Last week, I was invited by the Royal Society to take part in a round table meeting on the digital society, which brought some really great speaker together to consider where we are going and what it may mean to live a life in a more digital way.
My main take home from the day was just how difficult it is to develop insights into trends, behaviours, and concerns, when the platforms and environments are changing so rapidly. We need an ethics of uncertainty to accommodate the radical range of drift that occurs around our lives now.
There’s not much point in developing policies for platforms that are going to be defunct within 3-5 years and this is highly risky situation, as it allows a great detail of freedom to exploit people.
For example, by the time we have figured out what it means for a child’s mental health to be on Instagram from the age of 13 to 16, the platform may then be somewhere else.
This makes me think about how we develop an ethical framework for the often ephemeral experiences we have in digital space.
Last week, I was delighted to give a talk at Diversity UK’s Tech Showcase, focusing on the collaborative work we do at Salford University, bringing together art, science, technology, and digital media. It was great to hear the pitches of various companies in the region, so much creative innovation going on.
Amazing to see the publication of Sport 2.0 in Japanese this month, especially since the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games are just around the corner. It has been a while since I’ve been to Japan and I can’t wait until the next visit.
Just before Christmas, I published an article which I have been developing for around 6 months. It is a first step in articulating a structure through which healthcare can be provided within digital environments, without having to require patients to relocate themselves into other spaces. I’m really excited about fleshing this out further and would welcome feedback. For me, it’s a crucial issue and makes a lot of sense given the habitualisation that goes into people’s use of digital worlds. There is still a lot to figure out, like what kind of relationship should exist between digital developers and healthcare service professionals, or what should be the format of intervening within such spaces, but here’s a starting point.
Do you sign off texts and emails with an x? Have you ever thought what that x – shorthand for a kiss – means to you or the person who has sent it to you? It’s said that the liberal use of x in electronic correspondence, whether personal or professional, is feminising the workplace – and Labour MP Jess Phillips was told off for being unprofessional by a judge a couple of years ago for signing off an email to a constituent with an x. So how did we arrive at a situation where everybody gets one at the end of nearly every sentence we type?
Part of our answer is really simple – the x in correspondence conveys a special kind of empathy for the recipient. In a world where uppercase letters read like SHOUTING and where emojis are ambiguous, every element of a text message is easily misunderstood. The x serves as a catch-all device, telling your reader that all is well in your relationship.
The ubiquitous x can be applied to friendship, romantic, or even professional relationships when messaging. It is so versatile, revealing interest, affection and a general kind of togetherness which, if face to face, would be equivalent to some kind of non-verbal body language – a head tilt, or a sympathetic nod to show agreement and understanding. The x shows that you are in this together and that you seek to continue the conversation in a spirit of mutual and even jovial appreciation.
However, this still doesn’t fully explain why it is an x that has come to wield such power, or why it feels so essential to include one. After all, it could be – and sometimes is – a different symbol: an emoji perhaps, or a simple smiley face like this: :). Nor does it tell us about the journey taken by the x in becoming this multifaceted symbol.
Making your mark
History tells us that the x has a long pedigree. In the middle ages, handwritten letters would end with an + to signify the Christian symbol of Christ. With most people being illiterate, a cross was deemed to be sufficiently accessible to verify identity. What’s more, there is evidence of such rituals of signing documentation to be accompanied by a physical kiss being given to the paper, as one might kiss a cross if of certain religious persuasions.
But, this still leaves a big gap between then and now. What happened at the beginnings of the digital revolution that explains this progressive encroachment into all of our correspondence, turning every message into its own letter? Equally, why did the x remain, while other elements of letter writing disappeared, such as writing: “Dear [name]”, or “from [name]” at the start and end of correspondence. We nearly never do this now when sending texts, because messaging has become an endless letter, a conversation that is always left open, to be picked up again at a later stage. It isn’t difficult to imagine that the cross at the end of letters evolved into the x just as words like “goodbye”, evolved out of “God be with you”.
Yet, for today’s generation, the connection behind the x is likely to be completely lost – it is simply some kind of kiss and, just like a cross, using it could land you in big trouble. After all, the kiss is remarkably culturally specific and an x can mean something very different – or nothing at all in a different language. For instance, in Spanish, x is short for “por”, meaning “for”. Equally, a kiss in one culture means something different in another and, in some cultures, there is no kissing at all. There is also a gendered politics to a kiss, which can make it a highly risky undertaking to send, especially in professional settings.
At the same time, the x can be a way of allowing somebody to express themselves physically without the pressure of actually having to touch somebody. Indeed, this is one of the web’s most amazing features; it can liberate us from the constraints of social conventions and provide a space for relating to others differently – a perspective that researchers have outlined since its inception.
There may be many people who sign off with an x who would not think of kissing the person when face to face, but feel comfortable expressing such affection through a symbol. At a time when the world wide web’s inventor, Sir Tim Berners Lee, has called for more love online, this is surely a good thing.
So, while seemingly one of the most uncomplicated things we do when messaging, the x in texts has far wider implications than perhaps we first thought. A good rule may be to only send an x to people who would be comfortable with you kissing them face to face. Would you actually kiss that person, if they were in front of you? If not, then perhaps drop the x.
It was amazing to take part and support the realisation of Jon Spooner’s live event, ‘You Have Been Upgraded’. This was a really special experience, especially as it took place at the Science and Industry Museum. Lots of conversations about human enhancement!
Last weekend, I was in Argentina for the Olympism in Action Forum, invited by the International Olympic Committee to speak about doping. The event took place in advance of the Buenos Aires 2018 Youth Olympic Games. Here’s a quick overview of what took place, but it doesn’t really capture what I said in full.
Broadly speaking, I discussed how society must decide how far it is prepared to push health and longer lives, in order to come to terms with the doping dilemma. We live in times of profound experimentation with biotechnological changes, which make any notion of the natural athlete as a criterion of value within sport an historically redundant notion. This wider cultural shift is what calls into question the anti-doping mandate and is among the biggest problems our society has yet to solve.
A few years ago, I developed a course for Olympic athletes, as part of the International Olympic Committee learning initiative. I’m delighted to say that I’ll be developing a new version of this, which will feature all things digital. As a teaser, check out this Dos and Donts list for using social media as an athlete.
On 21st July, I spoke in a panel with Prof Kevin Warwick, Prof Mike Stubbs, and Gina Czarnecki about the future of death, as part of a series of talks within BlueDot Festival.
The prospect of immortality has long been a fascination for me, an extension of the pursuit of human enhancement and the logical consequence to expanding the potential of evolution.
While there are many big challenges to dealing with death in a technological age, the possibility of extending life means we are confronted with some completely new questions about our lives. How would we organize ourselves if we lived to even 200 years? Would we go to school for longer? Would we procreate at the same time? Would we think about our careers as singular paths in life? Would we transform our political regulations to ensure nobody had too much power? All of this is up for grabs and needs thinking about, if we continue to pursue longer and healthier lives.
Last week, I was in Amsterdam for The Next Web, a major digital/tech festival with 15,000 delegates. The first of my contributions to the programme was a dream team panel of experts on digital sport. We invited Shireen Hampdan from the groundbreaking architecture company Populous, Oliver Weingarten from Virtually Live, which is pioneering gaming and virtual reality sports event integration, and Bill Martens, from the amazing BamTechMedia. Here's the video!
Last weekend, I featured in an article by Robin McKie on transhumanism, following Wellcome awarding their annual book prize to Mark O'Connell for his 'To be a machine'. It's a really great article, but I've a few things to add based on some of the responses I've seen online and will make a podcast about it over the next couple of weeks. In the meantime, here's the article.
Also, if you want a deep dive into this, check out something I wrote a few years ago, which draws together some related ideas on posthumanism and cyborgs.
This week, I was in Milton Keynes giving a keynote on digital health with Dr Emma Rich. We are working on a Wellcome Trust project at the moment, which has been running a few events. Here's the link to the website and find below our presentation slides....