Being Digital, Being Human

[Big Ideas Series] Digital technologies aren't meant to dehumanize us. Conversely, a digital world offers people the opportunity to spend time and attention on becoming more human.

Editor’s Note: This post is part of our Big Ideas series, a column highlighting the innovative thinking and thought leadership at IIeX events around the world. Per Håkansson will be speaking at IIeX North America (June 11-13 in Atlanta). If you liked this article, you’ll LOVE IIeX North America. Click here to learn more.

In 1995, Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of MIT’s Media Lab, wrote the book Being Digital, where he envisioned a future where atoms were replaced by bits, creating a new world without borders or boundaries.

One quote really grabbed me: “Computing is not about computers any more. It is about living.”  I let that statement slowly sink in and realized that I was going to work and live with the Internet for the rest of my life. What really excited me was the idea that all the tedious, expensive and consuming tasks that were previously performed by atoms a.k.a. human beings a.k.a me could now be programmed to be executed by bits and I could benefit directly from the productivity gains if I played it smart.

Fast-forward about twelve years and I had just left the Silicon Valley world after three successful tech startups. I had been involved with building the tools and platforms that enabled using bits instead of atoms for communication, e-commerce, travel, recruiting and much more. It had been deeply satisfying and fun to be part of these innovative projects pushing the boundaries of my own and others’  imagination. But despite the promise of digital technologies having no limits, borders or boundaries, I was still fairly tethered and sedentary. And I worked a lot – way too much to be honest.

Then, an idea emerged, a big idea: What if I explored how to use digital technologies to design a more meaningful, sustainable and human life? Just like my focus had been designing products and services around the user, I could design my dream life around myself. But this was not just a thought-project. I could already envision what and how it would look like, envision a life free as a bird. No siree, this project was about digging into the way it would feel to live in a self-designed world where everything, or mostly everything, was powered by digital technologies, clouds and networks.

I began to dematerialize all of my things, then digitize them – turning them from atoms into bits. I slowly understood what the quantum physicist John Wheeler had found many years earlier that “All things physical are information-theoretic in origin and this is a participatory universe.”

I had, of course, used every new digital service known to man as they had emerged, but the difference now was that I got rid of the physical copy (yeah, everything digital has a physical copy). First my record collection, then my movie collection, then most of my books, clothing, and finally my car. I divested everything except for a few bare essentials that could fit into a small carry-on bag: laptop, iPhone, headphones, basic clothing, wallet and passports. The few things I did want to keep for sentimental reasons – paper photos, collectible books, seasonal clothing, etc. – I stored at a concierge service.

Fast-forward six years to March 5, 2014. That’s the day I decided to let go of having one fixed place to live, what many call home. I replaced it with two smartphone applications: AirBnb and Hotel Tonight. I had now redesigned my life completely, from being tethered in one place by my things and relationships to having access to an unlimited number of things and relationships wherever I was in the world. My life as a nomad had begun.

In the beginning, it was tough as I had no idea how to organize my life using digital applications and networks. I just knew how to live in one physical place, work in another physical place, and move in-between Monday through Friday. It felt great to have all this new freedom to live and work anywhere, but it was also scary since all my conditioned beliefs were based on a life that was sedentary, organized by atoms. Now I was living and dying by access via digital networks, products and services.

The outward journey had to become an inward journey I realized. Just like Nicholas Negroponte had envisioned 20 years earlier, “computing is not about computers any more. It is about living.” This experiment was no longer about if it was possible or not, but about how becoming and being human in this new world organized and powered by digital networks.

I was still using applications in a very linear way, industrial if you will. Always on, checking the phone every other minute and it felt like shit. This is not the promise of technology, I thought, just like the promise of nuclear technology was not about dropping bombs on innocent people. I had to change, shift core beliefs and behaviors, shift my mindset from the industrial to the network paradigm.

Again, fast-forward almost five years to present day and the shift feels like it has come full circle. Not owning in favor of accessing feels natural: it’s cheaper, saves time, creates less friction and is more sustainable. I let technology power my life, but I don’t check emails or messages every second, sometimes not for days. I read paper books on flights and spend more time in nature than ever. Yet I’m managing projects across the world, collaborating with different teams and learning new skills every week.

Being Digital has also afforded me – after a lot of work, failures, and reflections, of course – also Being Human, more human than I ever thought I could be or become. And it’s not a contradiction, rather a natural progression of the innate meaning of new tools and technologies since the beginning of modern man. Almost every philosopher, poet and scientist touches upon this in their work. Einstein said that “science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” Religion, in this case, being faith and heart.

Today, I feel free as a bird, as my life is powered by digital networks just like a house is powered by heat and electricity. The latter of these something we neither think about nor fret over. The same will happen with digital networks; they will become ubiquitous and powered by artificial intelligence and Blockchain, carrying out tasks that we previously had to do physically, now using bits, i.e. our personal data, preferences and programming skills.

I believe that digital technologies offer us the opportunity to spend more time and attention on how we can become more human, how we can utilize our massive brains for the good, how we can reach a higher consciousness and solve problems in new unimaginable ways. But we have to individually do the work to get to the place where we have made the shift in beliefs and behaviors. All this digital change is really about personal responsibility and personal transformation. It’s a journey inwards as well as outwards.

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Per Håkansson

Per Håkansson

Managing Director, Inside Blockchain