Digital Modernity: Continuity and Change in the History of Technology, 1993 – 2023

Abstract and slides for my Miegunyah Public Lecture, 'Digital Modernity: Continuity and Change in the History of Technology, 1993 – 2023', delivered at the University of Melbourne, August 17th, 2023.


The digital turn that accompanied the release of the Netscape Navigator browser in 1994 has had obvious and well-documented socio-economic and cultural effects, impacting society and personal identity in myriad ways. This lecture suggests it is time to pause and consider the effect this ‘digital turn’ has had on our relationship to the past, and whether some older intellectual frameworks might help us grasp the momentous changes occurring around us. Digital tools will remain important for the foreseeable future, of course, but in the context of an ever-evolving relationship between self and world. It is inevitable they will withdraw to the background of consciousness to join the cars, planes, power stations, and myriad complex systems that shape everyday life. Silicon Valley marketing will sound increasingly hollow, political manipulation increasingly outrageous, technical inadequacies increasingly tiresome. The denouement of our fascination with digital technologies will occur naturally as intellectual assimilation proceeds, just as previous eras assimilated mechanical, industrial, and electrical technologies. Many perspectives will be needed for this to occur, but a reconsideration of our relationship to modernity is one of the most important. For decades, modernity was viewed by scholars as the driving force behind not only scientific and technological advance, but the violent incursions of colonialism and the miseries of child labour and environmental despoliation. The issues we face today seem clearly connected to those processes, and yet we continue to prioritize exploration of ‘the digital’, as if we have somehow exited modernity and entered a cyberutopian end game that can only be resolved by the deus ex machina of artificial intelligence. Why did we stop conceiving of ourselves as inhabiting modernity? Why have ‘industrial modernity’ and ‘post-industrial modernity’ not been followed by ‘digital modernity’? And, more importantly, what would an intellectually robust and ethically sound description of digital modernity entail?