Over the coming days you’re likely to read your fill about future conflicts, next-gen warfare, national fractures and the general implosion of civilisation. As politicians and pundits take to the stage at Davos there’ll be many views about artificial intelligence (AI) reshaping frontline battalions and defence spending, and how technology will create a host of surreptitious superpowers. On the sidelines there’ll be voices lobbying for treaties and controls over lethal robots.
And there’ll be creators and investors singing the praises of drone fighters and human-cost savings. Amid all of this chatter about automated weaponry and a new robotic arms race, it’s likely that most commentators and policy-makers will miss the cultural conflict that’s glaring them in the face.
As much as we might fret about AI-enhanced armies going rogue, it would be useful to think about the daily conflicts being caused by all the “intelligent” devices in our midst – there’s an urgent need to resolve the complete lack of digital decency. CEOs have made much about their journeys of digital transformation but I’ve yet to see a company take a leading role in setting standards for how society should behave with phones, tablets, cameras and other bits of technology that people have bought.
Is it not somewhat odd that a Panasonic shaver comes with more safety instructions than a smartphone? My apartment building has a set of house rules that encourage residents to abide by certain codes but the same can’t be said for my laptop. And what about how devices should be used in private or semi-public environments? Airline CEOs love to talk up their digitisation but who’s going to tell the lady three rows up that she needs to stop filming me and my colleagues? Is there an established code for the senior flight attendant to follow? Does he or she feel empowered to tell the man in 2A that he needs to stop using the loudspeaker on his phone for his conference call? Or has someone on the “customer experience” team deemed it out of bounds to curb how passengers use technology?
At levels ranging from federal to municipal, much time is spent on legislation for creating quieter cities (I’m not sure whether cities are meant to be hushed but we’ll save that discussion for another day), such as more soundproofed buildings and less drinking and chatter after 23.00. At the same time there’s a lot of posturing and PR surrounding data protection that might be well-intentioned but does little in the way of ensuring privacy in practice when virtually every device is also an audio and video recorder.
Countries with a strong sense of social capital (Japan, Switzerland and corners of Germany) have it best, as deep-rooted social codes help govern how people behave in public settings. The screaming child is taken out of the restaurant rather than engaged in a negotiation, the phone is placed in a pocket and not on the table, meetings start with a firm handshake and women are greeted first, food is not scooped into one’s mouth while walking down the street. You get the idea. If you step out of line with your mobile device in Switzerland there’s a good chance that a fellow commuter, shopkeeper or manager will tell you how to behave or ask you to watch your Youtube clips at home. The result is that most tram or train journeys don’t have the added din of tinny speakers amid all the other daily noise, and travelling from A to B can be a civilised experience for citizens who respect codes of the public realm. Try asking a fellow passenger to turn down their headphones on public transport in London or Toronto and at best you’ll be told to piss off; at worst you’ll find yourself in the back of an ambulance bloodied and humiliated.
At a recent dinner in Zürich, friends from the legal and medical worlds agreed that the next hotbed of litigation is going to be around digital devices and their unchecked impact on society and mental health. “A smart company would either take the lead and slap a warning on their boxes or, better yet, take an active role in curbing behaviours,” said a medical doctor. “Just as the tobacco industry has had to pay out, technology companies will soon have to account for their harmful, addictive impact on daily life.”