Why God is digital

(This speech was given at The Project : Digital Disruption conference in Auckland, New Zealand).

Good morning everyone. Welcome to the first sermon of the conference. Today we will be exploring “Why god is digital”. So, please, extract your favourite digital device from wherever it is, hold it reverently in your hands, and let us bathe in the holy glow of it’s omnipresent light.

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I wanted to start off by assuring you all, that you are in experienced hands, and that whilst I haven’t been formally ordained, there are 3 people in the world who call me “father”.

At least I hope there are only 3.

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I am a builder of worlds. Well a virtual world actually. I am the cofounder of SmallWorlds – a virtual world targeted at teens. We built this with capital raised by Disney, and it currently has nearly 20 million registered lifeforms in it.

Virtual worlds sit firmly in the middle of both the digital and the deific. As one of the founding deities of SmallWorlds, I’ve earned my “God-stripes” you might say. This is why I can speak with some authority on the subject of “Why God Is Digital”.

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We are living in an age of increasing digitalisation, and associated with that – dematerialisation. But its sometimes difficult to understand what’s really going on when you just look at the surface of something. The cover of the book doesn’t reveal the core message of the author, and neither do the obvious manifestations of digital reveal its essential nature.

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When you google the term “digital” you’ll find references saying that it is these things. So is this what digital is?

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Or maybe it’s just LOLCATS?

Or are all of these things just the surface? And if they are just surface phenomena then what is the true essence of digital?

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Its this. It’s my contention that the true essence, or the fundamental meaning of digital is about augmentation. To augment means to increase in size, number, strength, or extent. I believe that what digital most fundamentally brings to our the world and our lives, is augmentation. And specifically, the augmentation of our capability as human beings. Incidentally if you want to know more about augmentation you’ll no doubt find lots of emails in your spam folder that can offer further insights. And *guaranteed results*

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Philosophers throughout the ages have attempted to define what it means to be human. And as economies and society and technology change, so does what it means to be a human. But one of the aspects of being a human that hasn’t changed is our fundamental human needs. And interestingly enough the world of video games provides some practical insight into what these are.

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Games only work if they meet our intrinsic needs as human beings, because they are by their very nature reliant upon voluntary engagement. And, in order to create games that engage players, game designers need to be Applied psychologists that reverse engineer the inner workings of the human psyche. As such game designers need to know a thing or two about what it means to be a human.

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My original training is in software engineering, so when I started building games, I took a typically engineering orientation to the process, and started off by building a model of the motivations of gamers. And this is what I came up with. 4 needs that a good game needs to satisfy if it wants to be successful. But what’s interesting is that these 4 needs go beyond just games. They are in fact the core set of intrinsic needs of human beings, in all domains of life.  So just running through them, anti-clockwise from the left.

1. Connectedness is a reflection of human beings having evolved from social primates. The need to connect with other human beings, and to belong is deeply ingrained in our psyches.

2. Mastery is the need to have control over our environment. Mastery is the outcome of effective learning.

3. I think of Self Expression as the “Seat of our souls”. Self expression and autonomy lie at the very core of our individuality and our humanity.

4. And finally, Meaning And Order is about what connects us and this moment into a larger, more significant context. Meaning and Order are the answer to the question “So what?”, or “Why?”.

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So just to ground these ideas a little, let me give you a quick illustration of how these intrinsic needs link into games and game mechanics.

1. Games like “Hide and seek”, or the huge plethora of games that launched when Facebook opened its application platform in 2007, are games that leverage our need to connect with one another.

2. Mastery lies at the very core of all games experiences. Seeing how many times you can skim a stone across the water or beat your previous high score are expressions of the need for mastery.

3. All games involve some aspect of choice and self expression. Whether it’s the way that you personalise your virtual world home or your profile page, or customise your avatar, or take on a persona in a Role playing game.

4. And Meaning is what provides context to a game, and offers the opportunity to bring order to the world. Match3 games like Candy Crush Saga hook into this need to create order.

But how does this relate to the theme of augmentation?

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Our needs and capabilities are 2 sides of the same coin. As I said, the fundamental essence of digital is about augmenting our capability as human beings.

Lets cover these 4 augmentations.

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Without a doubt, the single most significant expression of digital technology, is the internet. The internet is a global nervous system that enables digital devices, and the people who use those devices to communicate and connect with one another. And via a wide range of sensors – GPS’s and camera’s etc, it enables our consciousness to expand beyond the visible horizons of our 5 senses.

This is quite profound. or it can be that picture of what you’re having for breakfast that you tweeted to your millions of twitter followers.

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Beyond connectedness, the second most significant capability of digital technology is about information. The fluidity of digital data, in conjunction with the connectedness of the internet, makes for the accumulation and accessibility of mind-blowingly large, ginormous mines of data. And that is obviously a augmented capability for extending our knowing, and subsequently to be able to transpose that into mastery.  Or at the very least into a distraction that augments your capacity to procrastinate.

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The traditional demarcation line between producers and consumers has been systematically undermined by digital technology. The line was historically defined by the need to purchase expensive tools in order to produce products and content. But digital technology, combined with increasing design prowess, has gradually exposed a growing number of people to powerful and accessible tools.  With digital technology everyone is a producer.

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One of the most significant trends has been the growing important of the individual, or I sometimes call it the “Primacy of the one”.  The digital age has brought us more directly face to face with ourselves, and the question of Who we are. Our actions and expressions are so much more visible than they ever were. “Public” is the default privacy setting. And so as we express ourselves by curating which photos we are going to share on facebook, or what status we are going to set, or what brands we are going to like, the more visible setting makes us more carefully consider what we want to say to the world.  Nothing underscores this more acutely than “That moment you know”.

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That moment being the split second after you realise who will see the picture you just posted.

And that brings us back to the question of “Who am I?”, and “Who are you?” and “What do we value?”. In some ways this is the most profound of the 4 augmentations that digital brings us, because it is accelerating the experimentation and inquiry into who we are individually, and collectively as human beings.

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And all of this has profound implications for individuals and for society. More freedom, and opportunities, and all coming more faster.  We live in a world where where you live is becoming increasing immaterial – dematerialised if you like. And we in turn are becoming increasingly digitised. But we also live in a world that has finite resources, and with a growing sense that we are all truly global citizens. Life is accelerating, whether we like it or not, and we need to learn how to leverage the opportunities that digitisation and dematerialisation provide us with so we don’t go the way of the dinosaur.

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And what are the implications for business if people are more augmented? And in an environment which is increasingly digital and the cost of building a competitive business is so much less.

The first implication is “smarter and fussier customers”. World-class is increasingly becoming the yardstick for success …. and survival. If you don’t satisfy your increasingly discerning customers then someone else will.

The second implication is “The market of one”. Through digital technology it is possible that businesses can start to build deeper understandings of each of their individual customers. Tomorrow’s winning businesses will be those that are able to build flexible processes and products, and a deeper understanding of the needs of their customers so that they can create enduring value between them.

And the third implication is “The corporation of one”. To start a successful business you used to need to have insider knowledge, barrels of cash, expensive tools, and a team of specialist employees. The internet has changed all of that. All of these resources are more accessible than ever before. Traditional businesses are finding themselves competing against much smaller and younger teams, whose agility and creativity leaves larger business scrambling to respond.

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Digital augmentation is a tide that lifts all boats. But for a number of reasons it is lifting the boats with one or a few people in them, faster than it is lifting much larger vessels. This is largely because of the commodification of resources, but also because agility and speed to market are increasingly important, and individuals and smaller teams can move faster.

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Digital augmentation is creating huge challenges and opportunities. But some of those challenges are bigger than the opportunities in terms of the ability for the purely digital domain to respond. Something else is called for. New skills for the digital age.

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These skills are particularly important in the Digital Era

– Empathy
– Originality
– Stretching
– Pride

Lets go over them …

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There are lots of challenges and opportunities, that come with greater connectedness, in both our personal and professional lives.

For individuals, the digital allows us to connect so readily, that the value of any one conversation is naturally reduced. The mobile phone ushered in a new level of what I call “digitally wired but not quite connected”. In fact I actually owned that .COM domain name for 12 months. I also owned “what do you mean shorter domain names are intrinsically better” .org as well.

In business, whilst we can now connect with huge markets of customers, so can our competitors, so digital augmentation has a relatively neutral effect in relative terms to our strongest competitors.

Empathy is the answer. Empathy is the ability to put yourself in the shoes of another person so that you can understand how they might feel, or think or act in a particular situation. Whether they are siblings, or best friends, or smart and fussy customers. Empathy augments our deep connection to our fellow humans in a way that digital can’t even possibly dream of.

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Anyone with a laptop computer and an internet connection has access to information and markets that could propel them to billionairedom. The problem is that the digital augmentation of our capacity to know is not enough to do this.

Originality is the answer. Originality creates better bridges between where we are, and where we want to be. One of my favourite sayings, from Stephen Johnson, the author of “Where good ideas come from” is that “innovation occurs when ideas collide”. Originality is sifting through the noise to find the signals which, when they collide, create something new and wonderful, that has never existed before. Something, maybe even loved by millions. Or maybe just your mum.

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The digital augments our capacity to create. But creation across a growing range of sectors is becoming a commodity. If anyone and everyone can create, then what makes your creations stand out?

Stretching is the answer. By stretching I mean intentionally expanding our capacities and our horizons, and the speed at which we do this. The principle of stretching lies at the core of all ambitious initiatives. The digital cannot help us to stretch – only we can do that for ourselves.

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As digital technology increases the rate at which we are faced with questions of our values and our identity, what skill helps us to more robustly connect to answer to these questions.

Pride is the answer. Pride is an accurate measure of being true to yourself and an authentic pointer of our sense of “Doing the right thing” and “Doing the thing right”. A closer connection to pride always results in big wins for whatever work or relationships we’re engaged with.

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So I believe that those 4 key skills are essential to life in the dematerialisation zone that is our lives in the 21st century

So lets now go back to the beginning, and the title of this talk – “Why god is digital”.

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Well lets us consider the most critical properties of God and gods.

These are the 4 most well-known qualities.

  1. Omnipresent which means being everywhere at all times
  2. Omniscient which means being all knowing
  3. Omnipotent which means being all powerful
  4. Bringing Order

Now let’s correlate that back to the needs and capabilities that we discussed earlier.

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You can see that there is a rather lovely symmetry between those 3 spheres.

It is said in the bible that God created mankind in his own image. What occurs to me is that the god or gods described by these attributes on the right are the logical extension of the trajectory of the needs and capabilities outlined on the left. Is it therefore not unreasonable to propose that the pathway we walk along towards these, ultimately augmented capabilties, is somehow an expression of the omega, of the hypothetical endpoint, of this journey. Of the godhead

Could we therefore not ask in all earnest;

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So is God digital? Well, I think that all questions about God and gods are ones that don’t live in the domain of truth, but rather live in the domain of belief and inner knowing. And as such I don’t think anyone can tell you the truth of god or Gods, and whether they are digital or not. You can only know that for yourself. One truth though that I can share with you is this.

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You are already augmented. The augmented capabilities that the digital world brings to humankind is a pointer to our own innate “more-ness”. That is, our capability to be more than we know ourselves to be. I love the story of the nearly undiscovered genius, or accidental millionaire, or wizard under the stairs. There is something that pokes it heads out through the unlikelihood or fantasy of such stories, to point at something that is truly profound.

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“You are always more than you know yourself to be”. We are all extra-ordinary human beings. Sometimes we just need a reminder of that.

If I could choose just one message for you to take away from my talk today it would be this. That we have cleverness and creativity and mastery beyond that which we realise.

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So the next time you look at your computer screen, or your smart phone, or your tablet. Remember this. In fact, let those screens always be the reminder to you. You are always more than you know yourself to be.

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Here ends my sermon. You may now put down your devices. Good luck in your remembering. And thank you for your time.

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