Perspective on “Digital”

Twenty-five years ago, I left my career in architecture. I’d been working in the building-design trade for about a year. Then something happened that led me to abandon the profession I’d trained for and which I’d pined for only a few years earlier: I saw Mosaic, the first widely available web browser.

I’d been aware of the Internet while I was a university student. I thought of it as a command-line system, one that was mostly useful for email. But the web was different. It was visual. It easy to use, both for end-users and content authors. Anyone could publish at global scale, cheaply. It was clear to me that making the world’s information available through the web would change our reality in significant ways. I cast my lot with “digital” and haven’t looked back.

A quarter of a century later, I still love the web. I love what it’s become – even with its (many) flaws. But more importantly, I love what it can be — its latent potential to improve the human condition. There’s so much work to be done.

But there’s a lot of negativity centered on digital technology these days. Here’s a sample of headlines from major publications from the last few months:

These stories are representative of a melancholic tone that’s become all too common these days. Our pervasive digital technologies have wrought significant changes in old ways of being in the world. Some people miss the old ways; others are perplexed or alarmed. It’s understandable, but it couldn’t be otherwise. The internet and the constellation of services it enables are profoundly disruptive.

Social structures don’t remain unchanged after encountering such forces. The introduction of the printing press led to social, political, and scientific revolutions — including the Reformation. These weren’t small, incremental changes to the social fabric; they shattered then-current reality and re-configured it in new and surprising ways. The process wasn’t smooth or easy.

Digital is more radically transformative than the printing press. It’s folly to expect long-established social structures will stand as before. The question isn’t whether our societies will change, but whether the change will be for better or worse. That’s still an open question. I’m driven by the idea that those of us working in digital have the opportunity to help steer the outcome towards humane ends.