Digital Technology is Exponential. Humans Are Not.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Humans have been inventing and using technology for about 2.6 million years since the early stone age. Such tool development enabled us to adapt to our environments, taking advantage of resources for fire wood, food and eventually, shelter. We have also adapted genetically, such as our skin colour, which became more pale in colder climates to absorb sun and darker in hotter climates to reflect sun. Our noses, eyes and lips also adapted accordingly. Until the digital era and the last hundred years however, technology evolved along with us, or us with technology, a debate raging to this day. Once digital technologies such as computers, smartphones, satellites and communications tools like the internet came along, technology started to outpace our ability to adapt.

In a previous post, I discussed how technologies like social media and the internet have closed the gaps between cultures that enabled various cultures to have time to decide what technologies they wanted to absorb or discard. It has also meant that the elements of a culture, music, rituals, social behaviours and the knowledge we use to live our lives, no longer has these gaps or “shatter zones” and so now, we have less time to adapt our cultures along with other cultures.

Digital technologies all have one common trait, which is the ability to interconnect. A software company rarely builds a product today that doesn’t connect to another app, often multiple apps. I am writing this post in Evernote. It is connected to my email, Google Drive and Slack. My email is connected to ToDoIst, Fantastical and other apps. All of these apps are constantly evolving, adding new features and functionalities at an exponential rate. And that’s just apps.

Other digital technologies such as gene editing, DNA manipulation, quantum computing, date storage, computer processing, Artificial Intelligence are rapidly accelerating manufacturing, medicine, vehicles, spacecraft and well, anything we can stick digital technology into. All of this means technology is evolving at an exponential pace as author Azeem Azhar has put together so well in his book “The Exponential Age: How Technology is Transforming Business, Politics and Society.”

While digital technologies may be evolving exponentially, and increasingly augmenting our cognitive selves as opposed to mostly our physical selves as we enter the Cognitive Age, what we’re not sure of is how humans can and will adapt. It’s far too late to say “stop, slow down, let’s think this through.” That time has passed. Elvis has left the building. The train has left the station. Insert clever sayings as you like, but stop? Nope. So. We have to push through. But how?

A key survival trait of humans is our ability to adapt, along with communicate. We can also adapt quite quickly when we have to as well. As we just did this past two years with the global pandemic. Most of us wore masks and got vaccinated. There are also those who refused to wear masks and made up some very imaginative conspiracies about the vaccines. Points for creativity, points lost for a failure to adapt. Those that didn’t adapt are people who feel left out with change, struggle to cope with change and are inwilling to accept change. If you work in an office, you probably know some co-workers who resist using new software tools when they’re introduced? Change resistors struggle to adapt.

We see this with human groups who are opposed to the use of Artificial Intelligence or see robots taking all jobs and the global collapse of society. This is highly unlikely as a result of digital technologies. There are many reasons why humans struggle to adapt, especially with new technologies. For some it goes against their cultural values and norms. For others, a new technology can be viewed as a threat to their livelihood and their perceived way of life. To others, at a bigger scale, digital technologies like social media are seen as causing global conflicts, destroying democracies and tools for dictators. In that sense, authoritarian governments adapted to using social media to surveil and control their populations very well.

I’ll be exploring this topic more in future posts. But suffice to say, as digital technologies exponentially evolve, we can anticipate a lot of churn and uncomfortable times ahead as we try to deal with issues such as ethics in Artificial Intelligence, genetic manipulations, job and economic policies with robots and workplace automation. Laws and regulations around social media. This is an uncertain time ahead in the Cognitive Age and perhaps the most fascinating time to study how humans can adapt in the era of exponential technologies.



Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

Digital / Cultural Anthropologist | I'm in WIRED, Forbes, National Geographic etc. | I help companies create & launch human-centric technology products.