Welcome to the digital age

Wolfgang Debus

The front door opens by means of an eye scan. Then the Echo Dot is addressed by name and asked to switch on the lights, set the heating at 22°C and what is in the fridge.

The fridge determines what food it contains, checks its use-by date and searches the Internet for possible recipes to use up the food which will soon have passed its usage date. Those who don’t feel like cooking ask the Echo Dot to order a pizza which in turn is delivered by the delivery service using a driverless drone. Nothing is written or typed any longer. Everything is done by voice control or sensors and, in the foreseeable future, through the thinking.

What reads like science fiction is already technically possible and it is not unlikely that such situations will soon be part of our everyday lives. Researchers at Google are already working towards much more serious changes to our world: the Internet is to be made globally accessible through a network of technically equipped balloons. Data glasses will record every event and everything we say and store it in data clouds. Comprehensive networks will record the whole environment of the earth and through “clouds” everything that happens in time. Time and space will be digitalised. Everything that happens will be turned into data. The processing of this data will be determined by algorithms.

Near the eastern seaboard of the USA, in the state of Maine, lies the “state within a state” as the NSA is frequently described. Here the technical capabilities and applications of the Internet are being used to spy on and record the data of almost all Internet users on a huge and global scale. The importance of this foreign intelligence service has grown considerably since 9/11. But what happens with the data remains secret.

On Whit Monday 2013, Edward Snowden revealed to the public how millions of people, companies and governments were being monitored without judicial oversight not just in the USA but almost everywhere in the world, thus abusing the fundamental right of privacy. Anyone who, like Snowden,  reveals such breaches of the law, is pursued, excluded and even threatened with death. What is lawful is not just lost here but turned into its opposite.

In the void of anonymity

The Internet gives motives such as power, greed, egoism and fear a wholly new magnitude since digitalisation and networks provide more opportunities to act without legal or personal consequences. A significant reason for this is anonymity. War at the “touch of a button” is carried out anonymously thousands of kilometres away without individual consequences for the perpetrators. Be it by means of drones, hacker attacks on infrastructure, government servers or bank accounts, by character assassination or manipulation: the void of opportunities is revealed particularly where anonymity is taken to extremes. The dark net allows users to communicate or act completely undetected. Purely technically, it is the most anonymous way to move through the Internet. Using the so-called onion technology, each server step-by-step unpacks and determines the further path through the net. 

This means that no one other than the user’s browser which calculated the path can find out where the data packet really came from. This is also because each node is not told whether the last node was the source of the data packet or in turn just another forwarding node. Furthermore, each new query or data transmission is recalculated and executed using different servers so that the path is never the same.

All of this makes it impossible for data spies, intelligence services or the police to find the user’s real IP. Weapons and drugs can be traded and people trafficked on the dark net and online assassination against payment is available. The more anonymous they are, the less the users of this digital network are subject to any law. There is no longer any higher level instance except (if present) the individual standards of each person. This means that with every technical step there must be a balancing moral step which has to be at least as big if not bigger. 

Machines don’t have morals

Yet where is the training and where are schools for this purpose? Renounce the Web altogether, retire to a “remote island” and refuse to have anything to do with digitalisation? A hundred years ago, on 25 November 1917, Rudolf Steiner spoke unambiguously about the relationship between human beings and machines: “These things should not be treated as if they had to be fought. That is a completely wrong view. These things will come. It is only a matter of whether they are made to happen in the course of world history by people who are acquainted in a selfless way with the great goals of earth development or whether they are made to happen by those groups of people who only exploit these things in an egotistical or group-egotistical way. […] The ‘what’ is not important in this case, the ‘what’ will happen; the ‘how’ is important, how these things are tackled. […] The welding together of the being of humans with the being of machines, that will represent a significant problem for the rest of earth development.”

Technical development makes sense; no reasonable person any longer wants to do without the possibility of letting machines do our soul-destroying work. But in what way are the problems indicated by Steiner revealing themselves? One area is certainly the moral capacity of each individual person. But there is an additional aspect: the question as to our image of the human being. Are human beings themselves being degraded to machine beings in the course of this development or does digitalisation in particular highlight the challenge to truly develop our humanity and work on the human capacities of the future?

On 15 January 2009, Captain Chesley Sullenberger landed his Airbus with 155 passengers on board on the Hudson River. A short time beforehand, a series of bird strikes shortly after takeoff in New York had damaged both his engines so badly that the aircraft lost power altogether. Sullenberger, with 40 years or experience and training, described how he experienced the situation: he saw the whole situation as if from outside and with complete calmness. It immediately became clear to him: a return to the airport was no longer possible. A landing on water offered the opportunity to save everyone. The difficult landing manoeuvre was successful. Everyone on board survived without injury.

But his actions were subsequently held against the pilot by the supervisory authorities as well as the insurance company of the airline, American Airways. The course he had chosen had not been mapped out as a possibility in any scenario, every safety handbook excluded such a course of action. But in the moment Sullenberger had the certainty of reacting to a situation which had never occurred in this form before. Put another way, he had a moral intuition. No machine is capable of that. 

Humans as waking, dreaming and sleeping beings

Wired to Create is the title of a book by the American psychologists Carolyn Gregoire and Barry Kaufman. They investigated the practices and habits of mind of painters, poets, writers and musicians and in doing so noted characteristics of such people which are clearly different from “normal” members of society. A particular feature, for example was the fact that such people always followed their inner interests. Furthermore, they were exceptionally good observers and were very interested in thinking their way into different points of view. Work was done when there was time for it on the basis of their own inner rhythm, and not the other way round. They were prepared to take risks to seek new experiences and at the same time were not afraid to fail. They regularly took time to be alone. Above all, they were daydreamers and dreams, particularly those dreamed during the day, were seen as sources of creativity.

Such a perspective differs fundamentally from the way a machine functions. Who would buy a self-driving car which every so often went into a dream state? Machines are either on or off, active or in “standby mode”. There is nothing in between. Humans, on the other hand, are waking, dreaming or sleeping beings. Machines are a duality, humans are threefold beings.

Machines follow the logic of “yes” or “no”, “true” or “false”. The basis of this way of functioning is the bit, the possibility of “on” or “off”, which is expressed in programming code as zero or one. Using eight-digit bits (a byte), two to the power of seven, that is 128 different characters can be defined. Enough to represent the alphabet, special characters and numbers from 0 to 9. Humans, on the other hand, are capable, like Sullenberger, of finding the correct intuition for their actions or, like creative people, to produce a creative dream state between waking and sleeping, and also to grasp concepts out of ideas. Here we can see the threefold aspect of human nature which does not exist on a purely electronic level. Least of all when humans embark on developing these abilities further.

A system of education appropriate for our time which is also equipped for the future thus faces the following challenges: how can humans gain access to intuitions for their actions, become creative and flexible in their feeling life, and form wakeful judgements in their thinking? They can find support “inwardly” through meditation and “outwardly” through self-development, as Rudolf Steiner explains in Knowledge of the Higher Worlds. How is it achieved?. The exercises set out in this book have become a direct practical part of my life which also enable me to handle situations in a different way in when I’m shopping or waiting for a train.

Seen in this light, the digital revolution is an invitation instead of a threat. The decision to follow our own path to becoming a human being lies with each one of us.

About the author: Wolfgang Debus is an upper school teacher of geography, biology and surveying at the Wendelstein Free Waldorf School. Lecturer, student advisor and mentor on the Jena Waldorf Education Distance Learning Course.