Having just watched a fantastic TED lecture from cyborg Anthropologist (how cool is that job title?) Amber Case, it reminded me why I’m so intrigued and excited by technology and the digital world. Other than the magpie factor (I just like shiny new things), the anthropological impact of technology always excited me. In the late 1990s, my dissertation was on Designer Babies and the impact technology would have on our biology. I was using Netscape back then… how far we have come in just the last 12 years, eh?

I find it fascinating the impact technology has on the way we live our lives, and ultimately, the impact it has on our make-up. How technology serves to amplify our human traits and our needs to communicate. How, in the words of Amber Case, technology makes us more human.

I do believe that the internet, as an invention/discovery, will in history be seen as being as significant as the discovery of fire in shaping the human species. It is, and has already been, a spark for change; a disruptive force (for good). Much like the first spark of fire was a catalyst for a behavioural, and physiological change of the species (opening up new nutrients via the cooking process, making it easier to live in different colder climates, and ultimately providing the energy that helped shape society and civilisation as we know it today).

I’d argue that the internet, whilst in its complete infancy when compared to that of fire (first used approx. 1.9 millionyears) has all the potential to radically change our anthropological, and quite possibly physiological and biological, make-up over time. Just take a look at the impact it has had on society today in such a short time.

Indeed, in less than 20 years we, the developed world, are now:

  • more globally connected and aware
  • the owners of online and virtual identities that we manage daily (or “second-selfs” as Amber refers to them)
  • raising children that type before they can write, and expect to interact with their media: “Why doesn’t this TV have a mouse or touch screen?”
  • creating and accessing content daily
  • reading and consuming more information than ever has been possible (I read somewhere, and sorry as can’t remember where, that we consume more data in a day than the average Roman centurion consumed in a lifetime)
  • multi-tasking – even men – and we are improving this skill every year
  • able to find out almost anything about something in an instant
  • bringing communities and experts together – which will greatly speed up scientific research and discoveries
  • able to self diagnose – pretty well, and seek second opinions to media consults
  • presented with an abundance of choice in how we spend our time and our money

It has also helped everyone to have a voice and, more importantly, an audience. Just last week, Gulf News ran a story of the “Secret diary of a maid” – a lovelyinsightinto the life and living and working as a maid in the Middle East.

Indeed, providing improved access to scientific journals, making opinions and original thought searchable and easy to find, and to have resources like Wikipedia readily available can only be a good thing surely. We will become more worldly and tolerant and wiser as a result.

Technology in all its forms – from hand axe, to fire, to iron, to the printing press, for instance – have each helped to then lead to future significant discoveries. Yet, the rate of progress speeds up with each discovery - the gaps in time for huge advances continue to shrink.

The internet, as a technology is another huge enabler for future progress and discovery. It helps make us smarter, and it also helps getting smart people together – platforms like TEDshowcase the wisdom of a few and showcase it to the world at large. It has allowed us to now share rich media – video content; the perfect form of human communication (visual and engaging) to a global audience – easily and quickly, greatly speeding up, as Chris Anderson has arguedthe rate of innovation.

With any great invention there is the dystopian perspective that should be applied. Whilst fire kept us warm and enabled us to cook food, it also was used to burn things. The internet isn’t, as we all know, a utopian tool. Yes – terrorists do use it to organise themselves, and there are countless reports on how much productivity is wasted on social networks and social games (how many hours of Angry Birds are played a day?).Disparity in access does also worry me. We are creating divisions that are only accentuated each year they exist: of the connected (we get more connected and smarter) and the unconnected world (who don’t). Even in the connected world, the debate on net neutrality(for another post) shows signs of further splitting the divide between the haves and the have-nots within society.

But… the utopian benefits, for me, far outweigh the negatives.

Just close your eyes for a minute and try to imagine what life will be like in the next 20, 200, 2000 years – it’s hard to comprehend, but it’s also hard not to see how the internet – and the technology surrounding it – will not play a significant role in how we live and behave. Who knows what the next quantum leap forward for the race will be? But we can be sure it will probably be within our lifetime.