Animalia digitus

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Defining the key quality of humans has been a question that has consumed great thinkers across various centuries, but it was Aristotle, the great philosopher who put a milestone within the western philosophical discussion. Aristotle is famous in his quest of classifying living things. He thus argued that humans are distinctive from other living creatures. Naming us Animalia politicus, (the political animal) as he considered humans ability to use logos, the greek term for reasoned discourse, and attraction to live within a society the key distinction of our species.

Due to the radical transformation of society by the rise of digital technology is Aristotle’s insight still valid? As our nature has arguably not changed, the societies we are entering will likely be so radically different from anything we have ever seen before that the question lingers if Aristotle’s conception of humans is still fitting. Would he classify us differently? Not defined by logos and social interactions but by our overwhelming usage of digital technology.

The Second Machine Age an acclaimed thesis on technology from authors Brynjolsson & McAfee viewed digitalization as the main force shaping this new Machine Age. They observed many tools that used to be analogue, like microphones are now digital. This in turn is leading to an explosion of volume, velocity and variety of digital information.

Shockingly, this phenomenon will only accelerate. The authors observed that Moore’s law, which in its original variant states that the number of transistors in integrated circuits would double every second year, is still very much alive, but also observed a second stronger exponential curve starting in 2006.

Moore’s law is no more limited to computer chips and is being expanded to devices with digital sensors. Adding to that the rate of digitalization is made possible by components being increasingly fast and cheap. The prime example is the iPad 2 which by the decrease in price and increase in power of computer chips, transformed microphones, cameras and accelerometers into digital components.

The rise of digital devices has had an impact on consumer behaviours, increasing screen time and usage of our digits. The Nielsen Company, a global marketing research firm, confirms this and reports eleven hours of daily media usage for the average American in 2018. It is not hard to think that with an increase in bandwidth with 5G (20x faster than 4G) deploying everywhere our high usage of digital devices is here to stay.

The prevalence of digital technology is affecting hundreds of millions of people with an effect on human behaviour. This should make us wonder if Aristotle’s thoughts on what characterizes a human is still a fitting description? Would he not classify us as Animalia digitus instead?

As the lack of trust continues to rise in many Western countries (2019 Edelman Trust Barometer), Aristotle’s observation might be relevant. After all, a lot has changed since public debates only happened by people meeting physically in Athens city state.

Evidence shows that the prevalence of digital media may provide a poor substitute for public debates as they remove confrontation, emotional regulation and offer the possibility of instant gratification. Research has demonstrated that neurological alterations occurs as a result of our digital usage. As attested by Dr. Dan Siegel (UCLA) with social media, Humans with such digital relationships have an increased left brain development. This leads them to “disconnect” from emotions that usually regulate interaction, also in debates. The Attention span is equally reduced by constant digital consumption by an inability to unplug, defined by Dr. Adam Grazzaley (University of California) as Distracted minds.

This has consequences. Our behaviours are changing leading to an increase in isolation even outside the millennials bracket. An American national survey (AARP) of the 45+ population reported that over one-third (35%) of the survey respondents were categorized as lonely. Americans are also less likely to spend social evenings with their neighbours that in the past. In 1974, 61% of Americans said they would spend an evening with a neighbour once a month, down to 54% in 2014 (Pew research).

A favoured argument by Aristotle was that a man is political as only a God or a beast could live outside a city. And he would have been correct for a long time. With e-commerce websites such as this is no longer true. Amazon now has over 564 million products available within the US, enabling as broad a selection of specific purchases as afro wigs for dogs or Abominable
Snowman statues. We no longer need to rely on our city or town for food and products as Amazon’s catalogue is so vast that getting by does not entail social contact. Japan, for example, has now got an expression pertaining to it, “Hikikomori”, signifying young people who withdraw from society to live alone in their rooms, a sad example of what e-commerce can enable.

The increasing digital disconnect from real human face to face interaction would probably shock and amaze Aristotle himself, had he risen from his grave. His teachings entails that humans are social beings, even in a disconnected digital environment. Thus we should question if individuals can survive in isolated environments. This being a potential scenario in an increasingly digital society.


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