Is the Digital Revolution a Paradigm Shift?


Thomas Kuhn first introduced the term Paradigm shift in his paper The Structure of Scientific Revolution published in the 1960s. In order to evaluate if the advances in digital technologies have brought about (or not) a paradigm shift in the way we live, research and exchange knowledge, we must first examine what is meant by the term.

Paradigms are understood to be frames of reference or points of view to the understanding of a situation. It is inside a given paradigm that we can collect and order our data, infer relations and connections, and finally come to conclusions. A description, in other words, a conclusion about the world, an affirmation, is a function of a paradigm.

To illuminate the matter let us fall into an example given by Professor James Hall Ph.D from Richmond University in his lecture series The Philosophy of Religion. According to the professor, the works of the philosopher Rene Descartes and the psychologist Skinner operate in different paradigms and thus come to radically different interpretations of data. Rene Descartes believed humans were composed of two distinct substances, a material one (the body) and a immaterial one (the mind), which were connected but also had a degree of independence. In his view, thus, although the body was bound to follow the rules of physics, the mind operated in a manner more free, was autonomous. Creations of our mind, such as a painting, an equation or a speech weren’t bound to a mechanical sequence of causal events, as they happened de novo, out of the blue.

Skinner, working within a different paradigm altogether, believed that humanities were constituted of one single substance, the physical, material one. Thus human output were the product of material causal chain of events, tightly bound to laws, and thus lacking any true free will or imagination. The Human mind is a slave to the brain, its physiology, its genetic makeup and the events that have befallen us all. Under the lens of a Skinnerian paradigm, we are all automatons made of flesh.

Paradigms, be them cultural or scientific, do change and are dropped for others. What causes a paradigm shift? Paradigms are usually dropped if they can no longer produce an adequate view of reality. As new data is collected and new discoveries unravel, a paradigm that cannot cope will lose its appeal. Thus a Newtonian paradigm can slowly be dropped for Einstein`s.

Paradigms shifts are also brought about by technological advances, and this is where we are specially concerned. The discovery of agriculture, the invention of writing or the wheel, and the preaching of religious leaders have brought about true revolutions to the paradigm of humanity. In fact Thomas Kuhn used the term revolution to describe paradigm shifts.

The digital age, which began with the first computers in the 1940s and evolved into a vast net of connections between them (giving rise to the internet), has brought about enormous changes in the way we live, specially the way we communicate and share information. But does it constitute a paradigm shift? I believe it does.

Most of us have lived in two distinct eras during our life time, a pre and post internet. We have witnessed first-hand how things have changed and to what degree. Just to illuminate, your humble author will provide example of his own life (but to which I am sure most of you can relate directly): I have met significant others through the internet; I communicate with close family members through the internet; I make art through the internet; I study for my Masters through the internet, gathering bibliography, contacting lecturers and fellow students; I watch films and videos through the internet; I read books through the internet; I plan holidays, book flights and hotels through the internet. As a matter of fact, it is hard to identify an area of my life that hasn’t been touched by the Digital technology of computers and the web of the internet. I supposed the last standing tower is indeed the bathroom, that is, until some Japanese scientists come up with a digital toilet.

Paradigms can shift very rapidly, catching civilizations by surprize. The Digital and Internet age have brought about a different organization of society and a new way of thinking. As a new paradigm emerges and takes place of the older one, the ways we perceive reality also change. Old beliefs fall, dead as autumn leaves and new ones cry out like newborns. Even religion cannot escape – Nick Bostrom, a philosopher working at Oxford University released a very influential paper in 2003 entitled “Are You Living in a Computer Simulation?”. It boils down to a religious view of reality, a great unify theory which has a digital, sci-fi twist to it. Numerous leading physicist, particularly working with Quantum physics have subscribed that we are living in a simulation, and use frequently words like pixels, bits, information stream in their scientific discourses. Many believe that we are becoming, as a product and function of this new paradigm, what is now termed Post-Humans.

The Digital Age has brought about a Paradigm Shift which has caught us unaware, like a sly uppercut. The ramifications are unpredictable. Only one thing is certain, everything will change.


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