Is it possible to rely on someone who cannot manage to concentrate for more than 27 seconds at a time? The company Clicktale has studied the behaviour of millions of internet users and noted that the average time they spend on a page before switching is between 19 and 27 seconds. It is indeed a truism that digitisation and the internet have revolutionised our everyday lives, but this is still worth keeping in mind. It is even more important to follow that up with an increasingly common question: Is Google making us stupid? In Silicon Valley, many executives in the IT sector no longer allow their children to be connected to the internet unnecessarily and choose Waldorf schools for their children in order to protect them from the distractions of modern society.
The age we live in is dominated by the fourth industrial revolution, Industry 4.0, where digitisation is conquering more and more areas based on the notion that “everything that can be digitised will be digitised”. It is precisely this everything that makes an internally-driven person think. Everything? Really, everything? Is that what is happening? In that case, is this something to accept uncritically?
The artist Jaume Plensa’s beautiful and contemplative sculpture Chloe in Barcelona was recently installed outside Nordstjernan’s headquarters at Stureplan 3, in the hub of the Swedish financial elite. People are encouraged to see the work as a challenge to take time to think and look inward – in clear contrast to the otherwise predominantly outward-looking nature of the digital world, where everything private is supposed to be available instantly. Naturally, every technology that affects intellectual life – books, newspapers, typewriters, maps, clock – has influenced the way people think. But digital technology and the internet are even more radical since they are instantaneous and demand an immediate response without any time for reflection.
Marshall McLuhan’s famous prediction about the global village and his phrase “the medium is the message” are key to understanding and exploring the epoch-making developments we now see. Every new medium, every new habit, if you will, changes us as people. How we use the medium in terms of content is not what is actually important; instead, it is the habit we acquire by using it. Internet use affects our memory, and not in a positive sense. Its influence both on thinking as such and on the depth of thought we are now losing is increasingly apparent. While the internet provides us with unlimited opportunities to obtain information on almost anything we want to know about, the medium itself helps to fragment our thinking processes and disrupt our ability to concentrate. As Nicholas Carr writes in The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains, we have cognitive overload.
With the internet, there is also the opportunity to gather enormous amounts of information about us and our choices. We spend more and more time in the digital world built by tech giants like Facebook, Alibaba, Apple and Amazon. For many people, the last thing they look at before they fall asleep and the first thing they look at when they awake is their mobile phone (which has also tracked their sleep phases during the night).
Alibaba’s Jack Ma argues that the benefits of Big Data, or the Alibaba Economy, are enormous, and his company’s vision is to be a digital marketplace for all the goods in the world. Alibaba’s business model is said to enable emerging markets, small companies and young people to take advantage of the benefits of globalisation, free trade and innovations generated by these technological advances. It is easy to get carried away – since what could be more important to a company than knowing the detailed behaviour of consumers? And what could be more convenient for consumers than not having to make shopping lists and instead, with the click of a button, reminding themselves what their shopping habits are and making their purchases at home on the sofa?
And yet. What happens to private life and personal integrity in this new Big Data world? On one hand, business and consumption are crucial to make the wheels spin, to create growth, which makes it possible to pay wages and generate profits that can be invested for the future and in turn create new opportunities and jobs. On the other hand, this new technology is being forced upon us, and is pressing its way into our private lives, in a manner that is unappealing. Soon Google and Alibaba will know more about us than we know ourselves, or perhaps even want to know. Now, with the means of payment – money – being digitised, consumers will essentially no longer be free and unmonitored as consumers. The consequences could be entirely different and much more far-reaching than originally envisaged. Your consumption patterns could be interpreted in a way that raises suspicions with your insurance company, which as a result will require sensitive information from you, raise your premium or even cancel your policy.
On the positive side, there is what The Economist (3–9 February 2018) calls Doctor You. With new technology, it will be possible to monitor a person’s health on a continuous basis and immediately treat irregularities and health issues. This could prolong life but also reduce health care costs for society. (However, here too, it is important that people, as individuals, have a say in the matter.)
During the year, Nordstjernan acquired a majority holding in the medical care company Lideta. As an owner with a long-term perspective, it is important for us to follow the debate about the ethical consequences of new technology and the role this has assumed in society and in our own operations. Since 1999, the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation for Public Benefit, Nordstjernan’s largest owner in terms of share capital, has carried out seminar activities at the Engelsberg Ironworks in Västmanland, Sweden – a World Heritage Site owned by Nordstjernan. The international Engelsberg seminars spotlight major issues – both social and existential – by considering themes such as religion, ideologies and genetics. The 2018 seminar was called Knowledge and Information and examined the wide-ranging implications of Industry 4.0.
Many believe that the internet gives back more to individuals than it takes from them. That is also the case, in many respects. But the problem of fragmentation and loss of concentration is real – the same is likewise true of the threat to personal integrity in our daily lives and in society. Naturally, it is not just a question of consumer behaviour. In Sweden, we have the advantage of living in a democratic society based on the rule of law, with a free press which ensures that the abuse of power can be prevented. At its best, civic engagement online fulfils a similar function. But there are countries that are well-advanced in terms of IT that do not have the same kind of society as ours and in which the internet constitutes an effective control mechanism that targets people’s behaviour and ideas.
Earlier this year, Alibaba’s Jack Ma told a Chinese Communist Party commission on law enforcement that the political and legal system of the future is inseparable from the internet, inseparable from Big Data. He said that technology will soon make it possible to predict security threats: “Bad guys won’t be able to even walk into the square”. In other words, if the goverment wants data from Alibaba, Jack Ma will not say no1.
Major technological changes also mean major social changes. The global influence of the internet has few parallels, but it could be compared to the significance of book printing in the 16th century. The printing press made the far-reaching Enlightenment possible. It also enabled the rapid spread of Luther’s teachings and Protestantism at a pace never seen before, which in turn led to the cultural and religious split of Europe into a Protestant north and Catholic south after a long and bloody war. Of course, this was not the fault of printing, but it serves as a reminder to contemplate what technological breakthroughs can lead to. Today there is a risk, for example, that humanity will not share the same understanding, in line with the original vision of the internet, but instead that like-minded people across the world will be brought together in something comparable to global tribes, with the result being that universal, shared narratives are undermined. In that case, the discussion is no longer about objective truth but, in the spirit of postmodernism, about my truth, My Truth, without any attempt at objectivity.
Industry 4.0 has potentially enormous implications for what it means to be human as this new technology melds what are otherwise separate worlds: the physical, digital and biological. We may be forced to ask ourselves the age-old question of what it means to be human. And that may not be a bad thing. Written in the innermost sanctum of the Delphic Oracle were the words of the Seven Sages of Greece, including the famous Gnōthi seauton, ‘Know thyself’. But there was also Ne quid nimis, ‘Nothing in excess’.
Stockholm, 12 April 2018
Viveca Ax:son Johnson
Chairman of the Board
1 Source: www.niallferguson.com/journalism/miscellany/jack-of-all-online-trade-trumps-davos-donald.