Is there an emoji for schadenfreude… or, what is digital?

Is it the transformation of metaphor into algorithm? From metaphor, which creates meanings and reveals truths that cannot be expressed literally, to algorithm, which defines facts that can be interrelated?

In addressing the year 2000, Jean Cocteau said back in 1962 “I’ve always preferred mythology to history. Because history is made up of truths which eventually turn into lies, while mythology is made up lies that eventually become truths.” In addressing the year 2000, Jean Cocteau said back in 1962 “I’ve always preferred mythology to history. Because history is made up of truths which eventually turn into lies, while mythology is made up lies that eventually become truths.”

Of course, there are a lot of ideas about what digital is:

A simple phrase, but no real consensus on what it means.

Or is it this?

The video, scripted by DELL-EMC, shows a fender-bender in which the driver who’s been hit continues his journey within 2 minutes, after the accident is automatically detected by sensors in his car, a drone is dispatched to take pictures of the accident, a tow-truck to collect the vehicle, and an Uber driver to take him to his destination. In the background, the insurance company has prepared the claim (including checking the other driver’s insurance record), and all the first driver had to do is approve the claim via his smartphone.

Wonderful, in a lot of ways – though it wouldn’t require much imagination to come up with a lot of dystopian variations.

But two aspects of the little sketch makes it fundamentally different to the world we’ve been living in heretofore:

  • Intent is inferred, not expressed. When we communicate, we do something explicit such as speaking, turning a door handle, filling in a form, or pushing a button. These things are vehicles for expressing our intent, our will to something, whether that something be to issue instructions, enter a room, apply for a loan, or book a flight. If I want to enter a room, there is no way of knowing unless I turn the door handle. If I want to make an insurance claim, there is no way to do that except to tell the company, and the actions I take – phoning or emailing – have that explicit purpose. Any other intent, any thought or feeling I may be capable of expressing, is private and held “inside” until some action is taken to express it and publicise that intent. Not any longer – the driver doesn’t have to report the accident, prepare any documentation, organise any repairs or alternative transport. All the information from which the driver’s intent can be inferred from other actions  – the condition of his car, the journey he was on – not from any express decision he had taken. As a corollary, our ability to choose which thoughts are expressed is reduced, as is our freedom to ascribe no thought to our action. In a digital society, every action is a trigger of some process, every action is presumed to express an intent and which is explainable in some declarative way. In short, the digital society is based on the presumption that every human action has a meaning and that we can determine what that meaning is.
  • Human experience is digitised, not just the customer or user experience. Most of the diagrams that attempt to illustrate the essence of the digital transformation limit themselves to the public realm – the market place, the civic space, the cultural space, and presuming that there is still some private place in which we still inhabit, and from which we enter into the market, the classroom, the hospital, the legislature, and the gallery. In a digital society, there is no interior, no secret self, no “me who is not me”.

In his seminal publication “The conduit metaphor”, Michael Reddy showed how words with a meaning in a particular context carry that meaning into another context and generate new meanings in the new context. As Anna Sfard pointed out in “Thinking as Communicating”, the metaphor is not just a literary gimmick, but is an essential way of organising experience.

Metaphor emerges in ways and from places that is unique to us and at the same time shared. Will the digital society make it harder to share these experiences, or will it, in “reading us” based on our behaviour, simply make it much much easier to share our experiences through predetermined meanings?