What do we Mean by the Digital Transition?

Let's call digital transition the societal process arising from the deployment and uptake of ICTs. In a remarkable article “The computer for the 21st century”, published in the Scientific American in September 1991, Mark Weiser suggested that, after the mainframe and the personal desktop computer, the next step will be ubiquitous computing, i.e. a technology that has become so pervasive that it is invisible to us and totally embedded in our lives. In their recent book, Dourish and Bell[1] argue that we have already entered into the era of ubiquitous computing, rather than seeing it as something that may happen in the future. The ETICA research project[2] has identified a list of emerging ICTs[3] hat are bringing new, ethical concerns. In fact, together with the current burgeoning of devices, sensors, robots, and applications, and these emerging technologies, we have entered a new phase of the information age, a phase where the hybridisation between bits and other forms of reality is so deep that it radically changes the human condition in profound ways. The ubiquitous computing vision is a reasonable asymptotic view, which can be taken as the current background against which society is striving to actualise its norms, values and codes of behaviour.

Why Such an Exercise in the Realm of the Digital Agenda?

The digital transition shakes established reference frameworks in, at least, four ways:

a. blurring the distinction between reality and virtuality;

b. by blurring the distinctions between human, machine and nature;

c. by reversing from scarcity to abundance, when it comes to information;

d. by shifting from the primacy of entities over interactions to the primacy of interactions over entities.

If not well considered, these issues push us back and forth between distrust and blind faith: none of these two are able to ground a good public life and provide meaning. As a society, we are confronted with a learning challenge of how to actively shape our lives in this technologically-mediated world.

Let us consider these four issues in turn.

  • [1] Paul Dourish and Genevieve Bell, Divining a digital future: mess and mythology in ubiquitous computing, MIT Press, 2011.
  • [2] Ethical issues of emerging ICT applications. moriarty.tech.dmu.ac.uk:8080/index. jsp?page=10516.
  • [3] List of technologies: affective computing, ambient intelligence, artificial intelligence, bioelectronics, cloud computing, future internet, human-machine symbiosis, neuroelectronics, quantum computing, robotics, virtual/augmented reality.
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