I play squash on Sunday mornings. I enjoy it a lot. I am, I admit, an indifferent player but I have a squash partner who is somewhat older than I am and about twice as fit. And he makes me run for the ball. We have, what we both agree, is a reasonable game. Our relationship was forged on the internet – that is where we found each other. And it has lasted, and to our mutual benefit and enjoyment, the past 5 years.
One the way back from playing squash, I tune into Udo Carelse interviewing his regular guest in a slot called “the Digital Space” on Cape Talk radio. The regular guest is a man by the name of Stafford Masie. Now, this boykie, I want to tell you, is extremely bright. He once was the country manager for Google and before that, I understand, Novell. He knows a thing or two about the digital arena. He talks in a kind of trans-continental drawl that is difficult to place. But what he says is riveting.
One of the things he spoke about recently was how connectivity has critically impacted on the ways in which people socialize. Now this is something I come across quite a lot, as I am sure, do you. I notice friends of mine – of my age – starting to disengage from the digital arena. “Oh”, they will say, “I don’t do Facebook”. “No, I don’t even understand what Twitter is”. And they are doomed.
I can remember very clearly what was my late mother’s line in the digital sand. She would not – indeed seemingly could not – use an ATM. She resolutely refused to have anything to do with it. She wanted to have her money in a Building Society. She needed to have a book into which a teller wrote balances. She refused to type code numbers into a machine in a wall. Similarly, my late sister’s line in the digital sand was a cellphone - (She was some 20 years older than me). She simply refused to use it. She kept in in the cupboard and she never charged it.
But then I look at my children. Theirs, by stark contrast, is a digital universe. They understand the workings of every available kind of gizmo and device. They can sit for hour upon hour, (if we let them) playing with these machines. It is so addictive that they would not eat or sleep. They would be perfectly content in quite another realm of reality from ours. And our insistence that they engage in our world brings rages and pitched battles. It is as powerful as “Tik”. It is as seductive as Opium.
It is, however, their reality. It is, I can only but observe, very different from my reality. And I can bleat on and on as much as I like about how when I was a child, we used to do this blissful thing and that – it matters nothing to them. Their actual present reality is different. Our 10 year old now has his own email account at school and he uses it very effectively. It is a new reality. And the truth for all of us now, is that we live in a world where it has become almost a functional impossibility not to check one’s phone periodically.
In another programme, Stafford Masie spoke about the future not belonging to artificial intelligence, but rather to collective intelligence. And while he was talking, I suddenly had a Damascus moment, driving along the street in Plumstead. I suddenly had a glimpse of what the future has in store for us as a species. Yes! I am quite certain of what I saw, in that blinding flash of insight. I wouldn’t call it prophetic, but there was such clarity that it shocked me for a moment or two.
I remembered being what we used to call a “pupil”, in high school. I belonged to a somewhat select group of rather arrogant intellectuals – or at least that is what we saw ourselves as. We were pondering what the world would be like in 1000 years or so. One boy said that he had read somewhere that the human brain was going to continue to grow – because that is how evolution works, you see. And just like he had also read somewhat that our pinkie fingers were getting shorter because we don’t use them very much, so our brains would be growing. And eventually, all we would be was one large brain.
I remembered that speculation when I stumbled upon another one. Because what looks increasingly possible, is not that we would be dependent on the functioning of a large brain, but rather that our dependency upon physicality itself will become less and less. Think about it! The biggest problems we face – food, water, the environment, an exponentially expanding population, space, energy – all of them are physical problems. But as these physical problems increase, so is there also the unstoppable explosion of another reality – virtuality.
Up to this point there has been a generally accepted – (not necessarily proven, you understand) – distinction between the physical and the (and here the splintering begins) … “spiritual”, “metaphysical”, non-material universe. As a species, we have generally and fairly uncritically accepted that there is such a distinction. (And yes, there have been those who have argued that actually everything is a dream). But generally, the distinction has been accepted and most of the species maintains the classical distinction between the material and the non-material.
I suddenly understood, the other day, that the distinction (whatever it may have been) can no longer hold. There is no longer any kind of division because we are all hurtling towards a singular kind of reality. Increasingly, that reality is a virtual one. More and more, day by day, we seem to be relinquishing our need of the physical universe. Or at least our absolute dependence on it.
And it is, for those of us who are materialists in the philosophical sense, extraordinarily ironic that the future looks, so seriously and so pervasively, immaterial.