“No taxation without representation” was the battle cry that eventually led to the United States independence from its British motherland back in 1776, sometimes also rendered as “Taxation without representation is tyranny”. It was complemented by the times’ enlightened thinkers’ belief that human beings are capable of rational decision making, sometimes even abstracting from their most immediate needs and wants in favour of some common good. A consequence of this double conviction – similarly enacted in other revolutionary movements in various places and times – was the emergence of the modern state as the main form of organising our ways of living together.
Today, the state is in crisis. It is equally challenged from without (by planetary issues such as economic globalisation, terrorist extremism, climate change, migration, or digitalisation) as from within (by growing imbalances between rich and poor or between city and country, cultural and religious diversity as well as diversity of opinions, lack of shared narratives even among self-proclaimed thought leaders, or simply disinterest in institutions that many perceive as slow, ineffective, inefficient, or outright unjust). Recent political earthquakes such as Brexit and the election of the new president of the United States are symptoms of this broader crisis in which we scramble to use outdated structures to create solutions for an uncertain future that is taking hold of our present lives.
An important – if not: the most important – feature of this emerging future is the all-pervading presence of what’s broadly termed digitalisation or digital transformation, i.e. the unprecedented ways in which (in particular digital) technology influences, shapes, changes, and transforms how we live and interact as human beings. From the use of computers for all kinds of mundane (or sophisticated) tasks to the infiltration of all kinds of machines by bits and bytes (instead of tongues and grooves); from apps guiding our food, fitness, and friendship behaviours to social networks creating meeting places, discussion panels, and battle grounds; from customer data collected in quantities and qualities exceeding what we know about ourselves to transparent citizens being screened before even thinking of crossing a border.
Aspects of this digital transformation have also played a significant role in the political developments mentioned above (as well as in many others before over the past decade or so). Among other aspects, the transparency of citizens and candidates (via their utterances in emails or on social media), the phenomenon of filter bubbles, the risks and opportunities of universal accessibility of data in uncertain political times, and the suspicion of all kinds of digital manipulations accompanying campaigns, elections, and subsequent activities of legitimate (and illegitimate) regimes have been alternately cast as heroes or villains, depending on the commentators’ preferences, hopes, and fears.
By pure accident (or maybe not?), these developments coincide with Google’s release of Google Earth as a virtual reality application, which gives its users the ability to travel the world without leaving their living rooms (and virtual reality glasses) – including the feature to “change the time of day by grabbing the sun and moving it in the sky”. The connections between this newest manifestation of our world’s digital transformation and the decline of our established institutions are manifold – here are three obvious ones:
- The availability of the whole of the planet at the tip of my finger further undermines the tradition of states (complete with their citizens, laws, and governments): Whose country’s citizen am I when I travel the world on virtual paths? Whose laws apply when I break a piece out of the Chinese Wall while comfortably sitting on my Hawaiian beach chair? Which government decides who pays how much for viewing the Eiffel tower from above?
- Businesses – in particular “big” business – as another defining institution inherited from the 19th century, are going through their own crises in parallel: Which industries are going to falter because of these developments? Who needs planes and trains when travel happens in the space right in front of my eyes? Who needs fancy food, glittery clothes, or elegant interior design when I can click myself through multi-course menus, star-rated outfits, or palaces, dungeons, and cloud castles high in the skies? And which industries are going to thrive, and how? Who’ll build the hardware and software needed to fuel these realities? How will they be remunerated? And by whom?
- Finally, our very understanding of who we are as human beings and what defines our existence as zoon politikon is questioned: Who are my family, friends, and folks when I meet with others in virtual bars, hang out to chat in virtual lounges, or fight them (and their Pokémon troops) in virtual gyms? Who will I be in love with when flowers are emojis, hearts spring up on timelines, and sex is transferred to the (safe) space of virtual bedrooms (or more experiential settings, if I prefer)?
And, to make things worse, in all this I’m certainly no longer the well-informed, judgment-enabled, rational decision maker once crafted by our revolutionary great-grand-parents on both sides of the Atlantic. Rather, I’m turned into an sensory-triggered, impulse-driven, and emotionally (mis-) guided being – which (if worst comes to worst) is thrown about in its manifestations of virtual reality in ways that feel more nauseating than any train ride must have felt to 19th century progress-skeptics. I stumble, I doubt, I falter, I vomit, I fall – and then the ride takes off again, and what was sky turns earth, what was blue turns red, what was strong turns weak, what was happy turns sad, what was right turns wrong – oh, no: It turns left. And then up again, down again, a never-ending whirlwind of highs and lows, odds and evens, light and dark, moon, sun, and cartoon character stars.
But wait: After all, this might not be so different from what our ancestors felt like in their times of turmoil, and maybe we can look at what helped them to figure things out. Their monster was a state taking money from them without asking them what to spend it on (to put things in overly simplifying terms). Our monsters, today (simplifying again), are the makers of virtual realities taking data from us without asking us what to use them for. So shouldn’t our battle cry then be:
“No virtualisation without co-creation!”
- No institution (and no individual) has the right to expose me to any reality without being transparent about how this reality is created (disclosure of algorithms) and giving me the tools to change it (flexibility of settings)
- No institution (and no individual) has the right to use information provided by me in order to influence my tastes, opinions, emotions, or views without my explicit consent on the what and on the how (disclosure of stored personal data and assumptions used to provide suggestions, recommendations, or virtual environments) – and without showing me a functioning exit button (simple, intuitive unsubscription mechanisms)
- No institution (and no individual) has the right to hold me responsible, blame me, or persecute me for acts committed in realities I did not co-create
And: Just like the 18th century revolutionaries had their belief in certain underlying traits of human beings (as an ultimately rational being enabled with judgment and the ability to override impulse and emotions with fact-based decision making), these demands, too, have a complement in a certain understanding of what is at the core of the human being. Namely, the assumption that humans are beings endowed with facilities to (1) deconstruct and construct realities; (2) understand, interpret, and influence the causes, conditions, triggers, and manifestations of mental constructs (with no distinction between “rational” and “emotional”); and (3) commit themselves to communicate, cooperate, collaborate, and co-create with others (including the ability to make mistakes, to do better next time, and to forgive and forget when mercy is called for).
As always, I might be wrong about my specific interpretations of what is happening around us right now. However, if there’s any truth in the last paragraphs, the ideas, debates, and conflicts as well as the emerging values, habits, and structures are going to be every bit as fundamentally transforming as those witnessed by the revolutionaries of the late 18th century. And the outcome might very well be another complete revision of our understanding of humanity, individual human beings, and our ways of living together. Centuries earlier, it was the insight that the earth revolves around the sun (as opposed to the sun revolving around the earth) that started the process of re-thinking, reform, reformation, and finally revolution, resulting in a complete redefinition of those same dimensions of human existence. Today, as it starts to sink in that we actually change the time of the day by grabbing the sun and moving it in the sky, we’re starting on another journey of re-thinking that will bring about its own reforms, reformations, or revolutions.
Let us swallow the sun and the moon – without leaving the world in darkness.
Because: Reality without co-creation is tyranny.
Note: As it synchronicity played out, the writing of this post preceded the publication of the first version of The European Digital Charter on November 30, 2016 by a few days. This is an exciting initiative that I wasn’t aware of when I putdown my thoughts. I strongly encourage everybody to have a look at the charter’s articles and engage in the discussion [retrieved Nov 30, 2016].
 The credit for the discovery and brilliant description of which goes to Eli Pariser in his book “The Filter Bubble” (2011) . BACK TO TEXT
 For the sake of clarity: With this, I don’t mean only companies producing the gadgets of virtual reality, but everybody involved in making such realities happen, including ourselves as we co-create them. BACK TO TEXT
 These are but sketchy ideas for what might be the building blocks for a new constitution of humanity. I apologise to all who’ve said similar things in other places: I admire everybody’s thoughts on this difficult topic, and I’d love to have an ongoing conversation. This is just my starting point for today. BACK TO TEXT
 I’m fully aware of the fact that this also poses challenges for the marketing “industry”, which I believe created part of the problems we’re facing with virtual realities because it perfected the skills of seemingly subtly influencing people without being transparent about what means and methods are being used. BACK TO TEXT
 A requirement harking back to the very foundations of democratic thinking, based on the idea that any community has to be grounded on the – explicit or implicit – consent of its members. All discussions held by theoreticians of democracy in the past apply again, of course. BACK TO TEXT
 A line borrowed from Chogyam Trungpa’s poetry, with gratitude, admiration, and awe. BACK TO TEXT