There’s a profound shift happening in our relationship to technology. How we use and relate to it. What we think, ultimately, technology is for.
In this shift, an emerging techno-consumerism is taking aim at what makes us human. This will transform the ways in which we address some of the most fundamental questions we face as human beings: questions of love, happiness, death, and the search for ultimate meaning. It amounts to the beginnings of a new kind of modernity: Augmented Modernity.
This new world will be a hall of mirrors in which we see ourselves reflected back in strange, exciting and fantastical ways. It will also pose new threats to many of the values and institutions we currently cherish.
Consumerism and human needs
From its beginnings, modernity was powered by a revolutionary belief in our ability to remake both the world around us, and the world of human affairs. That belief brought great changes not only to the ways we live, but the ways we think and feel.
At the foundation of it all has been a project to harness the physical world to our own ends. This was a story about turning scarcity into abundance. About basic human needs and ever more effective, efficient and reliable ways to fulfil them. Not just for a few, but for hundreds of millions around the world.
The new technologies that drove modernity, then, were most of all about increasing our ability to manipulate the physical world. About harvesting crops more efficiently. Moving objects around faster. Building new kinds of objects and doing so more cheaply. Sending signals across vast distances at great speed. These technologies, more than anything else, threw us forward into the recognisably modern condition we inhabit today.
Today, we moderns are stupefyingly rich, safe, healthy and long-lived by historical standards. What’s more, the total fulfilment of our basic needs has allowed millions of us the means to turn to other, higher-order concerns. We’ve long taken the fulfilment of our material needs for granted. It’s been the other journey — the one to enjoy, cultivate, enhance ourselves — that has most shaped our lived experience of modernity.
But when it comes to the deepest human needs, it can sometimes feel as though modernity has cast us into lives of greater uncertainty and discomfort. Free at last to address fully our deepest human drives, we obsess over them endlessly. We can’t help feeling that something is missing. For all that I have, am I happier? Do I love well? Do people like me? What do I believe in?
Now, we are at the beginnings of a radical shift. The techno-consumerism that’s emerging around us — fuelled by new technologies such as AI, virtual reality, robotics and automation — is qualitatively different from what has come before, because it will set out to serve our deepest selves. That is, it will directly address the very characteristics, qualities and desires that we like to think separate us from other creatures and define us as uniquely human. Our propensity to seek out love. To form meaningful friendships. To reflect on ourselves and learn new ways of thinking and feeling. To do politics. Even our determination to see a place for ourselves inside a deeper, cosmic meaning. While conventional, 20th-century consumerism took aim at your material self, 21st-century techno-consumerism is coming for your soul.
Our modern obsession with our deepest human selves is converging, finally, with the arrival of new technologies that can address them directly.
In augmented reality our view of the real world is altered by the overlaying of digital representations. Those representations change the way we experience and interact with our surroundings. They are not real. But they can be persuasive. Enchanting, even. At some point, who cares what is really real?
Augmented modernity is like this. But it will go far beyond simply overlaying visible representations across our view of the physical world. Instead, to live inside augmented modernity will be to see new kinds of technologies superimpose their own representations, their own forms, on our deepest human experiences: of love, friendship, politics, the search for ultimate meaning, and more.
This will be a world in which a digital entity can be your best friend; in which a thousand digital friends, all with different and finely calibrated personalities, are just one touch away. We’re at the start of a great decoupling of consciousness and intelligence, and future generations won’t think, as we do, that the two always and necessarily go together.
It will be a world in which the political ideas that inspire you and millions of others were generated by an AI (and where a rival AI is currently your President). One where immersive virtual worlds allow you to believe, and live out, entirely new kinds of existential meaning.
By overlaying the products of our imagination and ingenuity on our most significant experiences, thoughts, relationships and feelings, these technologies will augment our experience of ourselves and our lives in altogether new ways. From where we stand now, the world of augmented modernity seems a strange kind of Disney Land that we will inhabit perpetually, saturating ourselves in our deepest, most meaningful relationships and experiences. A world in which the unreal becomes our deepest and most significant reality.
The shift that is augmented modernity will shape our experience of the 21st-century in powerful, and often strange, ways. The opportunities are clear. Who doesn’t want a world in which happiness, love, purpose and meaning are more available to billions of people around the world? But the challenges, too, are stark. It’s up to all of us — and especially to those who call themselves innovators — to make sure that augmented modernity serves, and not hinders, the cause of human flourishing.