As someone whose job it is teach the next generation of leaders and thinkers, I’m privy not just to their academic work but their fears, hopes, and convictions. While sometimes that means hearing stories about family or time pressures, the bulk of what troubles my students boils down to their digitally controlled lives and the economic fallout from them. How will the shift to a tech-based gig economy change not just their employment prospects but how they interact with one another and their communities? Texting has replaced talking; emojis supplant emotions, and despite the nonstop connection, feelings (and rates) of loneliness and isolation continue to soar.
While some of this restlessness is to be expected in moments of seismic shifts, many of my students believe that the invasion of privacy, the unequal distribution of wealth, and the social anxieties that define digital technologies are the sacrifices they have to make for an impending world — one in which there’s gender equality, more prosperity for everyone, and jobs that clueless old Gen Xers like me couldn’t even imagine. Their belief in the promise of the digital revolution borders on pious devotion. Some acknowledge that they may not be around to reap its benefits, but their children will. It’s not the afterlife but the life after theirs that matters.
I’m dumbfounded, but I understand. Digital technology has become the latest and largest world religion, with new converts joining the fold by the millions each year. In just two short decades, it has acquired several denominations: Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Google, Twitter. It boasts its own prophets and evangelists, living and dead — Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Jack Dorsey — though they prefer to go by disruptors, visionaries, and social architects. They love to present themselves as ordinary guys — and they’re always guys — who want to improve our lives when, in fact, they have become the omniscient narrators of them.
The tech gods either know or are trying very hard to gather information on our every move and every thought we have shared or contemplated. Their modus operandi is not predestination but manipulation, and on a grand scale. Gone are the days when tech’s ultimate goal was to sell you that watch or pair of sneakers you browsed for online after a rotten day at work. As the Cambridge Analytica fiasco that erupted in March suggests, our digital footprints can be collected, harvested, packaged, and sold to governments and political organizations to sway elections or sow confusion around the world.
“What we need are the first calls for reformation. We have learned to live with this powerful new religion, but we’re now asking for some of our freedoms back.”
In a world where sectarian and religious divides still spark international and civil wars, it’s probably a good thing that digital technology is so universally observed. Whether you’re in Cairo or Copenhagen, Tokyo or Toronto, the new religion creates common frames of reference and ways of being that will ultimately neutralize ethnic or cultural differences. A smartphone with Google Maps can lead you to the right path anywhere in the world — on a literal level and on a spiritual one, too, if you’ve put that much faith into a gadget that fits into your pocket.
If only it stopped there.
Through Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of its holding company, Alphabet, Google has transitioned into designing the infrastructures and roads that once only showed up on its maps. Toronto has handed over the development of a large part of its underused waterfront to the company, with the goal of creating a wired city in which cameras and sensors will monitor and interact with citizens in much the same way that Google and companies like it track our digital meanderings. Aside from the issue of surveillance, this experiment proves how much ground cash-strapped governments have ceded to private digital companies. Our streets have gone to Google, space exploration to SpaceX, public transportation to Uber, and, in Canada, recent moves by the Liberal government have farmed out parts of our entertainment budget to Netflix in lieu of taxes and — heaven help us — entrusted Facebook to solve some of our journalism problems.
It’s hard to escape the feeling that not only is technology holding us hostage, but it’s constantly looking for more recruits. (And I haven’t even mentioned artificial intelligence, which will probably render humans — or at least their labour — obsolete.) Facebook knows that its user base has plateaued in the United States, where almost two-thirds of the population now uses the platform, so it’s focusing its efforts on developing economies (Egypt, Malaysia, Brazil) to attract and keep the faith alive. This is a new terrain for us as a species. Past religions took centuries and numerous bloody wars to spread their gospels. The pace of digital change since the new millennium has been extraordinary, eclipsed only by its reach and penetration. Should we just submit? There’s no turning back to a pre-digital age, no matter how nostalgic some feel about the analog era of vinyl, newspaper-delivery boys, answering machines, and a few over-the-air channels.
What we need — and what is perhaps emerging, albeit slowly — are the first calls for reformation. We understand and have learned to live with this powerful new religion, but we’re now asking for some of our freedoms back: specifically, for our rights to have control over our bodies and our data. The Internet was created as a people’s tool before it was hijacked by a few powerful companies. We need to challenge them.
While this new movement may have its reformers (sometimes in the guise of whistleblowers), its first truly Lutheran figure may well be Scott Galloway, whose book The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google offers both an analysis of how these companies got so gargantuan and an action plan to stop their global dominance. This reformation needs to play out in the churches of the new religion: Wall Street, Bay Street, and other financial centres in the world, where our new Fab Four (and others) have accumulated their obscene market values. Reformation needs to happen on the state level, too — at least among those governments not beholden to data pillaging. The time has come, Galloway suggests, for antitrust laws to break down the monopoly of the handful of companies that have rewired our brains and changed the physical and body politic.
This is the part of columns when gloomy writers sign off, putting their hopes on the next generation, and there is plenty of evidence to support that other aspects of our lives in North America — from mass shootings to sexual assaults — will change because of their activism. When it comes to this particular cause, however, I’m not so sure. At this point, their faith in digital technologies is so supreme that the only light they may come to see is the one emanating from their screens.