We are currently witnessing two of the largest migrations in human history.
In China, 120 million people have moved from the countryside to urban areas, drawn by economic opportunity. Where these Chinese used to spend their time outside engaged in agricultural work, or socializing with extended family in a small village, they now spend their days indoors in factories, typically living dormitory-style with thousands of other workers. Each year, that’s almost a trillion hours of human experience that have shifted from the pace of rural life to the rush of urban industrialization.
On the other side of the world, 184 million Americans are leading the next big migration. They’re spending an average of 13 hours a week online – or a collective 124 billion hours per year. Americans spend more time online than most of the world’s two billion Internet users, but as the rest of the world catches up – and the total number of people online continues to grow – the global number of hours spent online each year will soon reach the trillion-hour mark, too.
If China’s shift from rural to urban life is unprecedented in physical migration, the world’s shift from offline to online life is an even bigger migration in human consciousness. We’re now well into the process of accommodating this shift at an institutional level, with companies, businesses and organizations that have moved their services and operations online.
At a human level, we’re still struggling with what this migration means — for our communities, for our families, and for ourselves. Like any mass dislocation, the move from the offline world to the online brings a mix of emotions: excitement at what we’re discovering in this new land, fear about how our new lives will unfold, and more fear and regret about what we are leaving behind.
We are moving, we are suffering, and we are fighting. Those who are leaping toward a heavily digitized existence can feel impatient with their reluctant friends and colleagues, particularly when they (we!) feel like our embrace of the online world is judged to be compulsive, impoverishing or addictive. If my talk on how to stop apologizing for your online life struck a chord, I think it’s because the geeks of the new digital world sometimes feel like we have to fight our way past the borders of the old offline world.
Like any mass dislocation, the move from the offline world to the online brings a mix of emotions: excitement at what we’re discovering in this new land, fear about how our new lives will unfold, and more fear and regret about what we are leaving behind.
What’s required is empathy, compassion and respect for those who would remind us of what we’re leaving behind. To note that the digital world offers nothing like the beauty of a natural landscape, the joy of a quiet talk with a dear friend, the satisfaction of a home-cooked meal: these fond feelings toward our embodied existence needn’t be a rebuke to those who embrace the new joys of virtuality. If some of us are more attached to the embodied world, more skeptical of the online world, and more worried about the transition, we can understand those feelings not as an expression of Luddite sympathies but as a reminder of what we need to pack on our voyage into the digital.
In any migration, there are those who go ahead to settle the wilds, and those who linger to ensure that nothing gets left behind. While each of us now makes a different choice about how much of our lives to live online, those differences should not be turned into an ideological divide between “digital utopians” and “digital skeptics”, an economic divide between digital haves and have-nots, or a cultural divide between those who identify as early adopters and those who cling to the “real” world. We can’t throw the reluctant migrants off the boat and wish them luck in the old world.
For make no mistake: this is a voyage, not a diaspora. We are all living on a planet that has seen its once local, then national economies knit together into a single global economy, thanks to international financial networks. We are almost all living with the possibility of instant, global communication — even if only some of us have the means or inclination to avail ourselves of that possibility. Many of us are living with a digital twin (or is it a digital shadow?) who echoes our daily life in a set of online posts, conversation and data trails, and even those who today have only the faintest sketch of a twin will have the outline filled in soon enough.
However you feel about those developments — and there is plenty of evidence that they bring as many social, economic and spiritual perils as opportunities — the only plausible scenarios for arresting this trend are even more dreadful. A failure to preclude the coming energy crisis, a massively disruptive global economic meltdown, a large-scale terrorist attack: any of these could shut the networks down, but few of us would truly wish for that kind of end to the digital age.
And why should we? Postcards from the early settlers tell of the many joys that come from embracing life online. The opportunity to discover your creativity (and find a global audience), to invent your own work (and find a global market), to connect to old friends (and find a global community): these are profound experiences, which are daily becoming accessible to more and more of us.
But it’s all happening so very quickly. Even the youngest adults can remember the very different world of their childhood, when people looked each other in the eye instead of down at a phone. Our world is changing at a pace we can’t understand, let alone prepare for. We want to relearn those first steps of childhood, to find a way to stand on two wobbly legs when the ground keeps moving, when the truth is that we have to find a way to live that doesn’t depend on finding any kind of stability at all.
So yes, we geeks can stop apologizing for our online lives. The non-geeks can stop apologizing too: there’s no shame in loving the analog world, in appreciating its best customs and qualities, and perhaps even bringing those qualities into this hybrid, on- and offline existence.
But most of all, we need to find empathy for each other. We’re packed into close quarters, making a terrifying voyage into a digital world we can only begin to see. We are all on this journey together.