On Elon Musk, Cyborgs, and the Human Bandwidth Problem

Elon Musk thinks we are all already cyborgs. I agree.

And it’s not because I’m a massive Elon Musk fanboy.

OK, it’s not just because I’m a massive Elon Musk fanboy (if you’re reading this, Elon, ilu ♥).

It’s because it’s true – we have all now come to rely heavily on our new tertiary selves – or, our digital brains. Our social media and Google-powered memories and instant communication and GPS and fitness trackers and everything else.

Here’s the man himself talking about it:

Interesting, right?!

Elon focusses mainly on the output problem – essentially that we are just using our meat-stick fingers to type things out very slowly in the digital world.

His idea is to use a neural lace to hardwire our brains into the web to speed things up. This is something that people like Ray Kurzweil have been talking about for some time now.

I can’t wait! Plug me in.

But I think his ideas also raise another couple of interesting points relevant to social media:

  1. What role does social play in the digital self?

If Google is basically our digital memory – what does that make Facebook?

I think it’s our ego. It’s the part of ourselves that’s constantly screaming at the world about the things it likes, the things it hates, the things it wants to change, and the things it just wishes would just please stay the same ..PLEASE GOD STAY THE SAME PLEASE.

At the moment it feels like a hyper-self. Everything we believe to be true about our character, exaggerated and amplified, shouting relentlessly into the void.

It’s true that we probably communicate more, in terms of sheer volume, with our friends and colleagues on messaging apps than we do in any other way – but I still reckon we only really use the full range of our expressive communication when we’re talking to people in person.

So in many ways social is overtaking traditional person-to-person communication – but I still think there are some things it can’t do.

2. What about input?

Musk says input isn’t such an issue because we can take in lots of data through our eyes (or high-bandwidth visual interface, natch).

This has got me round to thinking about content in terms of data – ie. how much information a video can upload to the viewer’s brain in a given amount of time.

This may be the reason Facebook is now shifting back towards having sound on its videos (rather than mute by default) – because with audio and images, you can push more information per second than with visuals alone.

Which brings me neatly to speed reading. Cool films like this one:

Honda ~ ‘Keep Up’ from ManvsMachine on Vimeo.

I think stuff like this is great because it is offering you more information per second than a film with normal left-to-right text would. And certainly more than one with no text.

This is, I think, part of the reason emojis have become so popular: they allow us to communicate quite complex facial expressions in a single character. This is actually conveying a great deal of information – far more than can be expressed succinctly with words.

This trend is bound to continue as we get better at taking all the information in. Most videos on social now have some sort of text overlaid.

And every time we watch them we are practising absorbing more information, faster.

Then as we become better at taking it all in, we get increasingly bored with films that don’t satiate our voracious informational appetite. Our attention span becomes shorter.

Want proof? Simply watch a few old movies. They may have other qualities you appreciate – and you might personally enjoy the time taken over setting the scene.

But the trend between them and what we have now is clear – everything is speeding up and becoming more info-heavy.

Here are a few other examples…

LEFFE

We tried to play on this information overload with films for Leffe, whose creative platform was “Rediscover Time”.

Leffe SLOW TIME: Pete Lawrence 15 second social edit from The Academy on Vimeo.

The whole idea was that Leffe is a beer that should be savoured by slowing down and taking time to appreciate the finer things in life. And we had made a ten-minute documentary film about the lives and work of people who use time in their work (an astrophotographer being one of them).

Ten minutes is too long for a social film, and the premise was somewhat at odds with the points I’ve outlined above. So we tried to come up with a creative solution that was direct, and challenging to the viewer (although hopefully not too challenging). It worked – the video wound up having one of the highest view-through rates they’d ever seen. We also saw a high rate of people clicking through to watch the full documentary.

LEAP SECOND

Before I joined, the clever folks at my current agency created this very short film to celebrate the leap second that occurred in 2016.

I think it’s beautiful – but I also find it interesting how it is communicating far more information than it’s possible for a human to take in in just a second. It’s taking the idea of high human-bandwidth video to its natural conclusion (i.e. the eventual failure of our own processing power).

NIKE

Another great example of speed reading being used to satirise digital culture – in an incredibly digitally-native format. It’s probably ironic or something.

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