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Is digital technology the new tobacco?

What do these people have in common: a scribe in 3200BC, a scroll producer in 220AD, a telegraphist in 1920 and an iPhone-bearing Millennial in 2018?Each stands at the threshold of a new information age.

Until writing became widespread, oral tradition was the only means to preserve and transmit knowledge. The invention of printing in China allowed knowledge and art to be spread with ease. In 1901, Guglielmo Marconi’s wireless radio transmitter gave rise to global communications and in the 1990s, the advent of the Internet and mobile telephony have heralded the Digital Age.

This blog draws together various strands of research into themes upon which we can reflect and evaluate for ourselves the effects of the Digital Age on our lives. It is food for thought for CIOs and CISOs that need to make strategic technology decisions.

It is based on two primary sources: “Mind Change” by Baroness Susan Greenfield and “The Shallows” by Nicholas Carr. Both challenge our thinking about the benefits of digital technology.

We have jumped into the Digital Age with both feet

The time we spend online has doubled in the last decade. We now spend more time online than we do asleep.

On average, we spend 2 hours per day on social media. Many children are more likely to own a mobile phone than a book

Some scholars assert that social media, gaming and unlimited captivating web content, is like digital crack cocaine. It is altering not only the way we perceive reality but how we actually take in information and process it — in other words, how we think. Digital technology is likely to profoundly affect our lives but it is not yet clear what its consequences will be on our economy, our culture and our minds.

The Digital Age - Zuckerberg’s vision

We are stepping into a brave new world. Should we be concerned? Not according to Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerburg:

“Personal relationships are the fundamental unit of society. Relationships are how we discover new ideas, understand our world and ultimately derived long-term happiness. We have already helped more than 800 million people map out more than 100 billion connections so far, and our goal is to help this rewiring accelerate”.

Mr Zuckerberg is understandably up beat about the Digital Age but is he right to be? The overwhelming majority of opinions about digital technology are generated by technologists and marketeers with a deep interest in talking up the market, but a hazy regard for human nature. Digital tech is presented as an overwhelmingly good thing, albeit with risks that need to be managed. Would a consensus of a sample of societal influencers including for example consumer groups, environmentalists, politicians, academics and religious leaders deliver a similar outlook?

Digital technology is new and its effects are complex and interconnected. Research on the effects of digital technology on our minds, is in its infancy and opinions about its impact vary from “sunny uplands of enlightenment” to “digital Armageddon”, but most people agree that life will be different in the digital age and we will have to adapt.

The chart below summarises how optimists and skeptics believe that digital technology is affecting us.

Utopian and dystopian views on the effects of digital technology

6 ways in which digital technology affects us

Research, reflection and experience will help us to better understand the relationship between digital technology and how best to exploit it. Here is a very high-level summary of the limited research that has been performed to date.

1) Identity

Until now, our identity has been formed by our interaction with our environment. In future, the digital world will compete with the real world for our time, which will change the way our identity develops. Real world experience is vital to developing a robust personal identity, which can overcome our fear of missing out and to think independently of those swept along by social media.

2) Relationships

In the real world, face-to-face interaction can sometimes be uncomfortable whereas online relationships offer a collective identity and access to external reassurance and approval. Discomfort about the first coupled with the safety of the second, may be transforming the nature of our personal relationships, helping those with an active real-world social life to deepen their relationships with others.

How will our overly self centred and fragile identity fare in the real world of communications and relationships? Clinical studies show that online activity increases depression, anxiety and aggression and can in extreme cases it can even lead to psychotic behaviour. Those that have a limited real-world social life are most prone.

3) Empathy

Cursive writing (e.g. writing an essay) allows us to connect with people’s minds at a deeper level; it forces us to reflect which makes us more aware of how we affect others. but as a society we these days, seldom write in long hand, which may erode to empathise.

4) Privacy

Face-to-face interaction and friendships are selectively acquired and form gradually. Social media removes these constraints and encourages us towards unfettered disclosure to a large and uncontrolled audience where we can be publically scrutinised.

The Digital Age threatens those that value their privacy, but if you define yourself by the degree of attention you receive from others, the loss of privacy is to be welcomed in order to permit a new type of identity: a connected one.

5) Learning

Only 20–40% of intelligence is inherited, the rest is determined by how we learn. The ‘digital natives’ will not only learn but may even think in different ways.

Research shows that learning is enhanced when we work within an interactive network, which gives rise to feelings of being connected with others. This sense digital technology is a positive driver to learning. Reading e-books with adult assistance achieved greater progress in the reading than reading a traditional book alone.

On the flip side, other research shows that the more we acclimate ourselves to the constant flow of information from digital technology the less able we are to figure out what’s important to focus on, Instead, our minds are attracted to what’s new rather than what’s important.

The Internet seizes our attention only to scatter it. We focus on the medium itself and not its message. Sophisticated ideas cannot be transferred via the screen as effectively as in person.

6) Creativity

A robust identity helps us to: use the Internet to frame and think about open-ended and difficult questions; to deepen our understanding of a subject; and to innovate.

Reading on digital platforms inclines us to focus on concrete details rather than interpreting information more abstractly. Will the Digital Age unearth someone to eclipse William Shakespeare or Isambard Kingdom Brunel?

What impact will digital technology have on information security?

Although there exists more information security standards than one can shake a stick at, listed in the table below are the components most commonly used to assess information quality. The components are mapped against the five information ages through which humanity has passed, to illustrate how the information change has evolved.

Summary of information security through the ages

Whereas in the analogue age, information was harder to procure, it was relatively easy to verify that it was true. Facts were presented in peer-reviewed journals in available in libraries. Today, we have a vast amount of timely, accurate information at our finger tips but how can we be sure that it credible when we are unfamiliar with its source?

As the figure above illustrates, the biggest information quality casualties in the Digital Age are confidentiality and integrity.

Is security is about to get harder?

More devices and more connectivity means more vulnerabilities; and immediate access to information inevitably means that it will be less secure. How can we determine who should have access and which devices are suitably secure? Until we can answer these questions, we will be more vulnerable to cyber attack in our personal and professional lives, than at any time in the past.

The impact of digital technology is being researched by economists, neuroscientists and psychologists but so far, there is limited consensus on its effects. There is very little about which we can be certain, although the is growing recognition that it is time to look at more radical ways of protecting ourselves.

Fixing the broken Internet

The Internet defines the Digital Age, but we interact with it using 20-year-old Internet browser architecture that was not built with today’s security needs in mind. Browsers sit at the nexus of the Internet and our critical IT assets which is why they are the primary means by which attackers reach users.

In 2017, we spent $86 billion on all manner of protection but no matter how good we think we are at patching and blocking attacks, we can never be good enough. Cyber security attacks are more frequent and widespread than at any time in the past.

Developments such as multi-factor authentication should make it easier to verify that information is from genuine sources

Cross-domain technologies used by national security agencies offer a means to harness the benefits of the Internet without being exposed to its risks.

Making predictions in the Digital Age

Every information age has had its critics. Socrates, an eminent Greek philosopher said of writing in 470 BC that it would destroy mental prowess, with eerily similar arguments to those used with respect to the Internet.

To put Digital Age forebodings into context, consider how remarkably bad we are at making technology predictions. Here are a few:

Philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm said in 1680, over 200 years after the invention of the printing press, that “the horrible mass of books that keeps growing might lead to a fall back into barbarism.”

In 1877, The New York Times wrote a ferocious attack against Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone for its invasion of privacy: “We will soon be nothing but transparent heaps of jelly to each other.”

Darryl Zanuck, CEO, 20th Century Fox, 1946: “television won’t be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first 6 months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night”.

Innovators: don’t expect to be thanked

This is perversely one prediction about which we can be confident will come true. When Guglielmo Marconi invented wireless audio transmission, he wrote to the Ministry of Post and Telegraphs, explaining his wireless telegraph machine and asking for funding. He never received a response to his letter.

It later transpired that the letter he sent had been dismissed as madness — the head of the ministry apparently scrawled “a la Longara!” on the document (“send him to the asylum!”)

Yet Mr Marconi received the recognition he deserved from the tobacco industry: a tobacco card issued by the cigarette company Ogdens in the UK in 1901, celebrated him as ‘The Inventor of Wireless Telegraphy’, which at the age of 26 would have greatly pleased him.

It is difficult to envisage today, Mr Zuckerberg being as pleased to have his achievements celebrated by say, Camel Cigarettes, but to those that consider digital technology to be a mixed blessing, its metaphorical link to tobacco is very appropriate.

Mr Marconi looking very pleased with himself in a Victorian gentleman sort of way

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