Times are changing.
Homo-Sapiens appeared 300,000 years ago. Since then, 15,000 generations of humans have come and gone. But check this, us Millennials and Gen-Z will be the last to remember the world before the internet.
Not to say that’s a bad thing. The Internet has completely revolutionised our society and now there are practically no barriers to information. Before the Internet, we relied on print for knowledge, such as maps, cookbooks, encyclopedias and dictionaries. (Insert flashbacks of lost marks to Wikipedia references).
Since then, there have been leaps in scientific and technological innovation. Instant Messaging, Video Calling, location services, Social Media and e-commerce would all be impossible without the internet. Predicting natural disasters 300 years ago would be akin to witchcraft. Now, we have weather services and predictive technology. Overall life expectancy increased by 5 years between 1990 – 2013, today it's improved by 7 years.
However, like most innovations, it can be a double-edged sword. The internet also facilitates the distribution of inappropriate material and internet fraud. ‘Echo chambers’ have become a growing concern, these are environments on social media where content confirms the user's current beliefs, giving rise to extremism and exploitation through organisations such as Cambridge Analytica.
Also, the new wave of criminal activity, cyber-attacks, are rising yearly with one UK business being attacked every minute; the trend shows no signs of slowing down. Combine this with the increasing pressure of 'automation’ on job security and you have a recipe for a ‘perfect storm’ of societal disenchantment.
So why is our generation crucial?
Our predecessors have a strong understanding of the ‘pre-internet’ world but, on average, their depth of understanding about the ‘digital world’ is limited.
Later generations will be born into the advanced internet age. Their grasp of digital will be considerably greater than ours, but their grasp on the ‘natural world’ might not compare to ours.
Millennials and Gen-Z were born into a pre-internet age but grew up in the digital world. Therefore, they’re the first and last generation to have the greatest potential to operate in both the natural and digital environments.
At Intersticia’s Brave Conversations, Professor Dame Wendy Hall, Computer Scientist and Founding Director of the Web Science Trust, brought to light the history of the Worldwide Web. It was, in fact, only one of many potential ‘hyper medias’ in development at the time. Many problems we see today are symptoms of the Worldwide Web’s structural weaknesses.
Therefore, the transition of our stable society into a digital world depends on this transitory generation of so-called ‘Millennials’ that Simon Sinek is so fond of.
What can we do?
To an extent, we need to develop a moral code for scientific and technological innovation, similar to the Hippocratic oath taken by medical professionals to uphold ethical standards. This won’t stop violations, but by defining them it ensures people are held accountable. To an extent, this has happened with recent GDPR legislation.
With this new accountability, we need to double down on innovation in all fields from healthcare to engineering and especially social science - ensuring advancements in the quality of life keep up with scientific innovation.
How could we develop a moral code?
Traditionally in scientific innovation, only one question is asked. “Can we do it?”. From the serendipitous discovery of Antibiotics to Apollo-11 and Nuclear Energy, History tells us, yes.
But the two following moral questions aren't often asked. “May we?” and “Should we?”
The “may” statement calls into question if we have been granted the go-ahead by the relevant authority. This is the epicentre of the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal. User data was harvested for political advertising purposes without consent from the ‘authority’ (which in this case was users).
The “Should” calls into question whether it’s beneficial. Does this innovation create public, economic or environmental value? This statement is very important. For example, just because we ‘can’ overfish the oceans and the relevant authority says we ‘may’ overfish the oceans, it doesn’t mean we ‘should’. Such destruction of public and environmental value for the sake of economic value isn’t sustainable.
These are just some important challenges Millennials and Gen-Z must deal with. It’s important a company's moral code yields the maximum amount of ‘good’ and minimising the potential for ‘evil’. Done well, the future looks much brighter than the past. Done badly and we’ll suffer catastrophic consequences, for our society, for the environment and the economy.
Which is why what we do matters.