The Common Good

Nobody is Quite Ready for Tomorrow: The Advent of ‘The Hybrid Age’

It often seems that just as we begin to get our heads around how we might understand our world, everything changes. There have been tipping points at various moments in history; events or advances which move us from one epoch to another in such a way that we can never see the world with the same eyes again. It happened during the Industrial Revolution; it happened with the Communications Revolution; and it happened on September 11, 2001. 

Globalization & technology illustration, Anton Balazh / Shutterstock.com
Globalization & technology illustration, Anton Balazh / Shutterstock.com

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And according to Ayesha and Parag Khanna, we are approaching (or indeed, have already reached) another of these defining moments—what they call “The Hybrid Age.” In their book, Hybrid Reality: Thriving in the Emerging Human-Technology Civilization, published as part of the TED Books series, they examine how we have reached this moment, and what that means for our futures, and for generations beyond our own.

Hybrid Reality, in a similar fashion to many of the e-books that have developed out of the popular series of talks, reads like a manifesto – and in this case, it is a manifesto for navigating the unknown, exciting, and at times, downright terrifying potential futures which we are opening ourselves up to as technology becomes more and more sophisticated and more and more a part of us.

For the most part, Hybrid Reality provides an optimistic vision of a future where greater technological openness could facilitate solutions to some of the most challenging and complex issues facing the world. Through the lens of what the Khanna’s call Tecknik—a loosely defined term which espouses a commitment to the responsible use of technology at a personal and corporate level—they examine some of the key areas of our lives and ask how technology can steer a path, and if it should. 

From education, to politics, economics, and even our personal lives, the ever-closening relationship between us and technology will have a dramatic impact on the world as we know it. It is our responsibility, they argue, to guide those developments in ways which reflect the core values we seek for our societies.

As is the custom with TED books, this is not a weighty tome, but a short and eye-catching blueprint for a future in the making. The reader is drawn in by the many fascinating and, at points, almost unbelievable advances that are changing how we live our lives (whether we are even aware of them is another question), but the Khannas are careful not to get too bogged down in jargon, rather stepping back at regular intervals to tell us why these advances matter, and how we can make best use of them.

Gone are the days of “coexistence” between humans and technology. We are now in a time of “coevolution,” where we are evolving in response to technology, as much as technology is evolving in response to leaps in our understandings of its potential. If this all sounds a little theatrical to you, don’t worry, there is a chapter devoted to allaying your fears of an impending war against the robots – titled “Avoiding robopocalypse.” The authors have every eventuality covered. 

While Hybrid Reality does focus on the impact of technology on our world, the authors are not arrogant or naïve enough to see it for more than it is—“one driver in history, not its sole force.” They do, however, see what they call “geo-technology” as the “underlying driver” of those other “geos“—“geopolitics and geoeconomics.” 

They suggest that “mastery in the leading technology sectors of any era determines who leads in geoeconomics and dominates in geopolitics.” What makes this assertion so compelling for those interested in international politics and affairs is that they also argue that the Hybrid Age is flattening the global field. Yes, there are still advantages for the biggest players—the U.S., China etc.—but we are beginning to play on a truly universal battleground. As the authors summarize:

“Technology increasingly determines who gets a place on the true map of global influence. Whoever has the capacity to manage the intersection of technology, capital, and identity can become a pole of power.”

In much the same way that economists talk about how best to unlock economic potential in the developing world, and politicians and diplomats seek to unlock governance potential, so do the Khannas ask what the key ingredients are for unlocking technological potential. And these ingredients are heartening. They talk about collaboration, rather than ownership; utilization, as opposed to consumption; reciprocity as a currency beyond gold and money. It is a vision for a common future, of open-sourced data, the democratization of education and “generative” systems, which promote a diffusion of authority to all of us, coupled with a responsibility to use that authority wisely.

While there is much optimism in these pages, the authors also provide warnings—and warnings in exactly the areas you would expect. Yes, the advances we’re making in health, genetics, and bioengineering are incredible and unbelievable. But there are critical economic and ethical implications for such developments. Technology, they observe and warn, “is not only changing how we interact with the environment but increasingly creating real and semi-real representations of ourselves that mediate our relationships.” 

What are the consequences of elevating the digital above the physical, and how to we navigate this paradigm when its lines become increasingly blurred. Without values to guide these advances, we risk falling foul of our own creativity and vision. Ultimately, we are reminded that:

“If Technik has a spiritual dimension, it lies in the need for constant mindfulness about the implications of how the many technologies we use — and which use us — are designed.”

This new age has us asking new and more complex questions about the world we want to live in. As we continue to “coevolve” with the technology around us, we must allow all to evolve—or else we could risk a “class struggle between technological haves and have-nots.”

Hybrid Reality is a truly thought-provoking read, which celebrates and challenges in equal measure. Ultimately, it is a book that asks one simple question: “What sort of world do you want to live in?” 

If you are seeking your own answer to this question, Hybrid Reality will open your mind to a whole new way of answering it.

Jack Palmer is Communications Assistant at Sojourners. You can follow him on Twitter @jackpalmer88

Globalization & technology illustration, Anton Balazh / Shutterstock.com

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