The digital is not just in the future, it is the future. If we do a broad overview of where things are, we realise that almost everything we do, own, and are, is touched by digitality. Here are two short thought experiments. Look around you, think about your day, do a quick stocktaking exercise of things that you possess and communicate with, and try and think of one thing that is untouched by the digital. You realise that digital is not just the visible smart screens and computing devices. It works in insidious and networked ways to shape the world as we understand it. From the food we eat, that comes to our supermarkets, accompanied by barcodes that track it to the money that sits in our banks, and is now available only through digital transactions; from your own body that is being probed by digital health care instruments as well as its connectivity with digital objects, to the very idea of nature in the face of simulation models of climate change, we realise very quickly that the digital is now the default context of our life. The scope of digital might be uneven — there might be varying levels of access and literacy — but this is increasingly becoming the beginning point of all our realities.
Let’s do a reverse thought experiment. Look around you again, review the different processes, products and people around you, and try and find something that is purely digital and has no connection with anything that is human, natural or social. You will also arrive quickly to the conclusion that while the digital operates with agency, constructing smart things and cities, and shaping and facilitating our lives in ways that we can’t imagine, the digital is still incredibly human and social. The algorithms that can seem to be independent, still implement human visions. The robots — physical and virtual — that interact with us, are still engaging with and shaping the human factors. The purely technological is as difficult to find as the purely non-technological or natural.
These realisations, quotidian as they are, are indicative that we live hybrid realities, where the technological and the human cannot be separated, and, indeed, it is impossible to extricate one from the other. It is easy to look at the phone in a hand and say that one is a device, the other is a hand. But the device only has meaning once it is in a hand, and the hand that is used to the comfort of that phone feels like it is missing something when the phone is removed. We live fused lives. We are getting enmeshed in visible and invisible digital networks in ways that are unprecedented. The digital future that we had once imagined, is already here.
Despite this cyborg reality, when we think of the future, we continue to make clear and discrete separations between the human and the technological. We imagine new modes of life and living, where we will either have achieved singularity, where the human self could be converted to code and thus transferred to a new body when the biological body gives up. Or, it could be a state where nanotechnological robots will be rushing through our body, cleaning, preserving and saving, making us live forever. We dream of the world being connected through unceasing data streams so that all our devices can speak to each other. This is the imagination of a hyperconnected world, where we live with the Internet of Things.
However, it is good to realise that the Internet of Things is actually the Internet of Everything. It doesn’t mean that everything we see will be connected on the Internet. On the contrary, what it means is that everything that gets connected to the Internet will be considered a thing. One of the biggest challenges that the digital future poses to us, is how to understand our notions of being human. As the digital becomes the default way by which we are identified, stored, sorted, remembered, and kept alive, it becomes important to realise that as we turn digital, we turn into things. The data which was supposed to be a part of us, often becomes something that stands for us, and in some instances, replace us. What emerges with it is a new data reality, where we are represented only by things — data — that is then governed, shaped, and controlled, as a way of governing and forming the human subject. Thus, you don’t need to be killed in person — it can be done merely by deleting your data and identity from all databases, rendering you without support. Similarly, you do not need to be confined, but the data that you leak in all your everyday activities becomes a way by which you can be tracked, so that the entire world becomes your cage where you can be seen. You don’t need to necessarily have human contact, you can just connect using an algorithm, without really knowing whether the thing on the other end is human or not.
As we celebrate the Internet of Things and a future where all things stay connected, it would be important to dwell on what happens to the human being when it also becomes a thing in this connected network.
Nishant Shah is a professor of new media and the co-founder of The Centre for Internet & Society, Bangalore.