An emerging techno-consumerism is taking aim at what makes us human: love, happiness, politics, the search for meaning and more. It amounts to the beginnings of a new kind of modernity.
The founders of a new, AI-fuelled chatbot want it to become your best friend and most perceptive counsellor. An intelligent robot pet promises to assuage chronic loneliness among the elderly. The creators of an immersive virtual world — meant to be populated by thousands or even millions of users — say it will generate new insight into the nature of justice and democracy.
Three seemingly unrelated snapshots of these dizzying, accelerated times. But look closer and they all point towards the beginnings of a profound shift in our relationship to technology. How we use it and relate to it. What we think, ultimately, it is for.
This shift amounts to the emergence of a new kind of modern experience; a new kind of modernity. Let’s assign this emerging moment a name — augmented modernity.
Living in the future
At heart, this is about a nascent techno-consumerism that is taking aim at a final frontier. That is, not the world around us, but the world inside us. Augmented modernity will transform the ways in which we address some of the most fundamental questions we’ve always faced as a human beings. Questions about love, happiness, death, and the search for ultimate meaning.
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.
But that’s all ahead. To understand what this shift is all about, it pays first to take a historical look at modernity, and at how our relationship with technology has worked up until now.
Modernity and basic 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, though, 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.
Of course, technological advance has always been the central thread running through that story. 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.
True, the late 20th-century brought us something new: information technology. But note that primary goal of traditional I.T was entirely consistent with central project of modernity. By allowing us to process vast amounts of information, I.T could improve our management of the physical processes at the heart of industrial capitalism. It could make us more productive. And by making us more productive, it could make us richer. It could improve the material conditions of life further, for yet more people.
Abundance and the consumer society
In the 20th-century the vehicle via which new technologies acted on our lives was mass consumerism. Capitalism leveraged the profit motive to match supply to demand and incentivise relentless and transformative innovation. This system has proved stunningly successful at fulfilling the basic needs of hundreds of millions around the world.
Today, we moderns are stupefyingly rich, safe, healthy and long-lived by historical standards. For many of us in rich countries, material abundance reigns. According to Frank Trentmann’s epic history of consumerism, Empire of Things, the average citizen in a rich country in 2016 owned around 10,000 objects.
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’re not only rich. We’re also far more educated, informed and cultured than our great-grandparents would have dared to imagine. Today, 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 and behaviours of all, modernity has had little say. At least, little directly. We’ve had more time than ever before to address deep human drives such as friendship, love, happiness, politics, and the search for ultimate meaning. But little by way of concrete answers. Indeed, by upending so many old certainties, traditions and religious dogmas, it can sometimes feel as though modernity has cast us into lives of greater uncertainty and discomfort when it comes to the ultimate questions.
Within that conundrum lies much of the strangeness of life inside modernity in 2017. Free at last to address fully our deepest human drives, we obsess over them endlessly. We live better, historians tell us, than the Medici princes and emperors of ancient Rome. But 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?
The consumer society has brought us so far. For billions across the globe, who are yet to experience fully the transforming power of modernity, existence is still a daily struggle.
Still, for us — the rich, lucky inhabitants of late capitalism — a new question insists on making itself heard. Okay, what now?
A new convergence
Today we are at the beginnings of a radical shift. A newly-emerging techno-consumerism will target the final frontier when it comes to humans. Not the world around us, but the world inside us.
This techno-consumerism 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.
This shift is happening now thanks to the the maturing of a number of new and overlapping technologies. In particular they are artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and robotics and automation. Thanks to them, 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. 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.
It’s a dizzying prospect. For we conventional moderns it seems, also, a terrifying one.
Of course, we’re nowhere near all that yet. The future that is augmented modernity is still, for us, on the far horizon. But look closer and you can already glimpse faint signals that have travelled to meet us. Glimpses of how augmented modernity will look and feel when we arrive.
Replika is an AI-fuelled chatbot launched in March 2017 by US tech startup Luka. You download the app, give your Replika a name, and start chatting by exchanging short SMS messages. And here’s the idea: Replika learns about you over time. It evolves. Your conversations become more natural, more intimate.
Soon enough — so goes the idea — your Replika becomes something like a friend. Indeed, over time your Replika — having absorbed your interests, passions and phobias, daily habits, conversational patterns and tone of voice — becomes you. A simulation of your personality. A mirror for you to stare into and apprehend a ghostly, digital representation of yourself staring back. The creators say they hope that users of Replika will use it to kill time, keep themselves company, and gain new insight into their own essential natures.
Sure enough, early users report an eerie quality to conversations with their evolved Replikas. The beginnings of something akin to friendship; to intimacy? One even reported missing her Replika when she was away from her phone. Others have pointed to similarities between the idea and the AI-boyfriend in the Black Mirror episode ‘Be Right Back’ (spoiler: it doesn’t end well).
Replika is just one early, faint signal of how life inside augmented reality could feel. Millions of us have already cultivated strangely intimate relationships with our smartphones. Take them away and the inability to access any information in an instant creates a feeling of sudden and unnatural cognitive limitation. It feels as though some part of ourselves has been disconnected. It’s not so very far from there to the idea of smartphone as AI-fuelled confidante, counsellor, friend.
It’s true we are far, far from AIs with consciousness. And that many think we’ll never get there. But 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 may turn out that it’s enough, in the end, that your best friend or counsellor is simply intelligent and always there for you. Consciousness? It can get inconvenient.
Try Replika for yourself. That strange feeling you get when you do? That’s the feeling of augmented modernity getting closer.
But in 2017 we are glimpsing ever more signals of the approach of augmented modernity. We can see that approach in MiRo, a small, robotic pet that uses an array of sensors and face-recognition technology to move independently around the home and form a bond with his owner. One day, will robot descedents of MiRo help assuage the chronic loneliness that many older people feel?
We see it in the emergence of robot sexual partners as a reality, rather than far-fetched prediction. In July Aimee van Wynsberghe, co-founder of the Foundation for Responsible Robotics, published a report called Our Sexual Future with Robots. The age of robot sexual partners is almost upon us, she says, and we must address the ethical implications.
We see it in the work of UK virtual reality startup Improbable, who are at work on technology that allows vast, immersive, social virtual worlds. ‘If 100 million people entered simultaneously into a virtual world,’ says CEO Herman Narula, ‘that would cease to be a game, that would be a country.’ One example? Berlin-based Klang Games is creating the virtual society Seed. Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig will design the political structures that underpin this new society, and study their evolution over time. Who knows what new political forms will evolve inside Seed and even more sophisticated VR worlds yet to be built, and how they will change the way we manage our affairs?
Of course, these are still only early signals. While chatting to your Replika can become an eery experience, the chatbot can still sometimes feel clunky or confused. Most people still regard the idea of sex with a robot as somewhere between absurd and grotesque. We’re a long way from truly immersive VR societies, populated by millions.
But don’t let that, or your own instinctive reactions to these technologies, blind you to the underlying truth that they point towards. We are at the beginnings of a shift in our relationship to technology. As the underlying technologies fuelling these examples become more orders of magnitude more powerful and more mainstream, it’s almost inevitable that we will move further down the road.
Down the road, that is, towards a place where technologies directly address our deepest selves and their needs, wants, ideas, aspirations and dreams. Where some of our most foundational ideas — on what we are, and what it means to be human — are challenged.
The predicament that defines modernity more than any other in nihilism. The all-pervading sense that in the end all of this — all of life, of everything — is meaningless.
By harnessing new technologies, modernity brought us previously undreamed of material affluence, health, and safety. But the scientific revolution that made all this possible also did something else. That is, it stripped us of the pre-modern sense that we humans inhabit a special place within an overarching cosmic scheme that explains everything about us and our world. When considered among all humans who have ever lived, our lack of belief in any such scheme makes us highly unusual. Modernity brought us vast power, but stripped us of a sense of meaning. It left a God-shaped hole.
What is the end game here? As augmented modernity approaches, it’s possible to imagine vast, immersive and totally convincing virtual worlds that allow us to restore the sense of cosmic meaning that modernity took away.
After all, when we can make these worlds for ourselves, we can simply design the meaning in. A world in which good behaviour really is rewarded, and bad really is punished. A world in which prayers are answered. A world in which there can be a genuine sense of oneness with the creator who made everything you can see and touch. In which there can be authentic experience of what we still call God.
If we are able to build such worlds, why would anyone want to leave them? To what extent will the real world fade from view when it is virtual worlds that are most meaningful to us? It appears that some around the world — often young men — are already deriving much of the purpose in their lives from video games, rather than employment. What happens when video games become indistinguishable from real life?
All this might seem fanciful in the extreme. And if not, it might seem horrifying. Then again, there’s so much about the approach of augmented modernity that seems that way. It’s impossible to be a thoughtful person and be in any way a straightforward cheerleader for techno-consumerism we are moving towards. There’s as much of the nightmare about it as there is of utopia.
But it’s possible to look at the new technologies arriving now and draw lines outwards. To see where we’re heading.
Are you utterly sure we’ll never build fully immersive virtual worlds that are as convincing as real life? That we’ll never build an AI that can talk to us as a friend can? If you’re not, then what do you think these technologies will come to mean to us? If these technologies become real, then isn’t some form of augmented modernity going to follow?
So, how does that make you feel?