant group of people are consciously refusing the extensive over-consumption of digital media. They disallow themselves, their families and (ideally) even friends to use mobile communication or online entertainment too much. They actively seek self-control of media, which costs them energy unless they can build up a healthy habit of digital use. An increasing number in this camp is likely to engage in mental nourishment through practices like meditation or yoga. They seek physical fitness and bodily control through various forms of body-shaping sports; for instance Marshall arts.
Looking at these very different reactions to the demands of the Net, we might witness human beings to increasingly split apart. And depending on what group one is in, different kind of ICT consumption will ensue as well as very different life styles and job opportunities: The distracted mainstream of users is likely to float in information. They need the ground noise of the „infosphere“. They are likely to consume audio offerings; not only audio books, audio snippet news, but also speech assistant technology; wearing in-ear devices that permanently connect them. They are likely to prefer any IoT technology that allows for seamlessness; including smart home technology. They will need reminder technology and advanced calendar systems, organizing parts of their life for them that they would otherwise forget. Preferring inflow, they consume what recommender systems give them. They will feel attracted to big screens in their flats that permanently offer high-impulse images even when not used for entertainment, but also in education and news. They will seek thrill in rich VR. They might be open for augmented reality glasses as information addiction increases and their mental ability to process more and rapid images. They will enjoy extreme personalization and are happy to therefore share their personal data. While living in a highly personalized and enveloped digital environment, they will still enjoy making the little choices left in an easy-to-comprehend menu; leaving them with an illusion of individual freedom. In education this group will go for ‚nutshell‘ 10-minute input offerings that present key learning outcomes as take-aways in conjunction with rich-media stimuli.
In contrast to this floating mainstream a smaller group of people struggling for mental sovereignty will recognize the split in life-style and communication from those floating. They will look for more latency and control over information push. They might use self-controlled filter technology to slow down the stream of input or configure their software agents to shield them off. They might seek more configuration options to pull from the Net only what they deem relevant. They will be more likely to consume paid-for media of high quality. They will look for deeper and attention-intense online education that goes beyond Wikipedia knowledge. They might use speech assistant technology to increase efficiency; also embracing audio, but not in order to get entertained at all times or to have background noise with them, but to use it for professional efficiency and time savings. Time spared will be invested in lesser, but good analogue friends, available in the real world, jointly engaging in real-sports, enjoying nature and avoiding any overlays like AR glasses that they perceive as distracting. That said, audio offerings, such as meditation apps, spiritual input, classics, yoga lessons or any kind of self-development and self-perfection media offerings might find resonance with this group.
Against this background the ICT industry might see a serious, but small and exclusive segment of private personal data vault and personal software agent users with enhanced control options for communication and information inflow and high privacy protection standards. Intelligent latency management, exclusive provider branding, decentralized privacy controls, etc. might therefore become a more serious market segment. Providers in this part of the market might think about exclusive content bundling. In contrast to this rather exclusive offering, the mainstream will demand ever bigger displays in their home and enjoy the company of speech assistants integrated in smart home applications catering to their increased passiveness.
In their roles as employers, companies will need to deal with both groups of people, but might be forced to pursue different freedom and home-office strategies depending on who they are dealing with. The mentally sovereign ones will prefer at least part-time home office for efficiency reasons and because they need time for self-development. They are reliable and high-quality home office workers and would not want to return to permanent in-town offices. The floating mainstream in contrast, will tend to high error proneness due to their inability to concentrate and they will have difficulty to solve problems. On top of this they will avoid personal contact to customers, because physical contact is too intense for them. Companies will seek to replace these with full-automation to reduce errors. And since rich virtual communication for simple problem solving can be delegated for less money to AI systems, mainstream floaters will have increasing difficulties to find jobs. That said, companies will see that daily problems cannot be solved with AI systems only and experience a shortage in problem-solvers. This will incentivize them to invest in corporate education parts of which might be dedicated to personal development of employees. They will also seek more control over their employees home office work practice, using surveillance tools to measure presence and attentiveness to job tasks and encourage their employees to use tracking tools and support agents that watch over their work rhythms. This again will lead to company-internal conflict with the described minority of employees who are reliable and mature, but want to maintain their autonomy.
Trend 2: The human species loses gender orientation
Household automation has set free the time and creativity of women who strive into professions that welcome female thought, creativity, reliability and ability. As a result, female and male roles have changed. They have become partly interchangeable, which has led to role insecurity and conflict at home, on the job and also sexually. Many men want to engage more in child upbringing giving themselves a sense of meaning. Women - while defending their role as independent mothers - often welcome this openness of men to engage. But the sharing and equalizing of roles at home and at work can also lead to competition between men and women. And where there isn’t virtuous self-development on both sides or the luck to find the right partner, men and women can easily end up in highly critical, ambiguous, cynical views towards the other sex. While still dreaming after the perfect partner, reality disillusions. This reality is further aggravated by the wide-spread use of porn sites that abolish the last mystery of sexuality and replace intimacy with stimulating consumption of the other sex. The process is accompanied by women wondering about their femininity, struggling between traditionalist ideas of what women should be on one side and wonderwoman on the other. Female self-identity tumbles back and forth between being ‚like a virgin‘ versus a non-vulnerable wonderwhore. On the other side, men equally struggle with their masculinity. Being confronted with new fatherhood experience as well as a femininity that hasn’t found its oneness yet, they also struggle. Many migrate into a kind of compromising and slightly untouchable paleness that even Viking beards cannot really spice up. Others delegate their masculinity into Harley-Davidson niches as well as rougher online forums.
Thinking about wonderwoman representing the zenith of 20th century humanism: independent, fearless, beautiful, mastering her body and rationally willing to shape her body for health and perfection, a number of ICT technologies spring to mind: especially self-tracking, potentially facilitated through a new generation of fashionable wearables like smart watches, intelligent jewelry, smart cloths, etc. That said, the psychological insecurity might at the same time lead to an increased consumption of online ad hoc coaching that might be sourced from real persons, which are considered experts in the field or influencers. In parallel, soothing speech assistant programs rise as communication partners. The latter could be coupled with intelligent mirrors for clothing and make-up advice, automated household advice, household services, etc. All kinds of technology, which are helpful in image stabilization on one side and successful in brushing over potential vulnerability on the other.
Men on the other hand find themselves in the struggle to fight their masculine paleness. This leads them to strive for all kinds of fancy hardware with high visibility, like tech-boosted cars, fashionable scooters, communicators, smart glasses, smart homes, etc. Any clearly visible and tangible tech upgrading for image bolstering is likely to be a strategy for them. In VR they are likely to consume the option to
Companies traditionally manufacturing analog products such as cloths, cars, watches, jewelry, etc. will investigate how they can use these psychological developments to cater to the described gender insecurities and self-chosen identities. Social media influencers catering to any of the extremes will further increase in importance to market products and services.
Trend 3: Extreme Solitude, tribalism and software mating
Due to gender insecurity, internationally spread corporate structures, social and physical mobility, high divorce/break-up rates, urbanization and digital communication many human beings increasingly live by themselves. This is against human nature though, because humans are herd animals. The resultant solitude, which is partially perceived as physical pain, can be embittering to those impacted by it and lead to encapsulation; that is migration into the inner self as a self-protection strategy. Self-protection and introverted identity formation are balanced off by extraverted participation in digital forums or visible identity-fostering product/service consumption. For example, the wonderwoman gender identity lived online and in consumption patterns can be due to an inner loneliness-driven migration process. Other forms of self-chosen identity constructions will be equally sought; typically nourished in online echo-chambers of like-minded fellows that appease the lonely heart and sooth into temporary forgetting. The result is a new form of digital tribalism.
Social media supporting tribalism, organization of tribes, branding for tribes, communication channels between tribe members, inner-tribe mating, local co-ordination of sporadic physical meet-up tribalism etc. will be highly successful. Speech assistants need to be trained for tribe language and preferences.
Besides tribalism and all sorts of digital services and products supporting their rise, solitude will also foster the use of multiplayer online gaming where people meet and chat. And speech assistants will be providing digital company.
Trend 4: Virtuality of being, invisibility and stagnation
The replacement of many formerly physical processes of interaction by virtual processes such as online gaming, online dating, online working, online conferencing, etc. make large chunks of the real-world dissolve into the virtual. This reduces the number of opportunities for people to be actually ‚seen‘. While identify diffuses into the ubiquitous digital realm, the individual soul sitting in front of the computer is not recognized any more. Appreciation might even be partly automated; delegated to AI systems or like/unlike tools.
Against this background many people, especially those forced into home office or with weak personal ties might struggle with perceived stagnation. They are simply not recognized any more and thereby their ‚reaching out‘ to others is hindered. What’s left are a smaller number of influencers in the virtual sphere giving orientation to those left alone as well as to tribes joined by the crowd of invisibles.
ICTs that suggest personal achievements to the crowd of invisibles and that give them positive feedback will be on the rise. The like-button will only be the humble start of an online culture of virtual appraisal with ever sinking standards for laudatio. The invisible crowd will look for digital achievement tools and counters, such as feedback-giving life logging devices, that spoil with positive feedback where no human is left to give it. Again, speech assistants will have a role to play here. They and other tools will look for occasions to let people win.
At the same time, any digital or offline offering for coaching-to-be seen, increase in publicity, visibility, etc. will be successful as some amongst the invisible crowd strive to be seen more and more by other human beings. They will try to become influencers themselves which leads them to excel at using online tools, which automatically grow their community and digitally measure their importance. Social media portals that support this for respective industries (like academia, business link-in etc.) will strive and might become more differentiated to serve special sub-communities and tribes all of which need their niche-heroes.
Trend 5: Living in a box versus living in a village
Solitude, virtuality and gender insecurity will continue to foster urbanization. Individuals suffering from these modern malaises will be afraid to give up living in cities. Cities still promise them cure. Perhaps you meet someone, perhaps you will be seen. Perhaps there are like-minded. For sure tribal members are around the corner; or in the street for joint protesting of their virtual passions. All this is giving hope. And at the very least there still is lonely togetherness in urban café environments that can be consumed at any time between pandemic lock-downs. Urbanization at times of extraordinary growth of human population confines most people to live in white-cube box homes of which only a few profit from a view. The human animal with the biggest desire for sensory-motor and mental freedom is willingly incarcerating itself in decorated canary hutches with digital windows to a rural world.
That is only one part of the people though. Another, potentially smaller number will break up with this life-style and consciously rediscover the village. The village however that breaks with the prejudice of backwoodness and being connected to high-bandwidth digital network infrastructure is able to participate in city-life remotely. Again, a split might come about between those living in a box in the city and those living in a village. The village might cure some parts of the population, pulling them out of the virtual trap. But also villages can be lonely if no community of like-minded meet up. Digital workspace hubs in villages might therefore have disruptive potential as well as local-interest meet-up and sharing platforms, local village food logistics networks, seamless ICT enabled mobility concepts to commute into towns as needed.
Seeing all these socio-cultural trends it is easily ignored that in addition to these there exists another, much bigger cultural mega-context, resonating with streams in the humanities that persist not only for one or two decades, but for hundreds of years. This what I call ‚mega cultural context‘ heavily influences the form of life in a historic time, including of course the evolution and use of technology. So, hereafter I will try myself at pointing to four of these mega context factors, which I believe are now in the midst of transition:
- The Spiritual Void left by modern scientism has opened up a huge vacuum that urges filling
- The idea of Intelligence understood as pure rationality is increasingly questioned
- The modern belief to be masters of nature and our own destiny is faltering and replaced by more humbleness
- Modernity has been breeding such a negative idea of humankind that it is open how these first three positive transition potentials will play out.
Figure 7: Innovation Dynamics in Mega Context
The Spiritual Void of Modernity urges filling.
I want to begin with the Spiritual Void of Modernity which urges filling. Spirituality is - in very different shapes - a timely mega-trend. While classical religious communities, Christians, Muslims and Jews continue to be highly important spiritual groups, alternative and complementary practices are growing. Millions of people now engage in physical activities with a spiritual aspect, such as Yoga, Martial Arts or 5Rythms Dance. Many engage in some kind of meditation practice, as taught for instance in Zen- or Tibetan buddhism. Medical advice is sought from Ayurveda or Shiatsu practitioners, TCM specialists or energy workers. Moreover, life-advice is sought not only from psycho-therapists any more, but also from astrologists or fortunetellers. What all these booming service domains have in common is that they embrace an old belief-system, which leaves room for supernatural elements. Higher forces of metaphysical, invisible nature are believed to be at work. Forces transcending the modern scientism, which seeks to measure and prove everything; banishing anything from reality that it cannot control or explain.
As many human beings have a mental yearning though for more meaning than the three-dimensional mathematical planeness and planability they are condemned to by modern scientism, they become curious and hungry to fill the void. They wonder why science assumes away the existence of so many real phenomena they believe observing, leaving an unexplainable gap between that what is and that what can be scientifically explained. And this gap is then filled by people with spiritual substitutes just as much unfortunately as it can be filled with pure superstition.
Personally, I believe that spirituality and religious practices will strive more than ever in this 21st century leading societies out of the Cartesian and Kantian era of cold rationality. One powerful reason for this is that those engaged in spiritual practices hold a very positive, warm and caring attitude towards mankind. Humans are fully appreciated here in their individual being and regarded as gifted with a higher spiritual nature. This attitude obviously nourishes the alienated souls struggling with all the contemporary challenges outlined earlier. And all that positivist scientism has to offer in comparison is an arrogant, top-down meritocratic attitude towards general human ability. When cherished economists speak today, they describe human beings as predictably irrational preference optimizers that need to be controlled by rationalist incentive schemes, rule of law and ideally nudging technologies. No wonder that it is absolutely rational for humanity to turn away from this arrogance.
The Religion of Technology
An open question is how this turning towards a new spirituality might come about though. There is hope of course that we are nourishing a new-realism, a revival of ‚being-in-the-world‘ or a heading back to pious forms of medieval spirituality. But this nostalgia of some might be likened by others to Brexiters’ hope for Downton Abbey revival.
It should not be underestimated that technological progress itself has always had religious roots and ambitions (Noble 1999). In fact, 17th century scholars like Francis Bacon regarded technological progress as being willed by God. Philosophers and scientists interpreted the pursuit of progress as the way that would restore humanity’s 'dominion over nature' lost in the biblical Fall. In the late 19th century, Thomas Edison, the inventor of the light bulb, wrote about the constant presence of God in his thoughts. Steward Brand, legendary editor of the Whole Earth Catalogue wrote in 1968: „We are as gods and have to get good at it.“ And quite recently Anthony Levandowski former head of Google’s autonomous car project (Waymo) founded a religious sect called ‚Way of the Future‘ which is said to aspire the realization, acceptance and worship of an AI based goddess made of hardware and software (Nemitz and Pfeffer 2020). Perhaps looking similar to Mindar, the robot praying with and counseling near Kyoto’s Zen-Temple Kodaiji. So, spirituality or religiosity and technology can also go hand in hand. Some people might embrace AIs whispering to them as their new gods.
An open question is therefore to what extent the void of scientism might be filled by scientism itself turning into a religion of technology. What is quite likely is that again we might witness a split among those who follow the path of digital gods versus those who disdain this development. Perhaps the split between people will be along the same cracks that I described above: those being lonely, insecure, urban and extremely distracted might be more easily fall prey to tech goddesses.
And the ICT production and consumption patterns could resonate with this evolution: Technology-believers will continue to work on a general AI goddess who speaks to her community and watches over them at all times; for instance through in-ear speech assistant technology; running her parish eventually through digital meditation apps, coaching them through yoga sessions, etc. And in contrast to these we might see other people returning to real nature, educating their children in Bali wood or Waldorf schools and preaching independence from technology from early childhood onwards.
So, Ray Kurzweil might have hit some truth when he wrote that the Singularity is near: At least for that part of humanity that falls pray to technology ideology and religion. For those humans who get lost in distractive ignorance and start to find stability in the AI controlled hive-mind, the Singularity is indeed not far. AI will exceed their sanity. But I believe that Ray Kurzweil is wrong if he believes that all of humanity will go down this path, because there are already now too many bright people deeply understanding the true limits of technology. People who are truly free and courageous.
And people who are also aware of two other mega socio-cultural context factors that are in transition: One is a better understanding of humans’ true brain ecology and extended embedded cognitive ability that goes far beyond what ‚data-processing‘ models of mankind can picture (Fuchs 2017). This understanding can inform a new generation of human-computer-interaction scholars reconfiguring the balancing of tasks between humans and machines and rewinding the current trend towards full automation. A future of human-machine team play could result that has little to do with Kurzweil’s Molly fears.
Secondly, it is likely to be mother earth herself that might teach scientism a bit more humbleness. Both the Corona pandemic and the increasingly relentless ecological catastrophes shaking by now almost every corner of the planet make more humans wonder whether it is really us who master nature or whether nature masters us. Having lived through centuries of increasing control over our ecology many might have thought that humans control their destiny; including even the overcoming of death. At the individual level many might have thought that everyone is the master of his or her fate. But such beliefs quickly vanish when one realizes that life is happening to us rather than we controlling it. This insight is slowly but steadily growing. It has the potential to lead us into a more realistic conception of our human selves that might also take away some pressure from us to continuously want to control and perfect ourselves through ever more technological solutionism that finally will not determine our destiny.
- Fuchs, T. (2017). Ecology of the Brain. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
- International Telecommunication Union (2020). Measuring digital development: Facts and figures 2020, Place des Nations, Switzerland.
- Kurzweil, R. (2006). The Singularity is Near- When Humans Transcend Biology. London, Penguin Group.
- Nemitz, P. and M. Pfeffer (2020). Prinzip Mensch - Macht, Freiheit und Demokratie im Zeitalter der Künstlichen. Bonn, J.H. Dietz.
- Noble, D. F. (1999). The Religion of Technology - The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention. Sabon, USA, Penguin Books.
- (2019). Screen time stats: How your phone impacts your workday – RescueTime. RescueTime Blog. https://blog.rescuetime.com/screen-time-stats-2018/. Accessed on 28.02.2021.
- Spiekermann, S. (2019). Digitale Ethik - Ein Wertesystem für das 21. Jahrhundert. Munich, Droemer.
- Statista Inc. (2020). Daily number of e-mails worldwide 2017-2024. Statista. https://www.statista.com/statistics/456500/daily-number-of-e-mails-worldwide/. Accessed on 28.02.2021.
- Statista Inc. (2020). Number of social media users 2017-2025. Statista. https://www.statista.com/statistics/278414/number-of-worldwide-social-network-users/. Accessed on 28.02.2021.