Technology-driven dystopia or digital renaissance?

Jeremy Silver, CEO and author, on humanity’s urgent and existential dilemma

Jeremy Silver is an optimist. He has to be: he is the CEO of Digital Catapult, a publicly funded innovation hub that champions cutting edge and futuristic technologies/companies and facilitating their early adoption by industries across the board. 

The serial entrepreneur and investor sits on the board of several companies, and is the author of two books; one of which we have reviewed for the purpose of this conversation.

Towards a Digital Renaissance is the story of Silver’s personal journey from the very early days of dial-up internet, tracking the disruptive forces that so profoundly transformed our lives in general (and the music industry in particular), all the way to today’s ultra-wired world and the metaverse. Or rather several metaverses, each on the verge of becoming our new reality.

But the book is much more than a nostalgic dive into cyberspace history – alongside the compelling narrative, it strikes both dark and hopeful notes, leaving the reader with a sense of foreboding at times and making a case for a new imperative, namely: as we sit at the edge of a new tech revolution, how can we preserve our humanity?

It is also an instructive text for anyone trying to lift off from the clever idea stage to raising capital and starting their own tech company: 

‘If you can’t believe your own story nobody else will either.’

Jeremy Silver, Towards a Digital Renaissance (2022)

Lastly and perhaps most importantly, it makes the case for a more ethical approach to doing business as it seeks to redefine ‘good entrepreneurship’ and ‘good investment’. 

It challenges the accepted wisdom that ‘unicorns are best’ by pointing out that many of these extravagantly funded companies have had ‘disastrous consequences on people’s lives…more often than not, they have proved that unicorns are indeed a fiction’.

The book asks all the questions that investors fixated on returns alone fail to consider:

‘How do people and companies respond to rapid technological evolution and profound change? What is the essence of ‘good’ entrepreneurship and investment?’

‘Greed is Good’ or making money by any means possible has countless negative connotations today, such as ‘exploitative labour practices, appropriation of others’ work, and contribution to social division and toxic environments’, the author points out.

He is at pains to emphasise that he is anything but anti-market, however social responsibility and profitability are not and should not be mutually exclusive. Today’s consumers care about food provenance, about human exploitation; they have higher expectations, and value the quality of experience which in turn influences the markets. 

The current generation of start-ups equally have a shared conviction that they must take an ethical approach from day one. This transition in attitudes is hopefully driving us towards moderation in approach and a golden age of digital innovation.

The shift is further evidenced by the market contraction in the fortunes of the digital behemoths who are suffering not just from fines for data breaches but also from a change in collective attitude.

‘We have experienced a staggering change of perspective, with a dawning realisation that the hero brands of the dotcom boom – Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple – have become today’s villainous digital monopolists.’

Blitz scaling is no longer celebrated and it is not inconceivable that behemoths will one day collapse under the weight of their own scale, says Silver. 

His optimism tempers the bleak reality of the power the GAFA companies (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon) wield in our lives, even as social movements and post-Cambridge Analytica backlash against them grows and legislation is making attempts at regulating their activities.

‘We feel the GAFA influence over everything from the music we hear to the way we vote. We begin to feel more like subjects than citizens. Scattered around the city-states are the cottage-industry businesses of start-ups and the digital smallholdings of individual creators. Many are subsistence workers; most can’t survive without the patronage of the GAFA titans, one way or another.’

These virtual platforms or city-states, as Silver refers to them, present us with a new Faustian pact: our privacy, choice, and political freedom in exchange of? Convenience.

The book lays down the gauntlet to us all: what kind of world do we want to live in? The choice, says Jeremy Silver, ‘is still there to be made, because the metaverse does not exist yet’.  The other question, ‘who will create and control these metaverses of the future’ remains pointedly unanswered, with some possibilities clearly terrifying. 

Silicon Valley is still resisting the cultural change momentum, affording ‘colossal valuations to companies that have yet to turn a profit, and sometimes have no plausible means of doing so’. 

As well, ‘the purportedly sophisticated analysis and forecasting on which investors and shareholders rely is often a smokescreen, a fiction of objectivity that gives them a way to rationalise decisions they want to make anyway, driven by more basic human motivations’.

Cue the recent and ongoing FTX debacle that has seen both institutional and private investors lose a fortune through precisely lack of regulation and objectivity – and rampant greed, of course.

While different people will take different things from this book, all readers will hopefully heed the unambiguously articulated caution about our forfeiting privacy.

‘The right to be disconnected, to go offline, may become as prized as the right to be connected was a decade ago.’

At the time of writing, and increasingly so in the future, this right of being disconnected, as opposed to being continually tracked, under perpetual surveillance, relinquishing personal information, is and will be the preserve of the ultra-wealthy.

The incontinent and compulsive use of social media co-opts all users into this voluntary and continual relinquishing of data about every aspect of our lives and belief systems, all the while contributing to a sense of inadequacy and isolation. Social media may connect people but it also reinforces their prejudices. 

‘Technologies that appear to bring us together have instead all too often driven us apart. The more our lives have tilted towards digital interaction, the more we’ve seen how it can take us to the brink of dehumanisation and extremism.’

The addictiveness of tech and our increased reliance on it to simply interact with others is something we touch upon in conversation. Jeremy advocates a better balance between using technology and engaging in outdoor pursuits and crafts.

Ever the optimist, Jeremy points out that many of us relish live performances and cherish authenticity even if it comes in the shape of a dated product such as vinyls. He prefers to believe that we are at ‘the foothills of renaissance rather than dystopia’ which of course is the premise of his book. 

A fair size chapter in it is dedicated to virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR), and to AI/machine learning, and to the work Digital Catapult does with emerging technology start-ups focused in these areas. Its CreativeXR 12-week acceleration programme offers support for UK content creators ‘to develop their early-stage concepts in virtual reality, augmented reality, immersive audio, haptics or any XR technology experience’.

‘It’s no longer a question of whether we can live meaningful lives or not in virtual reality, it’s whether we are wide open to manipulation and influence by a fully immersive environment.’

Jeremy speaks of the opportunities of VR in the automotive sector, urban planning, aerospace and machine engineering as well as in film, television, advertising and games. 

‘In some respects, the only difference will be whether the finished product is a digital product or a physical one.’

He cites the humanising impact of Mel Slater’s VR experiment, placing perpetrators of domestic abuse in an alternative reality where they are the victim. Another example is the company Neuralink, with its ambitious goal of using brain implants to help the paralysed regain control over their lives. 

However, there is a concession that the misappropriation of such technologies could have devastating impact, too terrifying to contemplate. The same is true of AI technologies and the bots trained to generate answers to often complex situations and questions.

All too often, the assumptions and biases of their programmer are built into them, with not a trace of nuance we expect of human interaction. The author reprises this theme when he speaks of ‘the idea that technology as a self-directing force, or even a kind of life form, may seem faintly absurd but I have a slightly unnerving conviction that it has some substance’. 

‘Even as we feel the technology is running out of control, we also feel as though everything is becoming more locked down. A handful of giant companies control the tools and technologies that increasingly dominate our lives, but seem either powerless or indifferent when it comes to their effects.’

I ask him to suggest solutions to these technological, ethical, moral and existential dilemmas, so that we can avoid a dystopian future and enact the digital renaissance implied in the title of his book.

A man who doesn’t much care for regulation, he suggests that global regulation is, in fact, very much needed – a new regulatory system for a new technological age, with responsibilities equally shared between ‘responsible’ nations.  The collective will not prevent beneficial innovation or drive it underground. Believing in democracy and spreading the word.

Information, as ever, is giving control to the people. Hence the timely nature and uncommon length of this review. To end on a positive and optimistic note, just as the author would wish me to, I quote one last paragraph from his book:

‘….we could perhaps remake the world for ourselves in a better form. We could see an extraordinary flowering of new forms of creativity, new industrial ambition and capability, newly reinvigorated and equitable workplaces, new ways to socialise, mobilise and respect each other’s differences, to trade and play and live our hybrid digital and physical lives.

‘In short, we could realise the full richness and unlimited potential of a values-based digital culture. That would be a digital rebirth: a digital renaissance.’