#edbookfest: Richard Watson: “Maybe Douglas Adams was right.”

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Get Ready for Tomorrow | Technologically, the world is unrecognisable from 100 years ago: sometimes even the 1990s feel like a bygone age. Global trends analyst Richard Wilson believes the next half-century will also leave 2016 utterly in its wake. What should technology do for us, beyond cat videos? Well that’s exactly what he was at Edinburgh Book Festival to chat about.

“We are not we, we are me.”
Richard begins to Henry Thoreau who talked of improved means to unimproved ends – it’s something his book looks at, what is tech actually for? What are we for? The answer to the first lends itself to answering the second. His view is that in the last 100 years most things have improved – he’d much rather be living now than in 1916.

“Maybe Douglas Adams was right,” he says, that after you turn 30 everything invented seems so useless and could be the end of civilisation. Until ten years after when you’re forced to concede it’s quite handy. But there are 1billion people in the world without water, and some of the brightest minds in the world are focused on trying to get you to click ads. It puzzles him.

Digital technology is changing society rapidly – does it benefit the many or the few? Bring us together or force us apart? His book Digital vs Human began as a sequel and comparison to The Future Files but it became almost smug; he ended up more interested in technology, like mobiles, and what we as a species want to become.

richard watson book“We are not we, we are me,” he says, quoting, of all things, Macklemore. But it’s telling. Through talking about choosing children in games over real ones (in extreme cases) or selfies in inappropriate places, he looks at how everything becomes more individualistic; deep history forgotten for the now, the likes, shares, and status. It all validates identity, and a lot of it becomes about that rather than becoming documenting what you’ve done.

“I want a choice.”
There are three key problems, he believes:

1. The digital deluge. Simply, we’re creating too much information. No surprise there. Bill Gates takes at least one week a year away from all technology and he believes anyone can – backhandedly recommending the Highlands for digital detox.

2. The digital distraction. We never turn our devices off. Could you imagine a day a week of disconnection? Few can, but it’s worth thinking about trying.

3. The digital distancing. We no longer have to be physically present. You shop online, teach kids online – there’s a company that lets you go to funerals via Skype (seriously…). Where does that stop?

The rest of the event goes to questions over artificial intelligence and its possibilities, and some rightly probing for more of a spotlight on the positive sides that come with all these digital advances, not just the negative – connecting families, and so on. The core of artificial intelligence is simple to Richard: it should enhance human thinking and relationships, not replace them. That goes for everything.

His book Digital vs Human is apt in summing up his philosophy: “The future I fear is digital versus human,” he explains. He doesn’t want to have to shop on line, or have to read a Kindle. “I want a choice.”

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