Digital Cultures and the Fourth Discontinuity

Author: Dr Gerard Briscoe

I have studied the digital economy and related phenomena through multi- and inter-disciplinary research for over a decade. In that time I have come to understand the emerging digital cultures arising form the practices and socio-cultural meanings of emerging digital technologies. Nowhere else has this been more profound than the economy. In realising what we now call the digital economy, elements formed from the digitisation and absorption of the industrial model and the creative industries. So, the still emerging digital economy can be expected to be a significant element of the modern age, similarly to how the industrial economy came to define the industrial age. However, its pervasive nature combined with ubiquitous deployment we believe will be far more profound. While ‘digital’ is all around us, and in everything we do, its fundamental nature remains mostly invisible and immaterial. However, this very nature will potentially overcome the separation of humans and machines, which some consider to be a discontinuity in understanding the human condition.

Mazlish suggests that humanity have overcome a series of discontinuities, which are foundational beliefs that had set humans apart from the world as special. First, the separation of humans from the cosmos, which is the belief that humanity was placed in a different cosmological system than the heavens. Then Copernicus proved that the solar system was centred around the sun and not the earth, and that the earth was simply one of many planets orbiting the sun, and so this discontinuity was overcome. Second, that humans were apart from other life forms, was overcome by Charles Darwin, who proved that humans were affiliated with other animals through the evolutionary chain of life. Third, that humans were governed by a rational conscious self, as a fundamental characteristic of what it is to be human. This was overcome by Sigmund Freud who demonstrated the existence of an unconscious, and the power of irrational drives formed in early childhood experiences. Some propose that the fourth discontinuity, still to be overcome, is the distinction between humans and machines. Most profoundly this will be the first discontinuity arising from human-made phenomena, and therefore fundamental in understanding our very nature.

So, we continue to move towards a post-digital age in overcoming this fourth discontinuity. However, can we design digital cultures to create futures preferable for us all, rather than the current cadre of tech-totalitarian companies which have manifested from digital industrialisation. The current ‘giants’ of the digital economy continue to disproportionally define emerging digital cultures, because of better tacit understanding of the nature of digital. Therefore, our Designing Future Economies project provides the opportunity to re-balance our digital cultures to avoid a ‘digital dark ages’. So, beginning to help us better understand the potential of ‘digital’ in economic models of change. The first step in making the immaterial material, resulting from being able to visualise the digital dimension of business models. Then developing tools that allow us to share our understanding of the potential of digital. For example, Computation Capital resulting from combinations of the capabilities and capacity of digital resources, and sharing its innovation potential in the business models of Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs). This represents the start of a fundamental shift in understanding the nature of digital. Including considerable potential for designing preferable, rather than totalitarian, future digital cultures.